About a year ago, I presented at a virtual conference – actually, a Twitter virtual conference. Presenters needed to give a summary of their topic and research in 15 tweets of (then) 140 characters each, which could include uploaded photos and videos, links to blog posts or Youtube or cited papers, or just plain ol’ text. I’ve certainly never given a presentation under 2,100 characters, so this was a fun challenge.
The conference theme was “Beyond 150” – thinking ahead to the future of Canada past its 150th anniversary of Confederation. Mine was actually the first presentation after the keynote, which was lucky, because I tend to make last-minute changes and try to improvise when I see how great other people’s presentations are. I chose to present on something I had been learning a lot about through our VITA collections: lacrosse. We have two VITA member libraries that represent First Nations communities in Ontario, and the Six Nations Public Library has an extensive collection representing its lacrosse history, including some very early photos of teams, such as the two Olympics lacrosse teams Canada sent in 1904.
I titled my talk “Reclaiming Lacrosse” because I wanted to summarize both historical and recent works that showed the ways in which lacrosse, originally an Indigenous game “discovered” by European settlers, has been colonized and is being decolonized in this exciting time. I used a lot of VITA materials, which worked great, because of the way we handle structured metadata and allow Twitter to scrape it from our item records – sharing a link to an item in VITA will in most cases produce a Twitter Card.
You can view the “talk” I gave – all of the tweets I made have been collected into a Twitter Moment. It links to some VITA materials, including not just First Nations library collections but historical settler newspapers and books from the Brampton and Newmarket collections. One of the most interesting discoveries I made was a settler argument, published in 1867, that lacrosse was actually an Irish game settlers had brought over with them – not an Indigenous creation at all!
Once I found these materials, I looked into it more, and found other claims that the game had come from French settlers – and, at the same time, that it had been much improved from its “savage” origins and made fit for white Ivy League students. Then Indigenous people in Canada were simply banned from playing it at all – as they were deemed too violent a people to be able to play the newly dignified game.
Having both Indigenous and settler collections findable in one place provided the two perspectives I needed to get the whole story. Searching in OurOntario.ca brought up all sorts of newspaper columns and digitized books that I wouldn’t have known to seek out. But it also emphasized the massive gulf between settler representation and Indigenous representation in Ontario’s, and Canada’s, digital historical record. You can see for yourself that images of Indigenous lacrosse players are few and far between the many white teams (and a couple of integrated teams, featuring far more white faces than otherwise).
I wanted to revisit this talk now, during First Nations Public Library Week, because I want to emphasize how important it is to have digitized and freely available heritage materials online from a diversity of demographics and communities. I also want to look at the ways in which digitized items can be used: in my talk I pointed out that one library’s virtual exhibit on lacrosse seemed to support the narrative that the “savage” game had been “civilized” by white rules with an old illustration emphasizing violence and injury.
As heritage professionals, I think we need to do better: not just replicate existing biases and stories we’ve been told, but invite members of the communities we’re focusing on to help us with curation and exploration into our own collections. In a world where social media is used to create access points into our materials, that contextualization and curation is an important tool that should be used intelligently and compassionately.
We’re in a time where we can talk about progress – major news stories and books have been published in the last year about the Indigenous reclamation of lacrosse. And we can see, over the decades, continuing ownership of lacrosse by Indigenous communities: frequently mentioned in town newsletters digitized by the Six Nations Public Library, and appearing in photographs of a funeral procession where the deceased’s teammates wear their uniforms. But it wouldn’t be right for me to share these beautiful images and interesting documents without doing some work to explain the long and traumatic history of the game in our country.