Sixties Scoop survivor traces her ancestry with dark photo exhibit in Burnaby

Photographer Dawna Mueller, right, was forcibly taken from her Indigenous birth mother, left, during the Sixties Scoop. (Submitted / Dawna Mueller - image credit)
Photographer Dawna Mueller, right, was forcibly taken from her Indigenous birth mother, left, during the Sixties Scoop. (Submitted / Dawna Mueller - image credit)

Dawna Mueller says it's been a "very long journey" since she first learned she was Métis and Anishinaabe in 2004, when she was 44 years old, living in Vancouver and pregnant with her second child.

She opened a heavily redacted information package she received from Manitoba's Ministry of Social Services, and among the blacked-out information, she learned that her ethnicity was both Indigenous and French.

"It was an incredible moment for me," said Mueller, a professional photographer and survivor of the Sixties Scoop, who'd coincidentally taken Indigenous studies courses during her undergraduate degree at UBC in the 1980s — something she feels "spoke to [her] genetic memory."

Mueller is now showcasing a photography exhibition called "Unforgotten — My Journey Home" at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby. It's a collection of photographs of her ancestral homelands in Duck Bay, Camperville, and Thicket Portage, Manitoba, and it documents part of the discovery of her identity as a Sixties Scoop child who was forcibly taken from her Indigenous mother at birth in 1960.

Reconnecting with her many roots

The Sixties Scoop was a decades-long period where thousands of Indigenous children were apprehended and placed into non-Indigenous homes, resulting in a loss of cultural identity.

"My adopted (Ukrainian) parents were told that I was French, and because of my recessive skin colour … it was easy for them to believe that," Mueller said Monday on CBC Radio's The Early Edition.

Mueller said she's since reconnected with her Indigenous birth mother, who is one of 18 siblings and has learned she has hundreds of cousins.

"We're all on this journey together now," she said, describing a one-month research trip she took with her mother, uncle and two sisters to her homelands last summer, where they "followed in the footsteps of their ancestors for the last 300 years."

The trip was the basis of her exhibit, a part of her master's thesis in photography, and a "real gift" because it was one of the last her birth mother was able to take due to early onset dementia.

Exhibit photos 'dark' and with 'spiritual essence'

Mueller said she felt the decision to use a historical large-format camera to create images, was "poetic" in documenting her ancestry. Having only worked with a digital camera, she said she taught herself to use it by watching YouTube videos and consulting with photography colleagues. After her trip to Manitoba, she spent three months developing her exposures in the darkroom at the West End Community Centre, in Vancouver.

Dawna Mueller / Submitted
Dawna Mueller / Submitted

Mueller said that because the Sixties Scoop is such a dark period in Canada's history, she wanted to present her photos in a similar way. She said the images are each composed of at least two exposures layered on top of each other, with a "footprint of her homeland as the foundational photo," and all images are exposed as negatives on reverse-processing paper, which means they're dark.

"It's not a pictorial photo, but it's more ... abstract," she later told CBC News, adding that some people who've seen them have said they're "evocative of a spiritual essence" and that layering the photos invoked the depth of the story.

Mueller said the final exhibit is a "visual depiction of this landscape of my ancestors" and is her way of showing the liminal space she finds herself in, straddling two cultures and feeling as though she doesn't quite belong to either.

"Unforgotten — My Journey Home" is open at the Shadbolt Centre in Burnaby until March 29 and will then be shown as part of the Capture Photography Festival, at the Monica Reyes Gallery, in April.