Prove Them Wrong: In Conversation with Alanis Obomsawin

The prolific documentarian of Canadian First Nations people discusses a new retrospective of her work.
Brandon Kaufman

Amisk (Alanis Obomsawin, 1977).

This past fall, the Art Museum at the University of Toronto presented The Children Have to Hear Another Story, a retrospective exhibition of the life and work of Alanis Obomsawin, a musician, artist, poet, activist, and documentarian. The show, curated by Richard William Hill and Hila Peleg, began at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, continued at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and will travel to the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal in September 2024.

The exhibition is organized chronologically, beginning in 1932, when Obomsawin was born in Odanak, an Abenaki reserve near Montreal. When she was nine, her family moved to Trois-Rivières, Quebec, where she was forced to learn French and subjected to physical and verbal abuse by classmates and teachers. In the 1950s, Obomsawin began singing professionally, performing songs in Abenaki, French, and English. She toured across the country, was interviewed by leading newspapers and magazines, and performed on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). 

The title of the show captures a belief that spurred Obomsawin on when she was traveling to schools as a singer: the stories being told about Indigenous people were inaccurate and harmful. “I was fighting against the educational system and what they were teaching about our history, which was false,” Obomsawin told me. In 1967, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), a prolific producer of documentaries, hired Obomsawin as an advisor for Native work. “I’ve seen Film Board films dealing with Aboriginal people,” she told a producer in an initial meeting, “and we never hear the [Native] people speak.”

The traveling retrospective allows viewers to trace the development of Obomsawin’s career, showcasing the breadth of media with which she has worked and demonstrating how her music, fine art, activism, and poetry inform and activate her films. Curators Hill and Peleg have included Obomsawin’s work in other media, including drypoint etchings of horses and other animals, whose shortened limbs and elongated bodies are rendered in soft, hazy lines. This surreal, dreamlike quality throws the realism of the rest of the exhibit into sharp relief.  In a central gallery in Toronto, selected clips of her 1960s television appearances and awards acceptance speeches could be viewed.

Incident at Restigouche (Alanis Obomsawin, 1984).

More than a dozen films are shown in full, with production memoranda, treatments, correspondence, and posters displayed nearby. These documents find Obomsawin pleading for funding and resources from the NFB, organizing the productions, and facilitating their distribution. One through line that emerges is Obomsawin’s insertion of herself into her work. She is not just a narrator or a spectral figure behind the camera but the singular catalyst for these productions and an active participant in the films’ discourse. The ancillary materials in the exhibition speak to her central presence as a kind of corrective strategy, contesting the racist and colonialist lies that had long formed the public perception of Native people in Canada.

Incident at Restigouche (1984) documents a series of police raids the Quebec government conducted on a Mi'gmaq reserve. The reserve had rejected the government’s attempts to restrict their salmon fishing, an act of cultural and economic importance for the community. Obomsawin interviews the Minister of Fisheries Lucien Lessard, who ordered the raid. At one point, the Minister says, “You cannot ask for sovereignty because to have sovereignty one must have one’s own culture, language, and land.”

“Quebec does not begin with the French Canadians,” Obomsawin retorts, and goes on to describe the hypocrisy of Quebec’s fight for their own sovereignty in the light of its rejection of Native sovereignty. One sees in this moment of confrontation the promise that the medium offered Obomsawin: she could be both participant and documentarian, retaining the vitality and improvisation of performance in her new role as a filmmaker.

I spoke with Obomsawin, now 91 years old, in October. She was in Toronto for the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival, where she presented the Alanis Obomsawin Award for Best Long Format Documentary.

Mother of Many Children (Alanis Obomsawin, 1977).

NOTEBOOK: What was the process of putting together the retrospective?

ALANIS OBOMSAWIN: I just let [curators] Hila Peleg and Richard Hill go through my stuff. I was amazed when I went to Berlin and I saw how big it was. It's like 60 years of my work. And it was so well-displayed. It went to Vancouver, and now it's here [in Toronto]. 

NOTEBOOK: Has that been invigorating?

OBOMSAWIN: It's unbelievable. There are so many things I don't remember. I was so young. Lots of interviews in the ’60s. Before making films, I was singing, mainly with students in the classrooms. I was fighting against the educational system and what they were teaching about our history, which was false, and very much designed to create hate towards our people. They succeeded for many generations. I'm very lucky to live so long and see the difference because now it's incredible.

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel that there has been a difference in the way Indigenous history is taught in Canada?

OBOMSAWIN: Oh, yes. I think everything is possible now, especially for our people who want to lead or want to take on any kind of discipline. The doors are open. It's wonderful for young people. I am very excited about that.

NOTEBOOK: When did it occur to you that film might be a medium for you to pursue?

OBOMSAWIN: I knew nothing about films. I never thought of it. I didn't know it. What happened was I did a campaign to build a swimming pool in my community because our children were not allowed in the [existing] swimming pool. They were saying, “No sauvages.” I thought it would be easy, but it wasn't easy at all. I worked very hard for four years with a lot of our people who helped out and did a lot of singing [in support of the cause]. And then CBC made a film about the campaign I was doing, and it appeared on television. 

[After] that, I was invited to come to the Film Board to be a counselor for a film. And I went, and then I said, “Oh my God, I am never doing this again.” I was scared that— I realized they were using me to [placate] the community. And I thought, “If the people don't like the film, they'll say it's Alanis.” So I said I would never do that again. Then they showed me they had a studio; it was called Multimedia. And everything they were doing there was for [the] classroom. I got so excited. That's when I discovered the power of film.

