Ethnographic films of the early twentieth century, intended to document and reproduce the cultural practices, living conditions, and identities of Indigenous populations, were often rife with colonial assumptions, staged events, abnormal or uncommon practices, and the active silencing of Indigenous perspectives. Cheenama the Trailmaker: An Indian Idyll of Old Ontario, produced in 1935 by the Canadian Museum of History, attempts to recreate the day-to-day life of an Algonquin family in pre-contact North America.
Beginning with a comparative analysis of the film itself, this essay uses empirical evidence from the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan to paint a picture of the accuracy of this filmic account. As well, through case studies, explorations of historical works in relation to current Indigenous perspectives, and ongoing debates about the agency, motivations, and complicity of the Canadian Museum of History in the governing of Indigenous bodies in Canada, its positionality within this discourse is clarified. And finally, through comparisons to present Indigenous artworks and theorizations that work to question the relationship between Indigenous peoples, legacy, film, agency, authorship, and authenticity, these ethnographies are brought forward into the continually growing and ever-important discourse of Indigenous representation.