Alanis Obomsawin

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Alanis Obomsawin, OC (born August 31, 1932) is a Canadian filmmaker of Abenaki descent. Born in New Hampshire, and raised primarily in Quebec, she has produced and directed many National Film Board of Canada documentaries on First Nations culture and history. Her best known documentary is Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, about the 1990 siege at Oka, Quebec.[1]

Film career[edit]

Obomsawin directed her first documentary for the NFB, Christmas at Moose Factory, in 1971. To date, she has made over 40 documentaries on issues affecting Aboriginal people in Canada.[2]

Her latest film is the 2014 documentary Trick or Treaty?, the first film by an indigenous filmmaker to screen in the Masters programme at the Toronto International Film Festival.[2] Obomsawin began conceptualizing the film in 2010 when she was invited by Stan Louttit, Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, to film a conference the band was hosting about Treaty No. 9.[3]

Obomsawin's 2013 documentary Hi-Ho Mistahey!, about a teen First Nations education activist, premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.[4]

Her 2012 documentary The People of the Kattawapiskak River on the Attawapiskat housing crisis was conceived when Obomsawin was present in the community in 2011, working on another film for the NFB.[5]

In 2010, she completed a short drama When All the Leaves are Gone, about her experiences attending public school in Quebec.[6]

In 2009, she completed the documentary Professor Norman Cornett: "Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer? looking at the dismissal of unorthodox McGill University religious studies lecturer Norman Cornett, which will have its world premiere at the Hot Docs film festival.[7][8]

Obomsawin's recent credits include Gene Boy Came Home, about Aboriginal Vietnam War veteran Eugene Benedict.[9] In 2006, she completed WABAN-AKI: People from Where the Sun Rises a look at the people and stories from her home reserve of Odanak. In 2005, Ms Obomsawin completed her short drama Sigwan, following 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 First Nation to use and manage the natural resources of their traditional lands.[10] The Mi’gmaq of Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church), New Brunswick were the subject of her 2002 documentary, Is the Crown at war with us?, exploring a conflict over fishing rights.[11]

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’s films also 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, No Address (1988), a look at Montreal’s homeless, as well as Mother of Many Children (1977).

Obomsawin first came to the attention of the NFB in mid 1960s, when she had held fundraising concerts to pay for the construction of a swimming pool in Odanak. Children in her community were no longer able to swim in the Saint Francis River, but were not allowed to use a pool in a neighbouring community, which was for white residents only. Obomsawin's success in raising funds for a construction of a pool for Odanak children was the subject of a half-hour program CBC-TV, which was seen by NFB producers Joe Koenig and Bob Verrall.[12]

"It was from there the National Film Board (NFB) saw it and I was invited by some producers to talk to some of the filmmakers there," said Obomsawin. "I discovered that they had a studio that only catered to [the] classroom, with educational film strips."

They invited the singer/storyteller to the Film Board to work as an advisor on a film about Aboriginal people. She went on to direct films of her own, while continuing to perform and fight for justice for her people.

Family history[edit]

Obomsawin was born in New Hampshire on Abenaki Territory. When she was six months old, her mother returned to the Odanak reserve north east of Montreal where she lived until she was 9. Théophile Panadis, her mother’s cousin, initiated her 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. She has one child, daughter Kisos Obomsawin, born in 1969.

Non-film work[edit]

In 1960, Obomsawin made her professional debut as a singer-songwriter in New York City. As a performer Obomsawin has toured Canada, the United States and Europe performing for humanitarian causes in universities, museums, prisons and art centres, as well as at folk art festivals. She also managed her own stage at the Mariposa Folk Festival in the 1960s.[13] Her 1988 album Bush Lady featured traditional songs of the Abenaki people, as well as original compositions.

For over 25 years, Obomsawin has worked as an engraver and printmaker, 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. She is currently preparing an upcoming exhibition of her work at the Maison Lacombe in Quebec for 2007.

Awards and honors[edit]

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 2010, she was named to the Playback Canadian Film & Television Hall of Fame.[6] In the spring of 2009, Obomsawin was honoured with a special retrospective at Hot Docs and received the festival's Hot Docs Outstanding Achievement Award.[14] A retrospective her work was also held from May 14 to 26, 2008 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.[15] That same month, she was honoured with the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Canada's highest honour in the performing arts, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.[16][17][18]

In March 2001, Obomsawin received a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.[19] 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, International Documentary Association’s Pioneer Award,[20] 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.

