Native Indian/Inuit

Photographers’ Association

Story by Rhéanne Chartrand.

Why Not Hamilton?
Shining light on the creation of the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association

This is the incomplete history of the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association (NIIPA). Haven’t heard of NIIPA? You’re not alone. Despite NIIPA being one of the longest operating Indigenous arts service organizations in Canada, not much is known about this ground-breaking organization and its members outside those who were connected to it. Fortunately, however, through the archival research of McMaster Museum of Art’s Curator of Indigenous Art, Rhéanne Chartrand, and her curation of the 2018 exhibition, #nofilterneeded: Shining light on the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association, 1985-1992, NIIPA’s history is being illuminated for the first time in decades, highlighting the organization’s key role as an advocate for Indigenous photographers across Turtle Island (North America) and its importance to the history of Indigenous art in Hamilton and the surrounding region. This page provides readers with a brief introduction to NIIPA by chronicling the organization’s first three years, 1985-1987.

Attendees of the VISIONS conference huddled around a TV screen, presumably, to look at an artist’s work. Many of the individuals in this image would eventually become the founding members of NIIPA. Murray McKenzie, NIIPA’s first board President, sits in front of the TV screen with NIIPA’s co-directors, Yvonne Maracle and Brenda Mitten by his side (Yvonne crouched at his right and Brenda standing behind him slightly to the right). Photograph courtesy of Cees van Gemerden.

In 1985, a group of Indigenous image-makers came together to establish the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association (NIIPA) shortly after the first-ever Conference of Native Indian Photography in Canada, VISIONS. Held from March 8–10 at the Photo Union Gallery located at 210 Napier Street in downtown Hamilton, the conference was organized with support from the Photographers’ Union, the Native Women’s Centre, and the Hamilton Regional Indian Friendship Centre.

The Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association, as co-founder/co-director Brenda Mitten notes, came into existence in a very interesting way: “There were two Native women employed by the Photographers’ Union … working under the supervision of the Co-ordinator of the Photographer’s Union, Lynne Sharman. I [Brenda] was employed as Co-ordinator of Documentation and Research and Yvonne [Maracle] was Co-ordinator of the Native Indian Photography Program. Through our work, we realized there was a lot of photography being produced by Native people. The entire responsibility fell into our hands and with the guidance and assistance of various people.”¹

As this quote indicates, the seeds of what was to eventually become NIIPA were sown at the Photographers’ Union. What initially started off as a Native Indian Photography Program delivered in partnership with the Hamilton Regional Indian Friendship Centre in early 1984 quickly blossomed into a more ambitious vision. The planning of the first-ever Conference of Native Indian Photography in Canada began in earnest in late 1984, spearheaded by Yvonne and Brenda, with non-Indigenous Photo Union members such as Lynne Sharman, Cees van Gemerden, Peter Karuna, Anne Milne, and others lending a helping hand. The Photographer’s Union continued to host the young organization—led by the equally youthful co-founders/co-directors, Yvonne and Brenda—in the months that followed the VISIONS conference until NIIPA moved into their own office/gallery space at 124 James Street South in February 1986.²

VISIONS conference poster, designed by co-founder/co-director Yvonne Maracle, photographs by NIIPA members Pat Green and Valerie General to create her photo-collage and titled it, Visions (1985), in honour of the conference itself. Poster courtesy of the archive of Greg Staats.

