2004 Pioneer Award: Bringing Pleasure, Learning and Understanding—Alanis Obomsawin
"My name is Alanis Obomsawin. I am an Abenaki woman from Odenak, Québec," she proclaims.
Her life reads like a storybook legend. She was born on August 31, 1932, in Lebanon, New Hampshire, in Abenaki territory, during a lunar eclipse. Soon thereafter, her mother returned to her roots and brought Obomsawin to Odanak, Québec, on the Abenaki reserve northeast of Montreal, where she would live with her aunt and uncle and their six children. Barely six months old, Obomsawin was afflicted by a mysterious disease, and she lapsed into a coma. One night, it was said that she would die. The doctors ordered not to touch her or move her, so the family waited helplessly. Suddenly, the door swung open and an old great aunt came in, took Obomsawin in her arms, wrapped her in a blanket and carried her off to a little shack, where the great aunt would cure her.
Obomsawin grew up in this village until the age of nine, with no real sense of the outside world. Life was simple, yet happy and healthy. Women weaved baskets while men carved and hunted. She enjoyed her father's bear stories, while her mother's cousin initiated her into the heritage of the Abenaki people (people of sunrise), teaching her their songs and legends.
Obomsawin and her parents left Odanak for Trois-Rivieres, where they would be the only Native family. "A comparison I could give you would be moving to Russia," she reflects. "That's how different, how difficult it was for me as a young child. I certainly did not know that I was poor before I went there."
Speaking very little French and no English, Obomsawin attended a public French school about 30 miles from Odenak. Cut off from her tradition and her way of life on the reserve, she began to revolt. "I knew my history orally and as I grew a little bit older I realized that there was something very wrong," she recalls. "First of all, I used to get beat up everyday. It was from these experiences that I wanted to make a difference so that the next generation would have a better place. And it is a drive that I still have to this day. I very quickly decided that I wanted to do something to influence changes in the educational system—fight for inclusion of our history—but I didn't know how. I realized that the only way I could influence changes was to find a way to speak to the students directly."
In her mid 20s, Obomsawin befriended a circle of creative writers, photographers and artists in Montreal that included Leonard Cohen, Vittorio, John Max and many others. Gradually, she emerged as a singer and storyteller, inspired by the memories of her childhood. Through her poetry and songs, she gave a voice to the desperate need of her people. She made her professional debut at Town Hall in New York City, and popularity soon followed.
"I began touring in a lot of schools in the country, organized by agencies or by art centers, or schools would directly phone me and ask me to visit them to spend some time with the children," she remembers. "I told them stories, talked about our history, sang songs, showed Indian games at recreation time and played with them."
Native children were not allowed to swim in the local "Whites only" pool, nor could they swim in the river, which was highly polluted and where several drownings had occurred; Obomsawin made the children a promise: "I said to the children, ‘Don't worry, we will have our own pool.' When you say that to children, the next day they ask: ‘Where's the pool?' It took me four years to get it up, and longer to finish paying for it!"
Shortly thereafter, her Abenaki Tribal Elders renamed her Alanis Princess Ko-Li-La-Wato (The One That Brings Pleasure). In 1965, Maclean's magazine nominated her as one of the ten most Outstanding Canadians of the Year.
That same year, director Ron Kelly made a film about Obomsawin's work for the CBC Telescope series. It caught the attention of National Film Board producers Joe Koenig and Bob Verrall. "Producers at the film board saw it and invited me to have meetings and talk about stories," she remembers. "I told them that for me the children were the most important thing, and it was the education aspect that I was the most concerned with, so that our children could finally go to school and feel comfortable as to who they are and be respected."
A few years later the National Film Board invited Obomsawin to serve as a consultant on Aboriginal subjects. "You didn't hear much about Indians then," she says. "I knew what I had to say; I didn't need anybody to tell me what it was like because I knew what it was like. My life is a school that nobody can teach me. I learned it the hard way, standing up in a canoe."
