Alanis Obomsawin, a member of the Abenaki Nation, is one of Canada’s most distinguished documentary filmmakers. Her latest film is the 2007 National Film Board of Canada documentary Gene Boy Came Home, in which Ms Obomsawin turns her camera on the ugliness of war through the eyes of one survivor, Vietnam War veteran Eugene "Gene Boy" Benedict, from her home community of Odanak.
The people of Odanak and their stories are also the subject of her award-winning 2006 feature documentary Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises. Obomsawin’s 2005 drama Sigwan focuses on a young girl who is aided by the animals of the forest. Her 2003 NFB documentary Our Nationhood chronicles the determination and tenacity of the Listuguj Mi'gmaq people to use and manage the natural resources of their traditional lands. The Mi’gmaq of Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church), New Brunswick were the subject of her 2002 documentary, Is the Crown at war with us?, a powerful and painstakingly researched look at the conflict over fishing rights.
The 2000 NFB release Rocks at Whiskey Trench was Obomsawin's fourth film in her series about the 1990 Oka crisis. The first, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), was a feature-length film documenting the 1990 Mohawk uprising in Kanehsatake and Oka, which has won 18 international awards. It was followed by My Name is Kahentiiosta (1995), a film about a young Kahnawake Mohawk woman who was arrested after the 78-day armed standoff, and Spudwrench – Kahnawake Man (1997), profiling Randy Horne, a high-steel worker from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake.
Obomsawin began her career as a singer, writer and storyteller, but dove into filmmaking in 1967 with Christmas at Moose Factory, which she wrote and directed. Since then, Obomsawin has made over 30 uncompromising documentaries on issues affecting Aboriginal people in Canada. Her other films include: Incident at Restigouche (1984), a powerful depiction of the Quebec police raid of a Micmac reserve; Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986), the disturbing examination of an adolescent suicide, and No Address (1988), a look at Montreal’s homeless.
Joining the NFB
In 1960, Obomsawin made her professional debut as a singer in New York City. In 1967, NFB producers Joe Koenig and Bob Verrall saw Obomsawin on TV. They invited the singer/storyteller to the Film Board to work as an advisor on a film about Aboriginal people.
Obomsawin went on to direct films of her own, while continuing to perform and fight for justice for her people. For almost 40 years, Obomsawin has directed documentaries at the NFB with strong social content, inspired by the desire to let the voices of her people be heard. In 1983, she was made a member of the Order of Canada, in recognition of her dedication to the well-being of her people and the preservation of the First Nations’ heritage through her filmmaking and activism.
Music and art
As a singer/songwriter, Obomsawin has toured Canada, the United States and Europe performing for humanitarian causes in niversities, museums, prisons and art centres, as well as at folk art festivals. Her 1988 album Bush Lady features traditional songs of the Abenaki
people, as well as original compositions.
For over 25 years, Obomsawin has worked as an engraver and print-maker, with exhibitions in Canada and Europe. Mother and child imagery is prominent in her work, which also combines material from her own dreams with animal spirits and historical events. Her work was exhibited at the Maison Lacombe in Quebec in 2007.
Alanis Obomsawin was born in New Hampshire on Abenaki Territory. When she was 6 months old, her mother returned to the Odanak reserve north east of Montreal where Alanis lived until she was 9. Théophile Panadis, her mother’s cousin, initiated Alanis into the history of the Abenaki Nation and taught her many songs and legends. Obomsawin and her parents then left Odanak for Trois Rivières, where they were the only Native family. Cut off, speaking little French and no English, Obomsawin held fast to the songs and stories she had learned on the reserve.
Awards and honours
Obomsawin is the subject of the first-ever book on Native filmmakers, Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker, by Randolph Lewis, published in 2006 by the University of Nebraska Press.
In March 2001, Obomsawin received the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. An Officer of the Order of Canada, Obomsawin’s many honours also include the Luminaria Tribute for Lifetime Achievement from the Santa Fe Film Festival, the International Documentary Association’s Pioneer Award, the Toronto Women in Film and Television’s (TWIFT) Outstanding Achievement Award in Direction, the Canadian Native Arts Foundation National Aboriginal Achievement Award, and the Outstanding Contributions Award from the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association (CSAA). The latter marks the first time that the CSAA has honoured someone who is not an academic in the field of sociology and anthropology.
In October 2007, Obomsawin received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Western Ontario. She has also been honoured with a fellowship from the Ontario College of Art, an Honorary Doctor of Letters from York University, an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Concordia University and an Honorary Doctor of Literature from Carleton University. She has taught at the Summer Institute of Film and Television in Ottawa.
Obomsawin has chaired the Board of Directors of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and sat on the Canada Council’s First People’s Advisory Board. She was also a board member of Studio 1, the NFB’s Aboriginal studio, and a former advisor to the New Initiatives in Film, a Studio D program for women of colour and women of the First Nations. As a member of the Board of Aboriginal Voices, she was part of an initiative to obtain a radio licence for the organization. A lifetime member of the Board of Directors for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Ms Obomsawin is also a Member of the Board for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in Vermont and National Geographic International.