Duke Redbird

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Duke Redbird
Born 1939
Saugeen First Nation, Ontario
Nationality Canadian
Occupation poet, journalist, academic, actor
Years active 1960s-present
Notable work I Am Canadian, Loveshine and Red Wine, We Are Métis
Children Jay Bell Redbird

Duke Redbird (born 1939) is an Aboriginal Canadian poet, journalist, activist, businessman, actor and administrator, best known as a key figure in the development of First Nations literature in Canada.[1]

An Ojibwe from the Saugeen First Nation in Southwestern Ontario,[2] he became a ward of the Children's Aid Society at nine months of age after his mother died in a house fire.[3] Raised predominantly by Caucasian foster families, he began writing as a way to deal with the anti-aboriginal racism he faced in schools.[3]

Early career[edit]

In the mid-1960s, he began performing as a spoken word artist on folk festival, coffeehouse and theatre tours across Canada,[2] was editor of a native newspaper called The Thunderbird,[4] and was an active organizer of protests and a speaker on native rights issues.[5]

In this era, he was also the neighbour of Joni Mitchell during her early career on Toronto's Yorkville coffeehouse scene,[4] and had his first acting role in an episode of Adventures in Rainbow Country.

Marty Dunn published a biography of Redbird, Red on White, in 1971.[5]


His published poetry collections include I Am Canadian (1978) and Loveshine and Red Wine (1981).[2] He has also written commissioned work for various public events in Canada, including Expo 67 and the official opening of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.[6] A musical theatre project based on his poetry was performed for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh during the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 1977,[2] and Redbird represented Canada at the Valmiki World Poetry Festival in Delhi, India in 1985.[2]

He collaborated with musician Winston Wuttunee in the 1970s, including a joint appearance at the Mariposa Folk Festival and the album See the Arrow.

Two CDs of his spoken word work, Duke Redbird the Poet (1994) and In Other Words (1999) have been released.[3] In 1999, aboriginal rapper TKO invited Redbird to collaborate on his next album, asserting that "Duke Redbird is the old master of the spoken word and I'm the new master."[3]

"Silver River", a song Redbird recorded in 1975 in collaboration with musician Shingoose, appears on the 2014 compilation album Native North America, Vol. 1.[7] The song originally appeared on Shingoose's four-song EP Native Country.[8]

With Bonnie Devine and Robert Houle, he also cowrote The Drawings and Paintings of Daphne Odjig: A Retrospective Exhibition, the guidebook to the National Gallery of Art's 2009 retrospective exhibition of artist Daphne Odjig.


In the 1970s, Redbird served as a vice-president of the Native Council of Canada.[2] After obtaining a master's degree in political science from York University, his academic thesis We Are Metis was published in 1980.[9] He subsequently served as president of the Ontario Métis and Non-Status Indian Association.[2]

Media work[edit]

He worked in television and film in the 1990s. He wrote the teleplay Four Directions: A Canoe for the Making for CBC Television,[10] was an associate producer on the feature film Dance Me Outside,[2] produced a multimedia documentary on aboriginal art for the National Film Board,[3] and worked as an entertainment and aboriginal issues reporter and news producer for Citytv.[11]

He also took several acting roles in this era, appearing in the films The Shaman's Source and Casino Jack, and episodes of Wonderfalls and Relic Hunter.


Also in the 1990s he was co-owner of a downtown Toronto pub, the Coloured Stone,[11] and played a pivotal role in reuniting Mitchell with Kilauren Gibb, the daughter she had given up for adoption in the 1960s.[11] He also launched Native Blend Coffee, a line of fair trade coffee, in 1999.[3] In 2000, he opened a restaurant, Eureka Continuum, to specialize in aboriginal cuisine.[12]

In this era, he described to the Toronto Star the ways in which his philosophy of activism had shifted: "I'm still a kind of activist, but it's on a different level. Now, I'm an elder, a wisdom-keeper, a sharer. I try to help people from community - aboriginal, indigenous people who may be Metis, First Nations or Inuit - who are assembling strategies to accomplish their goals. Wisdom is choosing the right goal. It's my job to ask: Is it wise?"[12]

Academic work[edit]

After leaving Citytv in 2009, Redbird joined OCAD University as a mentor and advisor in the institution's indigenous visual culture program. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the institution in 2013.


  1. ^ Literary History in English at The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Jeannette Armstrong and Lally Grauer, Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology. Broadview Press, 2001. ISBN 978-1551112008. p. 41.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "An unbending spirit: The creative journey is far from over for the artist, poet, and former politico, Duke Redbird". National Post, April 10, 1999.
  4. ^ a b "Joni: `Dirt poor,' 20 and pregnant Excerpts from a new book reveal details of Joni Mitchell's life in '60s Toronto". Toronto Star, April 7, 1997.
  5. ^ a b "Shaman of the global village". The Globe and Mail, September 12, 1981.
  6. ^ "Pre-opening gala planned for Museum of Civilization". The Globe and Mail, June 22, 1989.
  7. ^ "Forgotten Native American musicians: 'We could have been the next Nirvana'". The Guardian, December 4, 2014.
  8. ^ "Native Country: Record launches Indian artistic project". Ottawa Journal, January 23, 1976.
  9. ^ Ethnic Literature at The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  10. ^ "Writer urges CBC to let natives tell their own stories". Toronto Star, November 20, 1993.
  11. ^ a b c "Joni Mitchell's Secret". Maclean's, April 21, 1997.
  12. ^ a b "Restaurant celebrates home and native food". Toronto Star, June 28, 2000.

External links[edit]