After months of guerilla-style organizing for VISIONS, with countless hours spent phoning band offices, friendship centres, and news outlets to locate Indigenous photographers across Turtle Island, plus time out on the “moccasin trail” disseminating information via word-of-mouth to the community, they managed to pull together a noteworthy group of Indigenous photographers and other interested individuals to attend. Dale Auger (Sakaw Cree), Cliff Bunnie (Métis), Pena Bonita (Apache/Seminole), Bert Crowfoot (Siksika/Saulteaux), Dorothy Chocolate (Dene), Jim Goodstriker (Blood), Patrick (Pat) Green (Mohawk), Rick Hill (Tuscarora), Tom Hill (Six Nations), Joel Johnson (Anishinaabe), Tim Johnson (Mohawk), Martin Akwiranoron Loft (Mohawk), Douglas Maracle (Mohawk), Murray McKenzie (Cree-Métis), Lance Mitten (Seneca), Shelley Niro (Mohawk), Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora), Greg Staats (Mohawk), Charles Sheppard (Regina, SK), Bernie Shoflay (Winnipeg, MB), Jeff Thomas (Onondaga), and Lee Williams (Vancouver, BC) are mentioned in NIIPA’s records as being in attendance at the VISIONS conference, as well as several non-Indigenous folks including Robin Armour (Photo Technician for the Yukon Archives), Cees and Annerie van Gemerden, Pamela Harris (presented on behalf of four Inuit women from Spence Bay, NWT: Selena Tucktoo, Teresa Totalik, Umingmak Sariktat, and Teresa Quagjuag), Martha Langford (Chief Curator, Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, National Gallery of Canada), and Carol Podedworny (Curator, Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre and Centre for Indian Art).

Truly, VISIONS was a conference of convergence: it marked the first time ever that such a diverse group of Indigenous photographers from across Canada and the United States had gathered north of the 49th parallel to present and discuss their work. Furthermore, it provided attendees with the opportunity to display up to six photographs during the two-day conference, accompanied by formal slide presentations by invited speakers, panel discussions, and photo critiques.

Jeff Thomas, one of the more established Indigenous photographers at the VISIONS conference, poses in front of his work. Courtesy of Cees van Gemerden.
Dorothy Chocolate standing in front of her photographs. Courtesy of Cees Van Gemerden.

In a 1984 letter of invitation to Rick Hill, then-manager of the Indian Art Centre, Yvonne Maracle pointed out that, “as recently as five years ago, there were virtually no Native photographers exhibiting their work in Canada … We must organize ourselves and let the photography world know that we are here to stay! We can stamp out various stereo[types] about Native people and let them see us as we really are and not as they tend to see us.”³

While several early NIIPA members—such as Jeff Thomas and Shelley Niro in Canada, and Larry McNeil, Pena Bonita, and Shan Goshorn in the United States—had been exhibiting their photography as early as 1980, Yvonne’s assertion was, on the whole, correct. Prior to the emergence of NIIPA, there was no widespread Indigenous photography movement nor an effort to support, develop, and promote Indigenous photography as art, both inside and outside Indigenous communities, and within the larger art world. Photography, in a general sense, was still not being actively collected by major institutions—something that would gradually change towards the end of the 80s—let alone by emerging Indigenous photographers.

NIIPA co-founder/co-director Yvonne Maracle delivering introductory remarks at the VISIONS conference, 1985. Photograph courtesy of Cees van Gemerden.
Jolene Rickard talking on a panel at the VISIONS conference. Photograph courtesy of Cees van Gemerden.

Yvonne’s recognition of the need for an organization like NIIPA was not lost on conference attendees. And that is why, on March 13, 1985, a mere two days after the conference concluded, the decision to establish the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association was made. This convergence, as mentioned above, of so many Indigenous photographers in one place, at one time, must have been exhilarating. Understandably, many of them, who came from geographically disparate regions, had incorrectly assumed that they were the only ones doing photography from a Native perspective. What the VISIONS conference bestowed upon those in attendance was the wide view: a panoramic sense of their potentiality, both individually and collectively, should they unite creative energies.

