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Imagining Indigenous Resurgence and Restoration: Re-reading Colonial Photographic Archives


Annie Webb


May 1, 2023


May 1, 2023


How can photography help us gain a deeper understanding of the importance of recognizing and honouring Indigenous cultures in the context of mountain landscapes? On April 19, 2023, the Mountain Legacy Project (MLP) joined the Canadian Mountain Network (CMN) for a webinar to discuss their unique approach of using historical images and repeat photography to contribute to the restoration of Indigenous knowledge and resurgence of Indigenous cultures.

The webinar entitled, “Imagining Indigenous Resurgence and Restoration: Re-reading Colonial Photographic Archives” featured MLP Director Eric Higgs, cultural anthropologist Sarah Jacobs and William Snow, who is the Acting Consultation Director for the Stoney Nakoda Nation.

Watch the webinar recording here:

Eric Higgs began the webinar by discussing drivers of change in mountain landscapes and how we can respond to these changes and restore these landscapes. Drivers of change in mountains include environmental changes, such as climate change, biodiversity change, land-system change, atmospheric aerosols, etc., but there are also cultural, religious, social, economic and political changes to consider.

In the past, restoration researchers would use history as a template to decide the best way forward to restore degraded or damaged ecosystems. However, a more modern version of restoration offers a flexible approach with more considerations, including aesthetics, at-risk species, ecological novelty, climate, historical references, shifting cultural values, poverty alleviation, sustainable livelihoods and Indigenous resurgence.

The Mountain Legacy Project (MLP)

The MLP explores all that changes in Canada’s mountain landscapes. They work with the largest collection of systematic, comprehensive, high-resolution mountain photographs in the world to compare and study them in relation to modern images of the same places. These spectacular historical images were taken as part of a colonial survey in the late 19th and 20th centuries to create the first detailed topographic maps for resource extraction and were even sometimes used for the displacement of Indigenous peoples. There are over 120,000 of these large-format historical photographs.

The MLP began taking modern photographs of the same locations in 1996 from the same vantage points, and they have produced approximately 10,000 repeat photographs to date. These photographs have been digitized, interpreted and are part of various assessments and studies that aim to use them in a meaningful way.  

The collection is freely available for open use on the Mountain Legacy Explorer website:

How can the MLP support Indigenous reconciliation and resurgence?

Images are powerful testimonies of changes in landscapes and cultural lifeways, and these colonial archives can be repurposed in support of Indigenous reconciliation and resurgence. One testament to their relevance for Indigenous resurgence is a 2021 study by McDowell et al., who mapped Indigenous territories and linguistic territories, which were overlaid and mapped with the MLP images. There found remarkable overlap between the historical MLP images and Indigenous territories and linguistic areas, which demonstrates the relevance of these landscapes for Indigenous peoples.

William Snow discussed the work of the Stoney Nakoda Nation with the MLP in the Valley of the Ten Peaks in southwestern Alberta, which holds special cultural significance for their Nation. There are only three existing Stoney Nakoda place names today among the ten peaks. This project overlaid the original Stoney names to the Ten Peaks in a panoramic photo taken in 1903. Place names are important because they speak to the cultural significance of landscapes, which is missing from most studies and assessments and our understanding of our mountain landscapes.

Sarah Jacobs discussed a CMN and Mitacs-funded knowledge partnership project, which will not only benefit the Stoney Nakoda Nation but also develop a model that can lead to wider nation-wide collaborations with Indigenous communities. The project integrates repeat photography and a land-based camp. Sarah described the importance of outlining an ethical framework that includes braiding knowledge, two-eyed seeing, biculturalism, the five Rs (relationships, respect, relevance, reciprocity, responsibility) and working together “in a good way”, which reflects the advice of Elders to researchers that research should benefit communities that are involved and integrate local ethics.

The concept of ethical space is also important to bridge knowledge between two knowledge systems. Space is needed to converse and talk about our world views, while being respectful and mindful that these knowledge systems are to be used with reverence and respect. An Advisory Council of knowledge holders and Elders also provides advice to help carry this work forward in a good way.

MLP team members and Stoney Nakoda members will be capturing the repeat photos directly on the land but will also be free to take their own photos. The land camp is based on the traditional Indigenous educational model of Elders teaching youth on the land. For Indigenous peoples, the land is inherently implicated in relationships and responsibilities, where geography, stories and knowledge are intertwined. Unfortunately, due to colonial practices, access to traditional places was historically prohibited, and some of the continuity of knowledge sharing across generations was disrupted. The Elders and youth will be discussing knowledge on conservation and land stewardship in these places to regain this connection and sharing of knowledge.

The land camp will take place during the Banff Indian Days, which began in 1889 until the mid-1970s. Historically, Banff Indian Days were the only day that the Indigenous peoples in the area were allowed back on the land to provide a show for tourists and visitors to the park. The Stoney Nakoda community members revived Banff Indian Days in the early 2000s and re-imaged the festival in collaboration with Parcs Canada. Nakoda Banff Indian Days is now solely dedicated to the First Nation so that they may connect to their culture and language within the park, and there one day open to the public.

The project also integrates interviews with community members, and a collaborative series of workshops will determine major themes, main findings and recommendations. The knowledge mobilization component of the project will involve presentations to the Stoney community and youth, conventional academic conferences, co-authored papers and presentations by the MLP and Stoney Nakoda First Nations, as well as a digital storytelling website for the general public.

Applications of the MLP

A wealth of information and applications has been generated from these historical photographs. Some examples include:

  • Using camera trap wildlife data and historical landscape photos to study population changes in mammals across a large area

  • Honing new techniques to georeferenced images by using machine learning to automatically classify vegetation cover across the landscape.

  • Creating composite maps of land classification to understand the dynamics of change in mountain landscapes.

  • Assessing landscape features to restore areas affected by mining.

  • Studying how land was used traditionally and how it could be managed in the future.

For more information, visit the MLP website:

Watch the webinar here!

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