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When photographer George Legrady visited four Cree villages along the eastern edge of northern Quebec’s James Bay in the summer of 1973, a huge section of the their traditional hunting grounds were under threat of flood. The deluge would be human-made, as one of the biggest hydroelectric dams in the world was being planned for the area. Legrady documented the indigenous life in these villages, as the Cree began negotiations over the land rights and environmental impact of the dam.
In 2012, Legrady got a National Science Foundation Arctic Social Science grant to finally digitize these photographs. You can now access an online database of around 700 images from the James Bay Cree Photographic Archive, launched in collaboration with McGill University’s Department of Anthropology.
“The goal of the online archive was to make the images accessible, first to the four Cree Communities and individuals who invited us and gave us the opportunity to photograph through our day-to-day interaction, and then to the ethnographic communities as it portraits an indigenous culture that provides a visual insight [into] what Cree life was back in the 1970s,” Legrady told Hyperallergic.
Legrady, who received a Creative Capital award in 2002 for his more recent work involving computation and photography, recently shared some of these photographs on the Creative Capital blog. In it, Alex Teplitzky of Creative Capital noted that he “found a striking similarity between that moment in 1973 and the one we are living in now, as 280 First Nations tribes have convened to protest the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota.”
Legrady was just 23 years old when he took the around 3,000 photographs in the archive, all captured over his 11 to 12 weeks in James Bay. He described how in the summer of 1972, he met a Cree man in a Montreal bar. “I told him I was a photographer and he said he needed a photographer to document the Métis Cree in James Bay, those who did not have equal legal status as they had married outside of the tribe,” Legrady said. “I was up north a week later.”
The 1973 photographs increased visibility for the Cree during the planning of the dam, and were exhibited around Montreal and Toronto. They visualize the importance of hunting and fishing to the Cree, both of which would be altered by the dam. Tipis with drying fish and beaver skin, square dancing to fiddle music, and a man showing off a goose decoy are among candid images of everyday life. Tombstones from Hudson’s Bay Company have their white wooden fences draped with unused pieces of hunted creatures, a sign of respect by the Cree for these animals, and a reminder of the long encroachment on their homeland by European settlement.
After Legrady’s project, the hydroelectric project submerged a fourth of the hunting land used by around 5,000 Cree, a space “approximately the size of England,” he explained. Nevertheless, over the following decades the Cree were able to gain more control over their land, especially through the 2002 “The Peace of the Braves” agreement with the Government of Quebec.
“This photographic project has always been intended to have multiple goals, to reach out to multiple communities and range of interests that include indigenous history, ethnography, social research, studies in visual communication, and the arts,” Legrady said. “As a digital media artist today whose work has focused on interactive installations, data visualization, and autonomous camera vision, I consider this James Bay Cree project a crucial first step in my evolution as an artist. ”
View more of George Legrady’s 1973 photographs in the online James Bay Cree Archive.