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Canada’s Documentary Essentials: ‘The Ballad of Crowfoot’

Dir. Willie Dunn, 1968

Courtesy NFB


Arguably the first Canadian music video, The Ballad of Crowfoot sees Mi’kmaq singersongwriter Willie Dunn setting his own epic protest ballad to visuals. In Dunn’s song, the biography of legendary 19th-century Blackfoot chief Crowfoot provides a vantage point to look at the tribulations of the Indigenous peoples of North America: land stolen, buffalo killed, whiskey, war, disease, religious conversion, cultural appropriation. The film buttresses the song’s rage with striking archival images, assembled by the NFB’s Indian Film Unit, of an increasingly devastated society and landscape.

The film reaches a crescendo in its final moments. The last verse has Dunn bridging past and present, singing, “There’s still the hypocrisy, / and still the hate,” in 1967, when the film was made. As his voice goes silent, the visuals pick up the lexical mantle in a stunning montage of treaties and contemporary news articles, which ends with an iconic shot of Crowfoot that turns out to be from a Christmas card. Yet for all its anger, The Ballad of Crowfoot is not cynical; though it is historically minded, this Challenge For Change film is resolutely forward-looking:

Crowfoot, Crowfoot,
Why the tears?
You’ve been a brave man
for many years.

Why the sadness?
Why the sorrow?
Maybe there’ll be
a better tomorrow.

Read more POV picks for Canada’s Documentary Essentials!

Watch The Ballad of Crowfoot below:

The Ballad of Crowfoot, Willie Dunn, provided by the National Film Board of Canada