Alanis Obomsawin – Acclaimed Activism

The Children Have to Hear Another Story – Exhibition at Vancouver Art Gallery

The legendary Alanis Obomsawin, acclaimed Abenaki filmmaker and artist, is a revered figure within Indigenous communities and is celebrated in Canada and internationally. The Vancouver Art Gallery has opened a monumental exhibition surveying Obomsawin’s work since the 1960s, showing her impact on education, music, documentary cinema and activism that mobilized Indigenous voices and ideas to transform society.

It has also just been announced Obomsawin is the newest recipient of the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal, a U.S. residency program recognizing outstanding lifetime arts contributions (past recipients have included Georgia O’Keeffe and Toni Morrison.) The 90-year-old artist has made 56 films and is still producing them.

From Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition – Alanis Obomsawin, Printmaker. (2019)

Obomsawin is also a printmaker and engraver, and a musician. The MMFA selected over 40 of her drypoints for their 2019 show and she has frequently been on exhibition internationally. She has been a singer-songwriter since the 1960s. Her 1980s album Bush Lady (reissued in 2018) featured songs of the Abenaki people, as well as originals.

From Maclean’s – Obomsawin performs at Mariposa Festival, July 1970

The Vancouver exhibition, titled The Children Have to Hear Another Story, reflects her realization that for Indigenous sociopolitical conditions to improve, children from all backgrounds needed to hear a different story than the dominant narrative provided by Hollywood cinema and the educational system at that time. (A selection of her more than 50 films, below)

Her work created opportunities for Indigenous people to tell their own stories in the public sphere. She was born in 1932 in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and spent her early years in Quebec, on the Odanak reserve, whose songs and stories she continues to tell. Her performances have been presented in universities, residential schools, prisons, museums, art centres and festivals around the world to aid humanitarian causes.

Obomsawin is best known for the documentary films she created during her long tenure at the National Film Board (NFB). The Vancouver gallery worked closely with the NFB for the exhibition to deliver unprecedented access, not only to Obomsawin’s films, but also the archives related to their production.

Watch the Kanehsatake documentary at this NFB site

Her best known NFB work is the feature documentary, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which she shot behind the military barbed wire during the Oka Crisis of 1990. The 78-day standoff with Mohawk protesters, Quebec police, the RCMP and the Canadian Army was a watershed moment in Canadian history.

Shaney Komulainen, The Canadian Press

But as this CBC story points out, most Canadians formed only one view of the Oka situation, the result of this famous Canadian Press photo (above). The point of Obomsawin’s work was to change the narrative to reflect the untold side of such stories.

Watch the full documentary on TVO here.

Obomsawin’s work made many concrete changes in the lives of indigenous people in Canada, an acclaimed example being her 53rd documentary, called Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger. It chronicled the short life of a Cree child from Manitoba, born with a rare muscle disorder. He spent all five years of his life in hospital – instead of going home – while the federal and provincial governments argued who would pay for his home care.

Jordan River Anderson’s name is now on a Canadian government policy – called Jordan’s Principle – meant to ensure First Nations children living on and off reserve receive timely access to government-funded health, social and educational services.  (Above: a federal government accounting of how many cases have been approved)

Portrait at the time of the Glenn Gould Prize 2020.

For her lifetime contribution to enriching the human condition through the arts, Obomsawin was also awarded the Glenn Gould Prize in 2020 when she was 88 years old. She was named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2019 and has been a Grande Officière of the Ordre national du Québec since 2016. She is also the recipient of over fifteen honorary degrees from universities and colleges across Canada and the US. Recent awards include the Iris Homage, Gala Québec Cinéma in 2020; DGC Honorary Life Member Award, Directors Guild of Canada in 2018; and Commander of the Ordre de Montréal in 2017, for her exceptional contribution to the city’s cultural life and commitment to the community.

A good capsule biography of Alanis Obomsawin from the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, here.

Exhibition at Vancouver Art Gallery website, here.

The Children Have to Hear Another Story first opened in 2022 in Berlin at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, here.

A PDF program from the Berlin museum with more detail, here.

NFB films by Alanis Obomsawin, here.

A shorter, NFB playlist of some of Obomsawin’s most influential work, here.

About the exhibition: Organized by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Art Museum at the University of Toronto and the Vancouver Art Gallery, in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada and through the support of Canada Council for the Arts and CBC/Radio-Canada. Curated by Richard Hill, Smith Jarislowsky Senior Curator of Canadian Art, and Hila Peleg.

Image at the top of the post is: Alanis Obomsawin, Resting During the Oka Crisis, 1990. Photo: John Kenney.

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