From VISIONS emerged a sense of both excitement and urgency with regard to the need for an Indigenous-led organization that would advocate for the support and training of Indigenous photographers, and promote a positive, realistic, and contemporary image of Indigenous peoples through the medium of photography. Indeed, NIIPA represented the coalescence of a shared frustration and concern on the part of Indigenous image-makers with regard to how Indigenous peoples had been and were continuing to be portrayed in history books, museums and galleries, pop culture, and news/media outlets. They felt that, for far too long, Indigenous peoples had been portrayed through someone else’s lens, and that it was time they took control of their image in order to contest and demystify stereotypical representations of Indigenous peoples. As Tim Johnson notes, “Throughout most of photography’s history, Indians have merely been in front of the camera, rather than behind it.”⁴ Establishing NIIPA meant finding ways to position more Indigenous creatives behind the camera and in control of the lens, but doing so required teamwork, networking, training, and advocacy. Local newspapers heralded the VISIONS conference as “long overdue,” and stated that it was time for Indigenous photographers “to record their own lives, [and] develop their own aesthetic.”⁵ This sentiment, while written by a non-Indigenous reporter, most certainly echoed the overall opinion of the group.

Shelley Niro. "Sisters". c.1987. Black & white photograph. 25.5 x 17.5 cm. Image courtesy of the Indigenous Art Centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development Canada.
Dorothy Chocolate. "Feast, Fort Franklin, N.W.T." 1981. Black & white photograph. 35.5 x 28 cm. Image courtesy of the Indigenous Art Centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development Canada.
Murray McKenzie. "Native Studies 1984". 1984. Black & white photograph. 36.5 x 28.5 cm. Image courtesy of the Indigenous Art Centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development Canada.
Martin "Akwiranoron" Loft. "Jessie - Micmac". n.d. Black & white photograph. 28 x 35.5 cm. Image courtesy of the Indigenous Art Centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development Canada.
Joel Johnson. "Rail Robot". n.d. Black & white photograph. 25 x 20.5 cm. Image courtesy of the Indigenous Art Centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development Canada.
Douglas Maracle. "Untitled". n.d. Black & white photograph. Framed: 42 x 37 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy of the Indigenous Art Centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development Canada.

Two weeks following the VISIONS conference, Yvonne Maracle and Brenda Mitten met with Rick Hill to debrief and discuss plans to assemble a touring exhibition out of the works that had been presented by the photographers who attended. As the transcript of their conversation reveals, hard decisions had to be made. Contrary to the mainstream perception of Indigenous art, artists, and art criticism as inferior, less-developed, and less critical in comparison to that of western art, artists, and art criticism, the trio demonstrated rigor and criticality—but also a democratic fairness—in their selection of works for what was to become Visions, NIIPA’s first self-produced exhibition.

Through Rick Hill’s efforts, the Indian Art Centre acquired sixty-three of the works presented at the VISIONS conference by sixteen artists, subsequently forming the content of the Visions touring exhibition. However, the Centre was unable to purchase photographs by Jolene Rickard as she resided in the United States, nor works by Simon Brascoupe and Rick himself, as both of them worked for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada at the time.⁶ In spite of the bureaucratic red tape restricting his involvement with NIIPA and equally limiting what could be purchased, Rick recognized that what they were doing was history in the making: “Ten years from now everybody’s going to want to look at this exhibit.”⁷ In fact, Rick was so committed to making the photographs part of the national collection of the Indian Art Centre that he expressed a willingness to resign from his post as the Centre’s manager if it ensured they could fund the creation of Visions. Such resolve is rarely seen, and it speaks to the passionate commitment expressed by Indigenous creatives to do the hard but necessary work to advance Indigenous art.

Cover of Visions exhibition catalogue. Design of the Visions catalogue was coordinated by Toni Groat on behalf of NIIPA.

Visions, the first of its kind produced by Indigenous artists, was so popular that it toured for several years. The first leg of its tour, which stretched from 1986 to 1987, took the sixty-three photographs that comprised it to spaces such as the Native Heritage Gallery at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College⁸ (Regina, SK), Centre Eye Gallery (Calgary, AB), Kermode Friendship Centre (Terrace, BC), Floating Gallery (Winnipeg, MB), and Musée de Pointe Bleu (Pointe Bleu, QC). A detailed catalogue was also produced and featured the biographies of the sixteen participating artists.

