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Research Project Leads to Groundbreaking Photo Archives

The Métis Family Photo Archive Project explores and honors the lives of people of mixed French Canadian and Indigenous ancestry in the Pacific Northwest.

By Debbie Ritenour

Collage of vintage photographs.

In the early 19th century, roughly 1,400 French Canadian fur traders—who were laborers for British companies, particularly the Hudson Bay Company—traveled to the Pacific Northwest.

About 300 of these men would stay in the region and marry Indigenous women and settle near fur trade forts, creating new communities. 

Today, some of their descendants are working to preserve their family history in collaboration with Whitman College through the Métis Family Photo Archive project.

The project, which is supported by grants from the Mellon Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada as well as by faculty-student research funds, is led by Professor of French and Francophone Studies Sarah Hurlburt ’91. Hurlburt and her team of student researchers are digitizing and cataloging nearly 2,000 photographs of Métis (“mixed race” in French) people taken in the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s.

The photos were shared by living descendants Joey Lavadour and Sam Pambrun as well as Tamástslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Oregon. 

“The original archive was created, collected and curated over many years by Joey and Joey’s family,” says Hurlburt, who has created strong relationships with members of the Métis community through her volunteer work with the Frenchtown Historical Foundation

The archive has grown and been enriched by these shared connections, Hurlburt says.

“Together, these collections create something more significant and interesting than any of them alone.”

Building Trust and Connection 

Developing what’s known as a “post-custodial archiving process” has been the key to the project’s success, says Hurlburt. Unlike traditional archival practice, which requires donors to give both objects and copyright over to the archive, the post-custodial process allows the donor to grant the archives a nonexclusive right to digital distribution while keeping the actual object.

For the Métis family photos, this means that high-resolution scans of the front and back of each photo were made at Oregon State University and then the photos themselves were returned to the families.

River Freemont, Associate Archivist for the Whitman College and Northwest Archives, has been an active consultant on the project.

“The Métis Families of the Columbia River Plateau collection is the first collection in the Whitman College and Northwest Archives to be created in this model, and I believe it serves as an example of a successful non-extractive collaboration between faculty, students, community members and the archives,” Freemont says.

For Freemont—who notes that traditional archival practices can be especially harmful when working with marginalized individuals, families and communities—this project is personally and professionally meaningful. 

“As an Indigenous person (Omaha/Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) with Métis ancestors, I have a personal interest in the project,” says Freemont.

“This project is one example of the kind of materials we can share and preserve if we are willing to question the way we’ve done things in the past.”

Explore the Lavadour Family Photos Collection.

Fitting the Pieces Together

Student researcher Madeline Senter ’25 is helping catalog the photos. It’s a multi-step process that begins with conducting a close reading of each photo to pull out as much information as possible. That includes not only attempting to identify the individuals photographed, but also examining everything from the expressions on their faces to the clothing they are wearing.

“The whole archive is a big puzzle,” says Senter, a Gender Studies and French and Francophone Studies double major. 

“You’re trying to find information about the past, and you can’t ask the people in the photos what they were thinking or what they were doing or where they were.”

Senter combines information from the photos themselves with research into federal, state and tribal census documents; birth, marriage and death records; and old newspaper clippings through Ancestry.com. This step helps them weave together the stories of the people in the photos and build out the family tree on the site, which currently includes about 12,000 people.

The descendants themselves also provide details about the photos. Senter has worked one-on-one with both Lavadour and Pambrun, and the research team held a group oral history recording event at the Whitman Archives last summer that included other Métis descendants. The information gathered from these conversations supplements the team’s own research.

“I feel thankful and honored that I get to talk to them and hear their family stories. It's not just history that isn't in a textbook. It’s history that has a lot of love to it,” Senter says. “Spending so much time on a project like this is an education in understanding and accessing history through empathy.”

Fascinated by the past: Read more about Senter’s academic journey at Whitman. 

Giving Back to the Community

Hurlburt and her team are exploring multiple ways to share the collection with the community. In addition to creating the digital archive, Hurlburt is working with the staff at Whitman’s Sheehan Gallery to plan a show in the fall of 2024. 

“This is not going to be an exhibit of carefully framed original photographs. We want to explore the relationship between the viewer and the photo in several different ways,” Hurlburt says. 

Sheehan Gallery Director Kynde Kiefel and Maxey Museum Director Libby Miller are especially interested in having contemporary Métis art play a role, especially given that Joey Lavadour and his brother James are both significant artists, Hurlburt says.

“The exhibit won’t just look at the past, but also celebrate present cultural vibrancy.” 

The team is also exploring opportunities for collaboration with regional public libraries, including the Pendleton Public Library, to offer additional ways for the community, particularly other Métis descendants, to access these photos. Some ideas include featuring the archive prominently on the library’s website, or developing a public event or outdoor exhibit.

“In this manner, we can really do the work of making good on the reparative potential of a digital archive,” Hurlburt says. 

“We’re lucky that these photos have been shared with us, and we're lucky that we get to facilitate sharing them, not just out to the world, but also back to their many descendants.”

Published on May 3, 2024
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