John B. McGillisSheridan MacKnight holds a photograph of her grandfather John B. McGillis. In the photograph, McGillis wears a hand-made beaded buckskin suit and a U.S. army cap from his service in World War I. 

He fought for self-determination in a time of assimilation. He left these objects. 

By Elizabeth Gillis
via the Blue Ridge Public Radio (NC) web site

Photographer Nīa MacKnight never met her great grandfather John B. McGillis, but she did have a window into his storied life as an Anishinaabe man in early 20th-century America: a steam trunk where he stowed away undated photographs and stray objects such as an address book, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, and a single eagle feather. McGillis lived through decades of oppressive actions against native peoples by the U.S. government, and MacKnight says that in a world where he couldn't fully be himself most days, this collection reveals how her great grandfather worked to reclaim his identity.

"I was filled with joy to be able to hold his personal items," MacKnight writes in a Q&A with NPR. "I was also haunted by the fact that the only photographs that he left behind marked a time of trauma and violence that Native Americans faced due to assimilation policies."

Like many Indigenous people his age, McGillis was forced to attend federal boarding school for Native American children. He also fought in WWI and later secured a position at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs where he worked towards improving employment opportunities for Indigenous people. MacKnight's family recounts a man who spoke his tribal language in the company of friends and relatives, while learning the language of the white dominant culture to expand opportunities for his people in his professional roles.

Using her skills as a documentary photographer and interviews with relatives and family friends, MacKnight is piecing together McGillis' history and reflecting on questions of identity and self-determination that persist to this day. She shared some insight into her process with NPR.

What story do you hope these photographs tell?

It is my hope that my Great Grandfather's story will invite viewers to expand their perceptions of Indigeneity, and further acknowledge the diverse contributions of Native Americans within the framework of American history. Contrary to dominant Eurocentric narratives, Indigeneity did not vanish when the United States was founded. Instead, folks like my Great Grandfather applied their Indigenous knowledge in a new way to carve out spaces for his people. His story ultimately conveys the creative tactics used by our ancestors for survival, and the fight for self-determination that Indigenous people still face today. 

Read the entire article on the Blue Ridge Public Radio web site here:

 

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