The relationship proved to be quite successful, and Obomsawin made the transition from singer/storyteller to documentary filmmaker. "It's a different form, a much stronger form," she says. "A documentary can go on its own and it touches many people when you are not even there. When I had this opportunity to learn and do it, I really respected it and quickly realized that it was so powerful. It was difficult, but I was also given a road, a place, an opportunity to do all of these things that I felt. It had to be done with the best and the National Film Board is the best in the world—the best teachers, the best support. A country like Canada gave us a lot of problems, but Canada is also very generous."
Obomsawin's first projects at the National Film Board were educational kits for children. Lacking in technical abilities but blessed with a clear vision and a fighting spirit, she stumbled along the way and became stronger and more determined with each fall. "It was difficult, but I managed," she says. "It was the first time that a teacher would actually use a tool and information which came directly from the people. The children could recognize themselves, and the other children could learn about them. It was such an incredible moment for us!"
In 1967, Obomsawin traveled to a residential school at Moose Factory, in James Bay on the Ontario side, to live with the most isolated of Aboriginal children. From this journey emerged her first film, Christmas at Moose Factory, the story of this small remote village told magically through the drawings and paintings of its children.
Over the next three and a half decades, Obomsawin would document the lives of the First Nations people across Canada. Considered one of Canada's most distinguished and respected filmmakers, Obonsawin attains an intimacy with her subjects that pulls the viewer into her world. Through her work, one discovers the beauty and strength of the First Nations people, who for too long have been shadowed and manipulated by their surrounding neighbors.
"What you see in the film, it is true," she says. "What you also see in the film is a point of view—it is mine and it is the people's point of view. It is their voices for change.
"The French newspapers here put me down," she continues. "An anthropologist said, ‘Alanis, you know the rock throwing [in her film Rocks at Whiskey Trench] lasted less than five minutes, and you made an hour and a half film about that.' I said, "What, it lasted five minutes? It's going to last a whole generation of pain for these people, for that gesture. You should have a few rocks thrown at you and see how you would receive it. How is this supposed to feel? You say, ‘Ha! Basta! C'est fini...five minutes is gone; let's forget about it.' Well, it does not work like that. That is what people have to understand.
"I think that I make true documentary," she asserts. "I am a servant. I listen to the people, from the smallest child to the oldest person. They tell me what the story is. I look at a situation and I know what the needs are. That is what I do."
Obomsawin is no stranger to hardship, discrimination, isolation and abuse—themes she has explored throughout her work. She is an activist, standing and speaking for the voiceless, fighting for the weak and the powerless, always keeping in focus her desire for social change. She has pioneered and blazed new trails for the First Nations in the political arena and has built bridges of communication within their own community. Armed with her camera, she has traveled unbeaten paths, and she continues to educate us on the policies and practices of her country towards the First Nations people.
"Education is certainly the main goal," Obomsawin maintains, when discussing her hope for her people through her work. "The second is for people to understand how beautiful they are. And you cannot understand what you are when you have been told you are something else for so long. When I do all of these films, I want people to look at what's happened to them and to understand how they got there. We can only make changes once we really understand the past, but our people were not even allowed to have their history. I want the history to be alive not only for our people but for the country. When you deny the history of a people in a country, then you deny yourself something very important, and in the end it is the country itself that becomes impoverished.
"Once a child knows his language, his history, then he is free to learn the history of others and to have respect for them because he has received some for himself," Obomsawin asserts. "That is the heart of why I do what I do. Some day it is going to be different. I may not be here to see it, but it will be different; it will be better. I know that."
For more information about Alanis Obomsawin visit http://www.onf.ca/rocks/main31.html
diane estelle Vicari is first vice president of the IDA Board of Director, and is an independent documentarian and the owner of DOCdance Productions.
Christmas at Moose Factory (1967)
Charley Squash Goes to Town (1969)
Mother of Many Children (1977)
Luna Luna Luna (1981)
Incident at Restigouche (1984)
Poundmaker's Lodge: A Healing Place (1987)
No Address (1988)
Kannehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993)
My Name is Kahentiiosta (1995)
Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000)
Is the Crown at War with Us? (2002)
Our Nationhood (2003)
2001 Robert Guenette
2002 Agnès Varda
2003 Mel Stuart