Writers & Company

Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin on her legendary career and the power of storytelling

The artist, activist and documentarist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2008 about empowerment, resistance and doing what is right.
Alanis Obomsawin is an American Canadian Abenaki filmmaker, singer, artist and activist known primarily for her documentary films. (Scott Gries/Getty Images)

In October 2020, Abenaki artist, activist and documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin was awarded the 2020 Glenn Gould Prize of $100,000. It honours an individual for "a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts." 

Since 1967, Obomsawin has made more than 50 films with the National Film Board of Canada, largely focusing on the rights of Indigenous people. Her landmark documentary, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, portrayed what became known as the "Oka crisis" as it unfolded in 1990 in the town of Oka, Quebec. Obomsawin documented the 78-day standoff between the Mohawk Nation and the Canadian army over the attempted expropriation of Mohawk land. Kanehsatake has been described by arts journalist Jesse Wente as "a watershed film in the history of First Peoples cinema."

Born in New Hampshire in 1932, Obomsawin grew up on the Odanak Reserve near Montreal, and in Trois-Rivières, where she faced violence and discrimination as the only Indigenous student at her school. She began her career as a singer and storyteller before joining the National Film Board.   

Obomsawin's most recent documentary, Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger — released when she was 87 — won the best Canadian documentary award at the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival. 

She spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2008, at her home in Montreal.

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      Where I was born

      "I was born actually in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and that is an Abenaki territory. When I was six months old, I was taken to the Odanak, which is the reserve where my parents were born. My mother went back to the States and I stayed with my aunt and uncle and their children.

      "Not long after, I developed on my body something that looked like eczema, but wasn't. I was covered with it. It got so bad that I was supposed to die. I was in a coma. They didn't know what it was.

      When I was six months old, I was taken to the Odanak, which is the reserve where my parents were born.

      "The local doctor had come and said that they shouldn't move me, but they should watch me, as I was supposed to die that night. This old aunt of my mother came in, apparently she was very angry, and she wrapped me up in a blanket. She took me to her little house. She kept me for six months and I survived. Nobody knows what she did."

      Working with the National Film Board

      "When I became involved with the National Film Board, it wasn't my idea because I didn't know anything about film. But my fight for changes in residential schools led me to do a campaign to build a swimming pool on my reserve in the 1960s. 

      "And from that, Ron Kelly, who did a lot of work for CBC at the time, did a short film on what I was doing. It appeared on this CBC television program called Telescope in 1966. And some producers at the board saw it, and asked me to come there. 

      When I became involved with the National Film Board, it wasn't my idea because I didn't know anything about film.

      "In those days they had these small theatres where people used to go and look at their films. 

      "So somebody put me in a chair at the front, and they had all these top producers and directors sitting in the theatre. And somebody said, 'Well, just tell us some stories like you do in school.' And I sat there and I started telling them stories and dreams I had. 

      "Eventually I was asked to be a consultant. And from then on, I stayed."

      Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin is seen in her office at the National Fim Board of Canada, Thursday, July 2, 2015 in Montreal. Twenty-five years after her team shot the documentary "Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance," filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin describes how Warriors behind the barricades thought there was going to be a massacre. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

      The power of resistance 

      "I called my documentary [about the standoff in Oka] Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance because I counted the years. It's exactly that amount of time when the Sulpicians [the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice] arrived and started telling the Mohawk that they didn't own any land. They cheated them out of their land. They lied to them, beat them. It was horrible. And the Mohawk, generation after generation, knew that this was their land. 

      "Have you ever heard of working in hell? It was very difficult to do your work in this kind of atmosphere. There were guns everywhere. 

      "I hate guns, but I saw people having so much courage and believing why they were doing it. And I saw the other side not wanting to recognize that this was Mohawk land, they were still saying, 'This is not your land.'

      Have you ever heard of working in hell? It was very difficult to do your work in this kind of atmosphere.

      "Knowing my history and the history of this country, this had previously happened to all the reserves. But nobody ever knew about it. And our people didn't have much defence, either politically or otherwise. So a lot of the land has been lost for all nations in this country in the same manner. 

      "And when the Mohawks did that stand, it became a turning point for all the reservations in Canada. It would be much harder now for any municipality to try and do this again."

      Standing up for my people

      "I will never leave my people. Even if I was a millionaire, or even if I had all kinds of power, I would always think of making a better place for them. 

      "It's because they are still there — there are a lot of people that have been able to find their way. I often tell my story because I want them to hear that, if I am where I am today, it is because I refuse to be what they told me I was. I refused to feel inferior. 

      I often tell my story because I want them to hear that, if I am where I am today, it is because I refuse to be what they told me I was.

      "I never have and I never will. I always fought back. And that's what I want our people... and not just our people, but people of the world who are made to feel less. It's not true, and I just want my own people to understand that."

      Alanis Obomsawin's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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