Co-founder/co-director Brenda Mitten posing in front of the entrance sign to NIIPA’s gallery one, 124 James Street South. Image courtesy of the archive of Brenda Mitten.

Whilst simultaneously assembling Visions with Rick, Yvonne and Brenda wasted no time in advancing their other plans: incorporating NIIPA. On June 20, 1985, less than four months after the VISIONS conference that birthed it, the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association officially incorporated as a non-profit, artist-run organization. Led by co-founders/co-directors, Yvonne Maracle and Brenda Mitten, NIIPA’s founding board was formed with Murray McKenzie as president, Pat Green as vice-president, Lance Mitten as secretary, and Valerie General as treasurer, with Dorothy Chocolate, Tom Hill, Tim Johnson, Martin Loft, Jolene Rickard, Greg Staats, Jeff Thomas, and Lee Williams rounding out the board’s members-at-large. Rick Hill is listed as a consultant. NIIPA’s bylaws were shared widely with the membership to ensure that everyone was aware and in support of the organization’s direction. With NIIPA’s board of directors and the organization’s mandate and objectives in finally place, Yvonne and Brenda shifted their attention to creating NIIPA’s first quarterly newsletter and planning the next conference.

Yvonne Maracle hard at work on the phone in the NIIPA office, 124 James Street South. Image courtesy of the archive of Brenda Mitten.

Our Portrayals, published in January 1986 and edited by NIIPA co-founders/co-directors Yvonne Maracle and Brenda Mitten, chronicled for all who received it NIIPA’s ascent and the success of the first conference in igniting a fire to do something more. Distribution included all NIIPA members; local, regional, and national Indian Friendship Centres; photography galleries; funding agencies; federal and political representatives; and limited distribution to locations in the United States. The purpose of the newsletter was, as Brenda Mitten put it, is to showcase the “photographic talents” of its members.⁹ Indeed, the inaugural newsletter’s pages are filled with photographs from the VISION conference taken by Cees van Gemerden, followed by essays and features by and about the founding NIIPA members, including but not limited to: Dorothy Chocolate, Joel Johnson, Tim Johnson, Martin Loft, Brenda Mitten, Lance Mitten, and Rick Hill.

Shelley Niro organizing paperwork in the NIIPA office, 124 James Street South. Image courtesy of the archive of Brenda Mitten.

Our Portrayals also provided NIIPA members with a summary of Yvonne, Brenda, and Martin Loft’s trip to Princeton University in September 1985. The trio attended The Photograph and the American Indian conference, which included non-Indigenous scholars and Indigenous photographers from across North America. While the topic of discussion varied over the course of the three-day conference in relation to the subject of the photographic record of the “Indian” image, towards the end of the session, the Indigenous photographers in attendance were given the opportunity to respond to the conference proceedings and to discuss their work. Individually and collectively, the Indigenous photographers questioned the value of historical images, arguing that such images depicted the “white man’s Indian,”¹⁰ pointing out the connection between early photography and enduring stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as primitive, savage, and ahistorical. Predictably, their opinions were quickly dismissed by the academic scholars in attendance, which only served to reinforce for Yvonne, Brenda, and Martin the need for NIIPA to exist and to push for Indigenous peoples right to (re)define themselves.¹¹ However, the trip to Princeton proved to be beneficial for another reason: they used it as an opportunity to sign up the American-based Indigenous photographers present: Larry McNeil (Tlingit/Nishlca), Victor Masayesva (Hopi), Jesse Cooday (Tlingit), Carm Little Turtle (Apache/Tarahumara), Chris Spotted Eagle, and Herbert Yazzie.

In the spring of 1986, following the success of Visions, NIIPA co-founder/co-director Brenda Mitten collaborated with Sandra Semchuk of Forest City Gallery in London, Ontario, to co-curate Silver Drum: Five Native Photographers. This second (co-produced) NIIPA exhibition featured sixty-three photographs, of which twenty-four were historical images by the late George Johnston (Tlingit), provided by the Yukon Archives, set in juxtaposition to works by Dorothy Chocolate, Rick Hill, Murray McKenzie, and Jolene Rickard.