NOTEBOOK: Mother of Many Children [1977], which compiles stories from Native mothers and women, was your first feature—

OBOMSAWIN: Yeah, the first feature. Since 1967, I [have made] 67. I'm as excited as I was at the beginning. I just find it so sacred. I do interviews with people—just [recording] sound—before starting a film. And I just never get tired of listening to people and their lives.

The thing that was important to me was that the voice of the women be heard, and as many as possible. This is why I took on the idea of starting from the beginning of life [and going] to the end. It was very hard to get money to do that, and nothing came easy. But I'm so glad I did it.

NOTEBOOK: Did you choose documentary over making scripted work because it allowed you to do this listening?

OBOMSAWIN: Oh, yeah. It doesn't compare to fiction in that way. No. I think the voice is sacred. People are sacred.

Incident at Restigouche (Alanis Obomsawin, 1984).

NOTEBOOK: One through line of your work is the assertion of your own voice. I’m thinking of that famous back and forth with the Minister of Fisheries in Incident at Restigouche.

OBOMSAWIN: It's history. I had to say what was happening. I had a very hard time finishing this film, financially. That was really terrible. But I have a hard head.

NOTEBOOK: Was this the National Film Board giving you difficulties?

OBOMSAWIN: I don't even like to say it was the NFB. It was individual people. There was one person who had a lot of power and told me I wasn't allowed to talk to white people, I could only talk to Indians. [That led to] a big fight. Because of those reasons, the film [didn’t] come out until 1984, and the raids [had] happened in 1981.

The Minister couldn’t speak English, and the chief couldn't speak French, so the chief spoke in his language. There was an interpreter. [The Minister] was behaving as if he was so superior to all of us. It was very insulting. The chief said, “We don't understand how come you don't understand our sovereignty. You fight for your [Quebecois] sovereignty, and you don't understand us. We are the people of this land.” [The Minister] answered, “If you want to ask for sovereignty, you have to have your land and your language.” I thought, “What nerve.” That's why he made me so mad.

NOTEBOOK: That often tempestuous relationship between Quebecois and Native people recurs in your work.

OBOMSAWIN: Everything’s changed a lot. It’s slow in Quebec, but it's changing too. There’s much more possibility than before. We are getting respect, which didn't happen for a very long time. The educational system is far better. A lot of the teaching is done by our people. In those days we were punished if we spoke our language; now they're teaching it at all levels. I just feel very, very good about this.

NOTEBOOK: Have you always had that sense of optimism?

OBOMSAWIN: Well, I do have it now like never before, but nothing was for free. We had to really fight for everything. But now there's more understanding, and I know for sure because I travel all the time. I know that Canadians want to see justice [for] our people. Just that alone is very important. 

NOTEBOOK: Your films depict the difficult realities of Indigenous people in Canada, including violence and poverty. You’ve also discussed not wanting to reduce the Native experience to suffering. Can you talk about striking that balance?

OBOMSAWIN: You have to show the reality of what's happening. With Restigouche, it was terrible, but since then a lot of good things have happened. They manage the river now themselves, and they do some commercial fishing. A lot changes that way. They have the power, and they're doing it themselves. [I went back to Restigouche] in Our Nationhood [2003], when they were fighting against the abuse of cutting trees on their land. They've done very well in terms of getting a hold of their own life and everything. They've created extraordinary educational teaching ways in their language.

No matter who I'm making a film with, I'm going to make sure this person knows me and why I'm doing it. I got to know a lot of people on the street for No Address [1988, which deals with unhoused Indigenous people in Montreal], and I just wanted to help out, to make the change, and get people who have the power to understand their stories.

When I did No Address, the mayor and the people in charge of Montreal were saying that they were helping homeless people. They said anyone who came and applied got help. So I proved them wrong in it. One man who went to apply couldn’t because he didn't have an address. This is why I filmed him going to apply. I forced the change by exposing what they were saying and not doing.

After the film, homeless people in Montreal were allowed to use the Friendship Center as an address. They could get the money. But you know, you have to prove [it] to them by showing the reality. That's what film has been able to do.

No Address (Alanis Obomsawin, 1988).

NOTEBOOK: One striking aspect of the retrospective is just how many [forms of] media you have worked in. Can you talk about how etchings and music and poetry interact with your films? 

OBOMSAWIN: It's all part of it. Etching is wonderful in terms of getting through things. You have to make millions of lines in this medium. It takes forever. But when I'm doing it, I'm going through stories concerning what I'm drawing about. And it feels very good.

Music was before I started making film. In Montreal, singing was my way of teaching. Whenever I went to the classroom, I sang many things. It explained traditions, and it also told a lot of the history. So it was very important.

I made a film about this kind of music later called Amisk [1977] [Author’s note: a concert film about the James Bay Festival, which featured Indigenous musicians and was held in solidarity with the James Bay Cree, whose community was being threatened by a planned hydroelectric development]. The musicians came to make the story known of what was happening at James Bay. We were very rich in terms of entertainers and singers and people who write.

NOTEBOOK: You don’t seem to have lost any of your energy.

OBOMSAWIN: Not at all. We’re moving. I was in France. I came home [for] one night, and then I went to New Zealand for seven days. I did Banff, [Alberta,] then Nippasing University [in North Bay, Ontario]. Lots of traveling, it’s nonstop. It’s a mission—to make sure that children have a better place.

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