Battlefields of my Ancestors

Shelley Niro
Fort York National Historic Site

For more than 30 years, multi-disciplinary artist and filmmaker Shelley Niro (Mohawk, turtle clan) has chronicled the land of the Mohawks — part of the confederacy of Six Nations called the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois. While best known for figurative imagery that boldly challenges stereotypical interpretations of Indigenous women, identity, and culture, Niro’s quiet focus on landscape has been unwavering. She has repeatedly followed the Six Nations’ migration route from Upstate New York, where she was born, to southern Ontario, where she currently lives. She has visited the sites of ancestral villages destroyed during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and documented the historic battlefields that hold significance for her people. Niro’s quest began with the oral history passed down by her father, who recalled his grandmother’s narrative to describe the beauty and majesty of the Mohawk’s traditional land — a place he had never seen. As Niro explored the seemingly boundless regions of the Adirondacks and Finger Lakes, she questioned: “Why aren’t there more Mohawks living in the Mohawk Valley, and why didn’t we move back after the American Revolution?”

In her ongoing series, Battlefields of my Ancestors (1987—), Niro captures the landscapes of her forebears and signs that evoke the past. At two distinct locations — Fort York and Ryerson University — Niro’s photographs are presented freestanding like signboards, and command attention. The images of American sites are positioned in opposition to those captured in Canada. Both installations include photographs of memorial plaques and provide documentary evidence. The artist cites the devastating events of the Sullivan Campaign in particular, and its scorched earth policy that left the Cayuga villages and crops burned to the ground and forced the Iroquois to flee. Cayuga Lake (2014), for instance, describes the “‘Site of a Very Pretty Town of Ten Houses,’ Burned September 21, 1779.” Other images are reminiscent of scenic postcards, such as Grand River (2006), which arrests the flow of water — from the source to mouth — while reflecting a litigious background. Many of Niro’s photographs point to the unresolved land claims made by descendants of the Cayuga villagers — some of whom were also sovereign allies to the British — now residing on the Six Nations Reserve, near Brantford, Ontario, where the artist was raised.

On a former battlefield at Fort York, Niro’s photographs foreground the historic buildings and contemporary city skyline to the east. The British established a garrison on this site in 1793, after the transfer of Indigenous land from the Credit Mississaugas to the Crown, known controversially as the Toronto Purchase (1787). During the War of 1812, First Nations warriors helped defend the Town of York. Indigenous participation as allies on Canada’s battlefields has often not been acknowledged or rewarded, and Niro’s singular image of the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge in France recognizes their vital contribution to the First World War and to the nation’s sovereignty.

At the centre of Ryerson’s campus, Niro’s photographs stand in a flowerbed alongside pre-existing plaques describing the university’s origins — the site was formerly a training institute for war veterans. They flank a monument honouring Egerton Ryerson, founder of the province’s public education system, whose beliefs are formally described as having “influenced, in part, the establishment of what became the Indian Residential School system that has had such a devastating impact on First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people across Canada.” These combative and complicated histories still reverberate in many directions and Niro’s photographs speak to a highly contentious past as they offer an alternative perspective on “official” narratives. While the installations commemorate lives and land lost in historic battles, they are also a present-day call to action against ongoing injustice.

Presented in partnership with Ryerson Image Centre, Ryerson University, and Fort York National Historic Site

Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein
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