I met Alanis Obomsawin, an Abenaki from Odanak, a couple of years ago when she was thepresident of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. I used to go to the National Film Board of Canada where she has been working since 1967. I requested her autograph, or more accurately her signature—on my paycheck.
More recently I met with Alanis in her Montreal home to discuss her documentary film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, an NFB production which she wrote, directed and coproduced. Along with numerous other honours, the film was nominated for best documentary film in the recent Canadian Genie Awards.
Alanis Obomsawin is the pioneer film-maker in First Nations film history. She learned different aspects of film making “by doing it.” Alanis has been doing this sort of work in different forms for about 35 years. She has many films including Incident at Restigouche, about the Mikmaq’s struggle to continue their Aboriginal rights to fish salmon in the east, and Richard Cardinal: Cry From a Diary of a Metis Child, about the deplorable treatment of a Metis boy who went through the Canadian child welfare system in the west. This film brought about much-needed social change regarding adoption laws. More recently, Alanis has worked on an anti-racism film called Walker classroom education.
The following is an interview with Alanis Obomsawin conducted during the spring of 1994.
The Nation: Your documentary approach has dispelled Hollywood stereotypes. Kanehsatake also dispelled media stereotypes of the Mohawks. I was wondering if this was an activist strategy of yours? Alanis Obomsawin: Well, I guess a lot of people call me an activist. But for me the main important thing is to have a place for the people to speak for themselves, to be heard directly to the world, and to document the history, to document what’s happening in our times and it’s like cinema verite. For me it’s my passion.
The Nation: How was your film Kanehsatake received? It’s been received very well in Canada in other provinces. In Quebec, there’s been some reactions that were upsetting to some people. There’s lots of people in this province who really are disturbed by the film. They feel they have learned something they certainly didn’t know before and feel that it’s a good film. Some people get very upset because they don’t like to see themselves, I guess. In the rest of Canada it’s been very, very strong, in the same way in the U.S. and in Europe. It’s been a very moving experience, to watch people watch this film.
In the Kanehsatake film there’s the voice of history, the ancestors’ voices, and the historical background footage contextualizes the resistance. In addition, well, to me it seems the Pines and the porcupine are given voice too in the film Is that so? (Laughs) Yes, yes, I’m glad you noticed that. For me the animals are very, very important. So you saw my film, I always have some animals in it. It’s a gard life for the animals.
“…to document what’s happening in our times… For me it’s my passion.”
From a historical perspective what kind of impact did Incident at Restigouche have in the 80’s compared to Kanehsatake in the 90’s? Well, it’s frightening in a way to know that it’s happened again, you know, in a more… (pause) It was like a flashback? Yes, it was for me, it was very upsetting to know that there would be again a raid on a reserve by the provincial police. It’s a very, very difficult thing to deal with. For the same kind of reasons really, it either has to do with the environment, greediness, you know, for land. They’re not very good qualities.
Then again you know the province, the police, then the army on the people, to show with force that they’re right and they’re going to do what they want to do. I think it was the worst mistake the government has made in a long time.
So when they did that it became a much larger issue. It was no longer just the golf course, it was no longer just Oka, it became the issue of the land of the country, and that was another shock to the people who gave the orders.
So now they had to face the consequences because the consequences are that there’s no turning back. It’s a turning point and every community has changed. It has changed their way of thinking in their lives. Because it’s been going on for so many generations and this is a different time now. It’s a generation that is getting educated, it’s a generation that is not going to believe all the lies like our grandparents did. So it’s a different time, and the rest of the country has to realize that and face it.
In the film, Ronald Cross said if anything came of that it was that “it brought all Indian Nations together in this fight. So in a way our battle is won.”
It’s very true.
The Nation: What was your experience as a Native woman behind the lines? Well, it was hell, lit was very, very hard, very difficult for so many different reasons. It was hard for many different reasons but what kept me there was to watch the strength, the courage of those people who made the stand and their generosity.
For me, that’s two things that were so important. All the rest it mattered, but not as much as this and for those feelings I never had any question in my mind that I had to do this. It was a historical event and I had to tell the story, I had to help them tell their story, because I knew, I could see there was not a lot of press people there, not at all times. But I knew that just in watching the news every day, that had it been left at that a lot of people would never know what it was really like in there and what really happened, because the only way to know is if you were there.
If you weren’t there, you didn’t know what was happening, and I mean behind the razor wire. So I’m very happy I did it, but it was very hard, terrible conditions to work in, sleeping outside on garbage bags and at night it was cold. Didn’t have very much clothes and it was awful constantly worrying I would get shot at. Are they going to gas us? Who are they going to take out? You know, when they beat up on one of the Warriors you wondered is that the way they’re going to drag them out.
It was very scary especially at night because it was pitch dark. There was no lights at all, you had a flashlight if you were lucky and that’s all. So every noise, every move, you know, you watch and you had to always be alert. So I didn’t sleep very much, you know you’d sleep half an hour and there would be a yell and right away I was on my feet, slept with my boots and all my clothes that I had to be warm and that’s the way it was.
Now do you have a film in progress? Yes, I am working on a series of short films with the material that I have from there. So I’m making a short film with different people.
The Nation: Is there anything else you would like to say in this interview? I don’t know, I think what I might like to say is that I find that the most difficult thing was after it was over, you could feel very strongly in Quebec—and it’s transpired in the rest of the country—an awful lot more racism and for me it’s like a scale. Lots of racism but at the same time also lots more friends. Another side of the scale is that a lot more people would like to see justice done to these questions about the people of the country, people of First Nations. They’d like to see once and for all the governments to sit down and really negotiate with the people.
You hear a lot of leaders say the attitude of the government has slightly changed towards them. Obviously, the government doesn’t want to see another type of thing like that again.
So perhaps they take the people more seriously. Maybe, a little bit more respectful, I don’t know, this is the feeling I got from some leaders, and you know, the province of Quebec is so different than the rest of the country. Not to say there’s less racism elsewhere, there is, there’s much. But here it’s quite a different story and it was a shock for the French Canadian people here to have such a happening and hearing the word sovereignty from us as if the Indians just began to talk about sovereignty. It’s very difficult not knowing our history for French Canadian people to understand this or to know this, and what it all means. So it’s a much more complicated situation and the public is often only educated by the journalists who are not always honest or fair.
Well, they distort.
They distort and they tell stories that are not always true. Not to say that we don’t have faults. Sure we do, but history is history and up until now everything in history, in general, has been told—the beginning of it is when the white man arrived, and it’s not like that at all.
So it’s difficult and I understand that, it’s difficult for people of the French world here to cope with all this, so much of it you know, they cope with it by making it all bad, that Indians are bad and so it’s like going backwards to the time when the white man came here and thought we were children and inferior and treated us like that. They even made laws that said that, so it’s like going back to that kind of world you know partly.
So we have to wait and see. Meanwhile, we all have hard jobs to do—it means educating in every aspect of the way to all people and you can either do that or put yourself in a box and say I’m not going to deal with anybody. But that’s not realistic, you have to face what’s there.
It’s a different world and it’s not all bad you know. There are many good things in this world too. So we have to balance it out and do what we can to try and come back to cooperation between people and Nations, that’s what we have to think about. I don’t like to see anybody hurt no matter who they are. I don’t like to see children having hardship or being taught to hate. I don’t like that whether it’s our side or anybody’s side, I don’t agree with that. So those are the jobs we have to do.