Search the CFE
Home > Canadian Film Encyclopedia > Search the CFE


Alanis Obomsawin

Alanis ObomsawinNew Hampshire, 1932


The career of Alanis Obomsawin, Canada's finest Aboriginal artist, is as uplifting as it is provocative. This charismatic filmmaker, storyteller and musician has consistently placed her considerable skills at the service of First Peoples communities across Canada. Obomsawin's oeuvre isn’t quirky or self-absorbed — she consistently positions herself as the chronicler of Native people in Canada. Her work is humanistic, often historical and always intensely political.

Over the course of 35 years in the arts, Obomsawin has been recognized for her unswerving dedication to First Peoples issues. She is the recipient of two of the most prestigious honours in the land: the Order of Canada (1983) and the Governor General's Award (2001) for visual and media arts. Obomsawin's films have won over 30 awards, ranging from documentary prizes at the San Francisco Film Festival for Richard Cardinal (1986) and No Address (1988) to a Chris Award at the Columbus Film Festival for Poundmaker's Lodge (1987) and the Toronto-City Award for best Canadian feature film at the Toronto International Film Festival for Kanehsatake (1994). At the Montreal First People's Festival, Obomsawin capped her ongoing flood of award receptions in a very personal way, receiving the inaugural Dr. Bernard Chagnan Assiniwi Prize in her hometown.

Although she was born in New Hampshire in 1932, Obomsawin has spent the majority of her life in Quebec. A member of the Abenaki tribe, she rose to local stardom as a Québécois artist through her concert performances. The National Film Board invited Alanis to work as a consultant in 1965 after a profile of her was broadcast to great acclaim. Initially, she worked as a translator and historian on NFB documentaries while creating multimedia kits for the Manowan and I'ilawat tribes. Obomsawin used these teaching tools, which consisted of photos, filmstrips, slides, posters and games, to help Native children in schools across Canada. The creation of the multimedia kits also helped her develop her own abilities as a filmmaker. Her first film, Christmas at Moose Factory (1971), is effectively a talking slide show; children's illustrations present their own stories.

In 1977, she developed two episodes from a six-part educational project for the CBC into the NFB documentaries Amisk and Mother of Many Children. While the former was a well-made, if generic, performing arts documentary, the latter depicted an important theme in Obomsawin's filmmaking career: the reclamation of Native people through traditional means. A caring and careful profile of a number of women, Mother of Many Children delineates the role of the matriarchy in rebuilding First Peoples culture.

Obomsawin's films speak to the notion that Native society has suffered by the loss of ancient tribal ways of dealing with life's hardships. Richard Cardinal: Cry from the Diary of a Métis Child (1986), Poundmaker's Lodge: A Healing Place (1987) and No Address (1988) form an unofficial trilogy that recounts the tragedies of First Peoples' lives spent in modern Canadian environments: adolescent suicides, alcoholism and homelessness. Although each of these works offers solutions from Native people’s perspectives, one is left with an overwhelming feeling of anger against an unfeeling bureaucratic system that can't respond to another, more natural, way of life.

Starting with Incident in Restigouche (1984), Obomsawin began to deal with Native people’s direct response to Quebec and Canada. In this film, she chronicles the volatile disagreement between the Mi’kmaq people and the Quebec government over the right to do what their ancestors had always done: salmon fishing. That confrontation was a precursor to the devastating events that took place in Oka, Quebec, in 1990. That summer, the Mohawk tribe of Kanehsatake resolved to fight the Quebec government over the appropriation of ancient burial lands for the purpose of creating a golf course. Obomsawin spent months there, moving in and out of danger zones, as the situation became more divisive. She filmed a confrontation that is the closest thing that Canada has come to a civil war since the Riel rebellions.

When the Oka crisis concluded with the arrest of the Mohawk warriors, Obomsawin had her topic for the next decade. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) proved to be a huge international success, receiving festival acclaim and attention worldwide. Twenty-three million TV viewers in Japan alone saw it, for example. Alanis followed up Kanehsatake with two profiles of Kanehsatake icons: My Name Is Kahentiiosta (1995) and Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man (1997). The films portray two Native people — one woman, one man — who were willing to lay down their lives for the cause at Oka. Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000) completes Obomsawin's Kanehsatake quartet with a thorough examination of the political machinations and social disorder behind the stoning of Native women, elders and children leaving Oka via the Mercier Bridge by angry Quebeckers. Like the rest of Obomsawin’s films, Rocks at Whiskey Trench contrasts the practical nobility of the Oka warriors with the faceless rage and racism of the Québécois (and Canadian) dominant society.

Obomsawin's recent feature Is the Crown at War with Us? (2002) recaps issues addressed in Incident at Restigouche and Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. The withdrawal of Native fishing rights from the Mi'kmaq of New Brunswick is the basis for this confrontation between Aboriginal Peoples and the government. Obomsawin's devastating documentary shows the blatant power-grab that succeeded in reducing the Mi'kmaq's rights to fish in ancestral waters. Alanis Obomsawin's career encapsulates a classic Canadian dilemma: honoured by Canada and Quebec, she is encouraged to make work that confronts society's racist, hierarchical practices; yet, these issues only seem to be the fodder for polite conversation rather than direct political action.

By Marc Glassman

Film and video work includes

Charley Squash Goes to Town, 1969 (music)
Christmas at Moose Factory, 1971 (director; writer)
Amisk, 1977 (director; producer)
Mother of Many Children, 1977 (director; writer; producer; narrator)
Canada Vignettes: Wild Rice Harvest Kenora, 1979 (director; writer)
Dominga, 1979 (narrator)
Canada Vignettes: June in Povungnituk - Quebec Arctic, 1980 (director; writer; narrator)
Luna, Luna, Luna, 1981 (music)
Incident at Restigouche, 1984 (director; writer; producer; narrator)
Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child, 1986 (director; writer; producer)
Poundmaker’s Lodge: A Healing Place, 1987 (director; writer; producer)
No Address, 1988 (director; writer; producer)
Le Patro Le Prévost 80 Years Later, 1991 (director; writer)
Walker, 1991 (director)
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, 1993 (director; writer; narrator)
My Name Is Kahentiiosta, 1995 (director; writer; co-cinematographer with Roger Rochat, Susan Trow, Zoe Dirse, Raymond Dumas, André-Luc Dupont, Jacques Avoine, Lynda Pelley, Sylvain Julienne, Jean-Claude Labrecque, Pierre Landry; sound; producer) 
Spudwrench, 1997 (director; writer; sound, producer)
Rocks at Whiskey Trench, 2000 (director; writer; producer; narrator)
Is the Crown at War with Us?, 2002 (director; writer; producer)

Note: Updated to January 2003.



Contact Site map News Releases eNews Privacy