“you don’t look like an Indian…”

I was eighteen before I had to really think about what being Indian meant.

I thought I knew. Growing up on a small Dene reserve located in Northern Saskatchewan, I grew up listening to Cree in my Métis community of Beauval and Dene in my home reserve of English River. I thought I knew what it meant to be Indigenous. To realize that there was pride in my land. To see the subtle difference between Metis and Indian. To listen and be able to hear the different dialects of language even though I didn’t speak them. To be able to look at a person and see where they were from, or who they came from. I thought I knew.

But at eighteen, I left home and attended college. At a small Roman Catholic German town where I was the only Native in Native Studies 110.6.

And I realized that the way the outside world sees Indian and the way I see Indian are completely different.

They don’t see a difference in our accents, the way our lips curl around language, the way we shrug our shoulders and the way our laughs boom. They don’t see the difference between Swampy Cree and Plains Cree, between Salteaux and Dene, between Southern First Nations and Northern Indigenous bands. They don’t see.

So me, with my pale skin and wavy hair, I didn’t fit the ideal they held in their head. The warrior. The stoic. The maiden. The headdress and the pony.

When I left the reserve, I left behind the people who looked like me, who thought like me. I left the only place where I didn’t constantly have to question my visual identity, or defend my Indigenous claim. I left behind the only place I felt safe.

Throughout my youth, I read. I read late into the night. I listened. I grew up on stories about my dad’s youth on the lake, my mom’s horse racing days, and stories about my ancestors and relations. And I wrote. I wrote bad poetry. I wrote love poetry. I wrote little fiction stories. I wrote diary entries I later burned. And looking back, although I wrote about the people in my classes and the boys whose hands I held, I never once mentioned “he’s Metis” or “he’s Cree” as it was a given he was Indigenous, that he was like me.

My writing ambitions took me to Vancouver, to attend the UBC MFA in Creative Writing program. I spent two years on the coast. It was a beautiful time, and a lonely time. Although I made many great friends, and my sweetie was by my side, we would sit on the couch after work and school and just miss the familiarity of the North. We missed our families. We missed the land. We missed being able to go skidooing or walking around town and knowing everyone. I missed being able to go to the store and catch up on all the local gossip. I missed the familiar skyline and sunsets.

But all my friends, they had rarely travelled and Vancouver was ever farrrrr. So I took pictures. My dad bought me a Canon Rebel T1i as a graduations gift as I was the first in our family to attend a Master’s Program, and I snagged a 50mm lens as I heard they were the shit to start with, and I started taking pictures. From mountains to beaches to forests to friends to strangers to the Olympics to the small three bedroom walk-up in lower Vancouver that we lived in. I photographed it all. I developed my eye. I kept making mistakes. I kept learning.

Vancouver, 2010. Cousin Alex visiting. Shot on Auto. Didn’t save originals JPG’s.
Vancouver, 2010. New friend and Tahltan student, Natasha. One of my first paid sessions.
Vancouver, 2010. Author Liz Ross.
Vancouver, 2010. Anishnabe friend, Brittany Luby. Obviously, I had a fondness for back alleys even back then.
Vancouver, 2010. Chelsea. One of the very first to agree to be my test model. Session took 2+ hours, shot on automatic and in JPG format.
Vancouver, 2010. Michelle and Matt. My very first couple. Shot in Auto.

Photography made it bearable. Made me smile again. Photography made me crave the outdoors again, to leave the house to go on adventures. It seemed like a natural addition to what I already wanted to be, and was – a storyteller.

Now, years after I first picked up my camera and started my business, I make it a point to keep photographing my people. To keep presenting visuals that press against the stereotype. To keep visually identifying the numerous cultures and indigenous communities we have in Canada. I have worked from Walpole Island (Ontario) to Ittatsoo (Ucluelet, BC). I have photographed the laughing, smiling varying faces of our Indigenous nations. And I keep smiling. I keep sharing. I keep making connections. We – my daughter and I – have been invited into homes, band halls, women’s shelters, communities and traditional lands. We have made friends who share food and story and trust me to document them.

It’s a blessed life, a good life.

 – t.campbell

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