Alanis Obomsawin – Documentary Filmmaker, Artist, Singer, Storyteller
Alanis Obomsawin, OC, GOQ, filmmaker, singer, artist, storyteller (born 31 August 1932 near Lebanon, New Hampshire). One of Canada’s most distinguished documentary filmmakers, Alanis Obomsawin began her career as a professional singer and storyteller before joining the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in 1967. Her award-winning films address the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada from their perspective, giving prominence to voices that have long fallen on deaf ears. An Officer of the Order of Canada and a Grand Officer of the National Order of Québec, she has received the Prix Albert-Tessier and the Canadian Screen Awards’ Humanitarian Award, as well as multiple Governor General’s Awards, lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees.
A member of the Abenaki Nation, Obomsawin, whose last name means “pathfinder,” returned with her family to the Odanak reserve near Sorel, Québec, at the age of six months. Her father was a guide and a medicine maker, and her mother ran a boarding house. Her time on the reserve was idyllic; she delivered her aunt’s homemade bread and sang with abandon in her aunt’s rocking chair. She moved with her family from the reserve to Trois-Rivières when she was nine years old. Though the transition was difficult, her father’s death from tuberculosis when she was 12 pushed Obomsawin to rebel against the bullying and the promotion of European cultural superiority in school. Leaving Trois-Rivières at age 22, she spent time learning English in Florida before settling in Montréal in the late 1950s.
Following her debut as a singer at a concert at New York City’s Town Hall in 1960, she made appearances on reserves, in schools and prisons, at music festivals and on television. In 1966, she was profiled on the CBC program Telescope for her activism and “near superhuman” efforts to fund — through donations, concerts, and lectures — a swimming pool for the Odanak reserve after the local river was deemed too polluted.
She has performed throughout North America and Europe, self-accompanied on a hand-drum or rattle. Her repertoire includes traditional Aboriginal songs, as well as stories in English and French. Her 1984 album Bush Lady is perhaps the best example of her musical style. Accompanied by the hand-drum, and occasionally flute, oboe, violin and cello, Obomsawin sings and tells stories in several languages. In “Mother of Many Children,” a track of intermixed chanting and French spoken word, she begins in English: “From earth, from water, our people grew to love each other in this manner. For in all our languages, there is no he, or she. We are the children of the earth, and of the sea.”
Though primarily known for her filmmaking, Obomsawin has not abandoned her performance roots. She has appeared at the Guelph Spring Festival, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the Place des Arts in Montréal, the Mariposa Folk Festival (where she was the coordinator of Aboriginal peoples’ programming from 1970 to 1976) and at WOMAD (Harbourfront, 1990). She also appeared regularly for several years during the 1970s on the Canadian version of the children’s program Sesame Street. In addition, Obomsawin is a prolific visual artist known for her engravings and prints.
After noticing her in the Telescope feature, Wolf Koenig and Bob Verrall, producers at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), hired Obomsawin as a consultant on projects that related to First Nations peoples. In 1971 she directed her first film, Christmas at Moose Factory, and in 1977 became a permanent staff member at the NFB.
Committed to redressing the invisibility of Indigenous peoples, Alanis Obomsawin’s filmmaking style resides in the unique ability to pair Indigenous oral traditions with methods of documentary cinema. Amisk and Mother of Many Children, produced and directed in 1977, combine interviews with music, dance, drawings and archival images to validate the history of Indigenous peoples across Canada. Of her films on young people, Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986) is the best-known, and perhaps the most striking. A dramatic account of a young boy’s suicide, it led to a government report on social services for Indigenous foster children in Alberta, though little has been done to alleviate such problems.
Obomsawin’s films have documented the work of Indigenous organizations to help young people overcome alcohol and drug abuse (Poundmaker’s Lodge: A Healing Place, 1987), and provide services to homeless Indigenous peoples in Montréal (No Address, 1988.) Her films on the struggles of the Mi’kmaq over fishing rights (Incident at Restigouche, 1984) and the Mohawk-government standoff at Oka in 1990 (Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, 1993) have been widely acclaimed, and have brought Obomsawin national and international recognition.
Obomsawin directed The Wild Rice Harvest, Kenora (1979) and June in Povungnituk (1980) for the NFB’s Canada Vignettes series, and a short dramatic film, Walker (1991). She has examined individual stories (My Name Is Kahentiiosta, 1995; Spudwrench, 1997) and commented on the long-term effects of specific incidents during the events of the 1990 Oka Crisis (Rocks at Whiskey Trench, 2000), allowing viewers to see multiple angles of a complex and evolving story.
Obomsawin re-examined some of the previous themes in her work on the subject of Indigenous fishing rights in Canada in Is the Crown at War with Us? (2002). She followed that documentary by focusing on the rights of Aboriginal peoples to manage and make use of natural resources on their ancestral land in Our Nationhood (2003).
Obomsawin also completed two films about the people of Odanak: Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises (2006); and Gene Boy Came Home (2007). The latter is about war veteran Eugene “Gene Boy” Benedict’s nearly two-year tour in the Vietnam War and his struggle to get back to Odanak in the years following his service.
Obomsawin continues to make films into her eighties, including Hi-Ho Mistahey! (2013), which focuses on the Indigenous education initiative Shannen’s Dream, and Trick or Treaty? (2014), which profiles the struggles of Aboriginal leaders in attempting to negotiate with the federal government. Trick or Treaty? was selected to screen in the Masters program at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2014, making Obomsawin the first Indigenous filmmaker to receive that honor. The film was voted runner-up for the People’s Choice Documentary Award at TIFF and was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for best feature documentary.
Obomsawin’s hour-long NFB film The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012), which explores the poverty-stricken conditions of the Kattawapiskak Cree in Northern Ontario, won the Donald Brittain Award for Best Social/Political Documentary Program at the Canadian Screen Awards in 2014. Obomsawin’s 2016 documentary, We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, chronicles a nine-year human rights battle alleging that the federal government under-funded Indigenous children in Canada. The film had its world premiere at TIFF and garnered wide critical acclaim.
Obomsawin has long been an active force in the country’s artistic community, serving on the boards of many organizations. She was a board member of the NFB’s Indigenous unit, Studio One, and an advisor for New Initiatives in Film, a program for women of color and Indigenous women in the NFB’s women’s unit, Studio D. She has served on the board of directors for Aboriginal Voices, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), the Public Broadcasting Association of Québec, National Geographic International and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in Vermont. She has also chaired the board of directors of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montréal and served on the Canada Council’s First Peoples Advisory Board.
Obomsawin is a revered figure among documentary filmmakers with multiple honors in both the United States and Canada. She was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1983 and promoted to Officer in 2001. Her artistic accomplishments, her work with young Indigenous people and her activism on behalf of the rights of Indigenous peoples have earned her the Governor General’s Award (1983), a National Aboriginal Achievement Award (1994) and numerous honorary degrees. She was also granted an Honorary Fellowship at the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1994 and was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2013.
In 2001 she received a Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award and became the first non-sociologist/anthropologist to win the Outstanding Contributions Award from the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association. In 2004, the International Documentary Association honored her with its Pioneer Award, presented annually to “an individual who has made an indelible impression on the evolving art and craft of nonfiction filmmaking;” and the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto created an annual documentary award in her honor.
* The Canadian Encyclopedia http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/canadian-encyclopedia-30-important-indigenous-leaders/