Skip to content

Arcola historian’s first book studies Indigenous people of southern Saskatchewan

By David Willberg, Estevan Mercury Adrian Paton has always taken a keen interest in history and in photographs of people. The history of Indigenous people is of particular interest to him.

By David Willberg, Estevan Mercury

Adrian Paton has always taken a keen interest in history and in photographs of people. The history of Indigenous people is of particular interest to him.

He has built up an impressive collection of pictures during his life.

Now, at age 85, the Arcola resident has compiled and released An Honest, Genial and Kindly People - A Private Collection of First Nations Photographs from the Turn of the Century in Southern Saskatchewan.

Released late last year, the book also features history and stories that Paton has gathered over the years. 

The response has proven to be tremendous so far.

“We really didn’t have a network set up to distribute the books,” Paton said in an interview with Lifestyles. “We thought that would happen in time. But we’re finding out we had to distribute them fairly quickly.”

There are about 200 photos, all of which are from his collection, in the book. They make up about half of the book’s content. Stories represent the other half. Paton also shares how he obtained the photos and the subject material.

The majority of the photos are of Indigenous people from southern Saskatchewan, but he has photos in his collection from throughout the Great Plains of North America that people have sent to him.

Paton believes he spent about three years working on the book.

“I would have to research, and in my collecting, I was remiss and did not put down everywhere that we had these pictures,” said Paton. “We found out that we should have somewhere we could refer to where we found it, or how these came into my possession.”

The owner of the South Saskatchewan Photo Museum, Paton has been collecting photos for about 50 years. The Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society took an interest in it, and one of the society’s members instructs Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan.

“He suggested that I should put them in book form,” said Paton.

Paton says he has always liked old pictures. Born in the Great Depression, he grew up during challenging times, and he became interested in it quite a number of years ago.

Photos of Indigenous people from the era chronicled in his book are quite rare. But he pointed out that Arcola had a photographer in the town prior to 1900.

“He took pictures of everything, including Indigenous people, and that’s what I started from, one of his pictures, which was the most beautiful picture, and I really liked it, and so I started collecting as many as I could find.”

That photo is of a couple, and it appears in the book.

Then there’s the photo that is on the front cover of An Honest, Genial and Kindly People, an Indigenous man named Washegenesh, who was a chief in this area.

He noted that the names of the Indigenous people were often mis-spelled by non-Indigenous people, who would spell a name the way they thought it should be done, rather than the right way. It means there are several different spellings of Washegenesh’s name.

“I’ve had quite a few discussions with First Nations people with regard to these names, and they agreed I’m as close as anyone would come,” he said.

For someone with such a keen interest in photos, it might be surprising to some that Paton isn’t a photographer. All of the photos in the book were taken by other people, including a couple in which he had someone take pictures of objects for the book.

Paton is well-known in Arcola for his love of history. A number of years ago, the community released a history book of the area, much like other Saskatchewan cities, towns and villages. Paton was the chairperson of that committee, so he learned a little bit about releasing a book.

His love of history started with people who homesteaded in the region, like his grandfather and his father, who was five years old when he immigrated to Canada from Scotland.

“I was quite interested in that, and First Nations people just fit into that era,” said Paton.

Many libraries and schools across the Prairie provinces are adding An Honest, Genial and Kindly People to their Indigenous resources and Prairie history sections. The feedback has been particularly favourable from Indigenous people.

And he’s had quite a few requests to release another history book using photos of his collection.

The books are for sale at the Arcola Town Office or by contacting Paton at 306-455-2566.