Cover of Silver Drum exhibition catalogue. George Johnston image in center. Courtesy of Yukon Archives, Freddie Johnston Fonds, 79/119, #32.

As with Visions, NIIPA produced a catalogue to accompany Silver Drum as it toured across Canada, even picking up a tour stop in the United States. Aside from its opening at Forest City Gallery and the NIIPA Gallery, Silver Drum went to White Water Gallery (North Bay, ON), The Photographer’s Gallery (Saskatoon, SK), Art Gallery of the Whitehorse Public Library (Whitehorse, YK), The Pas Friendship Centre (Pas, MB), Gallery 44 (Toronto, ON), and the Museum of the American Indian (New York City, NY). The intent of Silver Drum was to give audiences a glimpse into the uniqueness of each artist’s lived experience(s) and artistic vision as reflected in their photography, but also, by combining the work of the four contemporary NIIPA photographers with images by an elder/ancestor photographer (Johnston), they hoped to convey the artistic concerns of Indigenous photographers as a whole.¹²

Shortly after the opening of Silver Drum, NIIPA hosted their second annual NIIPA conference, FOUR CORNERS, in Thunder Bay at the Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre and Centre for Indian Art from June 6–7. A few of the newly minted members—Larry McNeil and Victor Masayesva, along with several of the founding members—Pena Bonita, Dorothy Chocolate, Joel Johnson, Tim Johnson, Martin Loft, Murray McKenzie, Jolene Rickard, and of course, Yvonne, Brenda, and Rick, and other invitees—gathered together to discuss topics of mutual interest and concern: photojournalism, artists’ rights, entrepreneurship, and video production. As with the VISIONS conference in 1985, they also set up an exhibition of their images and conducted peer photo critiques.

Richard W. Hill (Sr.). "Randy Hill". n.d. Black & white photograph. 20.2 x 25 cm. Image courtesy of the Indigenous Art Centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development Canada.
Richard W. Hill (Sr.). "Jacob Thomas - Cayuga Chief, Six Nations Reserve, Ontario". n.d. Black & white photograph. Framed: 34 x 42.8 x 3.5 cm. Image courtesy of the Indigenous Art Centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Development Canada.

Between the 1986 conference and the 1987 conference, through the coordination efforts of Tim Johnson, NIIPA began assembling a member directory. Although not completed until 1988, the directory’s creation demonstrates, like the conferences and exhibitions, that Yvonne, Brenda, and NIIPA’s board of directors were intent on positioning NIIPA as the go-to organization for anything to do with Indigenous photography. Moreover, NIIPA began offering photography workshops on a regular basis, facilitated in large part by more experienced members or guest artists. For example, Murray McKenzie offered lessons in portraiture; Joel Johnson provided training in Kodalith techniques; Tim Johnson instructed developing photo-journalism skills; and Shelley Niro taught infrared photography. As Rick Hill stated, Indigenous creatives “should not shrink from the challenge to try to Indianize technology.”¹³ In truth, as the years went on, the technical and creative workshops became the backbone of the organization’s day-to-day operations, demonstrating not only the members’ eagerness to learn, but also their quick adaption of newer photographic techniques and new media technologies.


The Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association is a story of community, of resilience, of telling stories through images that speak to Indigenous peoples presence in the contemporary moment, saying “look, we’re still here!” Led from day one by Indigenous women,¹⁴ and in spite of the many barriers and obstacles to success through the years, NIIPA – both as a collective of individual, like-minded photographers and as an organization – persevered to produce photographs that have stood the test of time. While this page only provides a teaser on NIIPA’s history, it is our hope that helps you, the reader, to think in a new way about Indigenous peoples in your neighbourhood, town, city, and country.

What is your image of Native people in Canada?

