Willie Dunn: Musician, filmmaker and activist left lasting legacy

Hunting with his dad and uncle in the Olympic Mountains when he was about five-years-old, writer and filmmaker Zachary Johnston remembers hearing Willie Dunn's music.
Musician and activist Willie Dunn is the focus of an Indigitalk at the ImagineNATIVE Festival. (NFB)
When asked when he first heard Willie Dunn's music, writer and filmmaker Zachary Johnston recalled hunting trips with his dad and uncle in the Olympic Mountains when he was about five-years-old. The soundtrack was always Willie Dunn or Led Zeppelin. 

Like Dunn, Johnston's Skokomish and Yakama father had a history of activism. "When he was in the right mood, he'd put on [the music] and he'd tell me about his adventures in the '70s protesting on behalf of Native rights," Johnston said. 

The more he learned, the more Johnston saw parallels between his own life growing up in Seattle and Dunn's.
Writer and filmmaker Zachary Johnston (Zachary Johnston)

Dunn, who was of Mi'kmaq and Scottish descent, grew up off reserve. His mother had gone through the residential school system and didn't talk about her heritage with her children. Johnston said they learned about it by being picked on and bullied by other kids in their neighbourhood.

"When you don't grow up on the reservation, you grow up in the white world, you have a very different experience immediately when you find out that there is a division between the two worlds," he said. 

Johnston explained that Dunn joined the army at a young age and spent time in Africa in the late '60s. When he got back his brother gave him a guitar and he taught himself to play. Hanging out in jazz and blues clubs in Montreal, he decided to play protest music. 

"He saw his people, as people he didn't get to really grow up [with] ... and started connecting with [them] when he got back from his service. He decided to make his art mean something powerful for those people," Johnston said. 

"He was rediscovering part of who he was that he'd never had access to. And also given the time of the late '60s, early '70s, there was a lot to protest about for the Native communities." 

Dunn went on to record albums and got into the film business, making a mini-documentary that went along with his song The Ballad of Crowfoot

Johnston said Dunn's work still resonates today. 

"It's very trying times. I feel things have gotten to a breaking point where you see what's going on in North Dakota with the pipeline ... and that's the very tiny tip of a very big iceberg. People are starting to realize more and more that we have a voice again and that to be part of the solution we need to make our voices heard. And someone like Willie gives us a bit of a foundation [on] which we can build."

Zachary Johnston's Indigitalk on Willie Dunn is on Thursday, October 20th at 1:30 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Admission is free.