Today, RETROactive is pleased to feature a community-created heritage project!
The Paul First Nation History website and Facebook page is the brainchild of Jaelin Rask. A Paul First Nation member who today lives on-reserve, Jaelin was raised primarily in Calgary, geographically and culturally-distanced from his Indigenous heritage. As an adult, Jaelin received a number of historical documents from his late paternal grandfather, David Bird (who served as Chief of Paul First Nation from 1952 to 1955), spurring his interest in genealogy and his father’s family history.
“Little by little” Jaelin’s document collection grew, aided by trips to the archives and conversations with community members. Word of his work travelled fast throughout the Nation, and Jaelin found his social media inboxes full of requests and inquiries for family and community information. “I became the unofficial historian in the community,” he laughs. It was then that Jaelin decided to formalize his collection into an online repository.
As per the website, Paul First Nation History is “an online archives where we the Indigenous Peoples of Wabamun Lake Indian Reserve 133A (Paul First Nation) can preserve the origins of our community and will allow us to share our story with neighbours across Alberta and Canada.” Online, one can view black-and-white photographs from the Provincial Archives of Alberta and the Glenbow Museum, personal and United Church collections, reserve survey maps and membership lists, and Assiniboine creation stories. The website also makes available numerous environmental and traditional use studies and reports for lands and projects within Paul First Nation traditional territory.
One of the most compelling aspects of Paul First Nation History is the inclusion of both past and present: historical documents and photographs sharing the same online space as representations of present-day community life. With a background in film production (he studied cinematography and film/video production at Confederation College in Ontario), Jaelin has created beautiful photographs and video capturing Paul First Nation culture and traditions as practiced today, including youth from the Bearhead family singing their own compositions, and interviews with Elders sharing stories from their past. Through this work, Jaelin demonstrates that heritage is not solely static, physical sites, but is also intangible and living, embodied in the songs sung and the stories told by Elders and knowledge-keepers.
Access to information has always been a key consideration for Jaelin. The purpose of the website and Facebook page was to create a central hub of information, so that interested community members could access the history and begin conducting their own research and explorations. It was an effort to make Paul First Nation historical and archival material more accessible to community youth and those living on-reserve or outside of city centres. In a world where the internet is the primary source of information, it frustrated Jaelin that online searches yielded such limited information about the community. And while Jaelin is comfortable visiting and conducting research in the Provincial Archives of Alberta, he recognizes the potential for perceived invisible (if unintentional) barriers for Indigenous peoples wishing to access such institutions for the first time. “When you are part of a community, that [community] history belongs to everyone. I want to make sure that the information I have is shared,” says Jaelin.
Though the website has been live for approximately six months, it was preceded by years of document collection and relationship-building. The latter has been particularly critical for Jaelin as a new resident in the community; he speaks to the feeling of needing to ‘prove’ that his intentions for the project were good. As much as Paul First Nation History can serve as a learning tool for the community, it has also provided connections and lessons for Jaelin, particularly relating to the appropriate ways to conduct oral histories and interviews with Elders; “I need to learn how to ask for information and learn the protocol.” In discovering his Nation’s history, Jaelin is also in the process of discovering himself: “I am trying to find my place in the community and how I fit in.”
Jaelin believes the primary intended audience of his website and social media platforms are Paul First Nation members themselves. “I’m mostly doing it for us, we need a common place to start trying to get to…to help us reclaim our identity and start being proud of where we come from.” Jaelin says he hopes Paul First Nation History can build connections and unite the community with a sense of shared history and culture, but when asked what the most rewarding aspect of the project has been, he answers: “I don’t know yet.” We’re excited to see what’s to come.
Written by: Laura Golebiowski, Aboriginal Consultation Adviser