About the author: Rhéanne Chartrand is the Curator of Indigenous Art at McMaster Museum of Art. She holds a master’s degree in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. A Métis curator and creative producer based in Hamilton and Toronto, Chartrand has curated interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary exhibitions, showcases, and festivals for venues and organizations such as the City of Toronto, Art Gallery of Mississauga, Harbourfront Centre, OCAD University, the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, the Aboriginal Pavilion at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games, Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Her curatorial work focuses on the praxis of survivance, Indigenous epistemes, relational aesthetics, representational politics, and gratitude.

[1] Yvonne Maracle and Brenda Mitten eds., Our Portrayals (Hamilton: Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association, 1986), 2.[2] NIIPA’s new space was laid out to accommodate a gallery, workshop and meeting rooms, dark room facilities, and an administrative office. On April 26, 1986, they held an official opening in their new space. Dignitaries such as Hamilton Mayor Bob Morrow and MP Sheila Copps were in attendance, along with NIIPA’s founding board members. NIIPA Board President Murray McKenzie conducted the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
[3] Correspondence from Yvonne Maracle to Rick Hill, 19 October 1984. NIIPA Fonds, Indigenous Art Centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, Gatineau, Quebec.
[4] Tim Johnson, “Rebirth of Native Photography,” in Our Portrayals, 10.
[5] Grace Inglis, “Conference in Hamilton: Native Photographers Overcome an Old Taboo,” Hamilton Spectator, March 9, 1985. Courtesy of the archive of Brenda Mitten, Ohsweken, Ontario.
[6] INAC, which stood for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, is now called Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, or CIRNAC. The Indian Art Centre, as it was then called, now goes by the name Indigenous Art Centre, and is located within CIRNAC. The Indigenous Art Centre is a public collection held in trust and is one of the most important collections of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada. Rick’s work was subsequently purchased when NIIPA produced its second exhibition, Silver Drum, in 1986, but Simon’s photographs, while part of Visions, were never purchased after the fact by the Centre. The reason for this is still unknown.
[7] Brenda Mitten, meeting notes from discussion with Rick Hill, 26 March 1985, 5. Courtesy of the archive of Brenda Mitten, Ohsweken, Ontario.
[8] Now known as the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv).
[9] Correspondence from Brenda Mitten to Greg Staats, 27 September 1985. Courtesy of the archive of Greg Staats, Toronto, Ontario.
[10] See Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978) for a comprehensive analysis of how “Indian” is, in effect, a white conception.
[11] Maracle and Mitten, Our Portrayals, 36.
[12] Author unknown (Brenda Mitten?), Silver Drum exhibition synopsis, March 1986. NIIPA Fonds, Indigenous Art Centre, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, Gatineau, Quebec.
[13] Earlene Manywounds, “NIIPA Alumni – Interview with Rick Hill,” in Celebrating 15 Years (Hamilton: Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association, 2000), 12. NIIPA Fonds, Canadian Photography Institute, National Gallery of Canada.
[14] Yvonne Maracle and Brenda Mitten co-directed NIIPA until Brenda’s departure in 1987, after which Yvonne assumed sole directorship of NIIPA until her departure in 1998. However, she never actually left NIIPA, continuing to actively assist the organization, both as a board member and an advisor to Carol Hill (Mohawk), who assumed management of NIIPA after Yvonne until the organization closed in 2005/2006.

Archive of Artist Works:

Further reading

For a more comprehensive history of NIIPA’s early years, you can pick up a free copy of the #nofilterneeded: Shining light on the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association, 1985-1992 exhibition catalogue from McMaster Museum of Art (MMA). Entrance to MMA is free. Visit https://museum.mcmaster.ca/ for more information and the Museum’s hours of operation.

NIIPA Artist’s Roundtable
Featuring Rick Hill, Yvonne Maracle, Brenda Mitten, and Greg Staats
Moderated by Rhéanne Chartrand, Curator of Indigenous Art, McMaster Museum of Art
Held on February 8, 2018 at McMaster Museum of Art