When Tyra Moses first heard about the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in January 2019, she saw a video of a girl at the blockades around the same age as her daughter.
RCMP had arrested community members protesting against construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on their territory. The girl in the video was told by the police to leave.
“I don’t want to leave,” the girl says. “This is my home.”
The exchange reminded Moses of her own home, the Łíídlįį Kûę First Nation in the Dehcho, where her family and the Dene people have lived for thousands of years.
“Indigenous nations have been on this land since time immemorial,” Moses says. “So, imagine [you’re] living there all your life – your grandparents, their grandparents, their grandparents. All of a sudden, somebody from the outside comes in and tells you to leave your home.”
Inspired by Wet’suwet’en, Moses wanted to find a way to bring awareness to Indigenous peoples and lands in Canada. She already had a knack for photography; maybe she could use the medium to help highlight those issues.
She started the Indigenous Peoples Portrait Project, an ongoing series of profiles and photoshoots with Indigenous peoples throughout Canada.
Using narrative photography, she wants to showcase the beauty and positivity within Indigenous communities. She wants to bring attention to Indigenous land defenders and water protectors who are fighting to keep their territories safe and clean. She wants to highlight Indigenous peoples’ industriousness, diligence, and resilience.
She wants to re-adjust and re-frame the narrative surrounding Indigenous peoples.
“In the past, the story of Indigenous peoples has been told from such a Eurocentric frame of mind, that we’re still seeing a lot of oppression and discrimination,” Moses says.
“What I want to do is try to bring it back to more of a community level, bring it back to the Indigenous people to show them that strength and resiliency is there in the people.”
Act of reclamation
Moses has produced a variety of portraits so far, photographing Indigenous youth, leaders, and Elders during travels across the country.
She has profiled Jaylene Delorme-Buggins, the youth representative for the Native Women’s Association of the NWT, and has plans to do another session with her this summer.
For Moses, the photoshoots have felt “effortless.”
“That’s what I love about photography,” Moses says. “I find my natural creativeness is there and the artwork comes easily to me.”
This summer, she’s returning to her home community of Łíídlįį Kûę (Fort Simpson), where she plans to continue her project. Branching away from photography, Moses hopes to carry out video interviews with Elders in her community to capture Dene storytelling and traditional knowledge.
This, Moses says, is an act of reclamation.
“For a long time, the Dene stories were captured from other people – ethnologists, or anthropologists,” Moses says. “It wasn’t really the Dene people telling the stories for themselves, or Indigenous people telling stories for themselves.
“I guess that’s what I’d really like to see change, is more Indigenous knowledge systems recognized and appreciated.”
Portraits by Tyra Moses.
That’s a part of Moses’ vision for the project: to bring Indigenous stories back to Indigenous peoples themselves and challenge colonial stereotypes.
“The Canadian narrative wants to say negative things about Indigenous people when it’s not the truth,” Moses says. “The truth is Indigenous people have always been very hardworking. They’ve always been very resilient. And they’ve had the ability to survive in harsh conditions.
“Especially as northern Indigenous people, we experience living in very cold environments. And we survived tens of thousands of years without the help of modern conveniences.”
Moses hopes this project will provide strong role models for future Indigenous generations, including her own daughter.
It all harkens back to something she recently heard: “The Creator sends you gifts, and your goal with your gift is to find out how you [can] use it.”
“The gift the Creator gave me was my photography,” Moses says.
“I just need to find a way to use that for the betterment of Indigenous peoples, and all peoples, and the land, and the water, because it is really important – the land and the water – for me, my family, the Dene Nation, and all Indigenous Nations peoples.”