Obomsawin also received a fellowship from the Ontario College of Art, an honorary doctor of letters from York University, an honorary doctor of laws from Concordia University (Montreal), an honorary doctor of literature from Carleton University, and most recently in October 2007 an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Western Ontario. 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, Obomsawin is also a member of the board for Vermont Public Television and National Geographic International.

In 2013, her film Hi-Ho Mistahey! was named first runner-up for the People's Choice Award in the documentary category at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.[21]

Partial filmography[edit]

  • 1986 - Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child - Director/Writer
  • 1993 - Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 1995 - My Name is Kahentiiosta - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 1997 - Spudwrench – Kahnawake Man - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 2000 - Rocks at Whiskey Trench - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 2002 - Is the Crown At War With Us? - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 2003 - For John (dir. Dale Montour) - Producer
  • 2003 - Our Nationhood - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 2005 - Sigwan - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 2006 - Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 2007 - Gene Boy Came Home - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 2012 - People of the Kattawapiskak River - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 2013 - Hi-Ho Mistahey! - Director/Writer/Producer
  • 2014 - Trick or Treaty? - Director/Writer/Producer

Secondary literature[edit]


  1. ^ National Film Board (1993). "Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance". Archived from the original on April 30, 2011. Retrieved May 23, 2011 
  2. ^ a b Walker, Connie (6 August 2014). "Alanis Obomsawin's Trick or Treaty? to screen at TIFF 2014". CBC News (Toronto). Retrieved 6 August 2014. 
  3. ^ "Alanis Obomsawin brings "Trick or Treaty" to Studio Q". CBC Player. 2014-12-17. Retrieved 2015-12-04. 
  4. ^ "Toronto film fest unveils docs, horror and Athens lineup additions". CBC News. 20 July 2013. Retrieved 17 August 2013. 
  5. ^ Dunlevy, T'cha (9 November 2012). "The People of the Kattawapiskak River examines a community on the edge". Montreal Gazette (Postmedia Network Inc.). Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  6. ^ a b Bailey, Patricia. "Hall of Fame 2010: Alanis Obomsawin". Playback. Brunico Communications. Archived from the original on November 28, 2010. Retrieved November 18, 2010. 
  7. ^ "Professor Norman Cornett: "Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?"". NFB Collections page. Retrieved March 30, 2009. 
  8. ^ "Notable NFB Presence at Hot Docs 2009". NFB press release. March 24, 2009. Retrieved March 30, 2009. 
  9. ^ NFB collections page
  10. ^ NFB collections page
  11. ^ NFB collections page
  12. ^ Taylor, Jillian (14 February 2015). "Alanis Obomsawin passes knowledge to aspiring filmmakers". CBC News. Retrieved 20 February 2015. 
  13. ^ Robb, Peter (19 February 2015). "Alanis Obomsawin: The power of art revealed in film". Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved 20 February 2015. 
  14. ^ "Alanis Obamsawin at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival". CBC Aboriginal. 2009-04-15. Retrieved 2015-10-26. 
  15. ^ "MoMA PRESENTS MAJOR EXHIBITION OF THE FILMS OF CANADIAN FILMMAKER ALANIS OBOMSAWIN" (PDF). News release (Museum of Modern Art). April 18, 2008. Retrieved May 20, 2009. 
  16. ^ "Alanis Obomsawin biography". Governor General's Performing Arts Awards Foundation. Retrieved 10 February 2015. 
  17. ^ "Hot Docs film fest boasts strongest lineup ever after record submissions". CBC News. March 24, 2009. Archived from the original on March 27, 2009. Retrieved April 16, 2009. 
  18. ^ "GOVERNOR GENERAL’S PERFORMING ARTS AWARDS" (PDF). News release (Rideau Hall). March 12, 2008. Retrieved May 20, 2009. 
  19. ^ "2001 Winners". Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts. Retrieved 25 March 2015. 
  20. ^ McNary, Dave (November 7, 2004). "Org to fete doc pioneer". Variety (Reed Elsevier Inc.). Retrieved May 20, 2009. 
  21. ^ "TIFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave wins film fest’s top prize". Toronto Star, September 15, 2013.

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