Not Yet Past

Alanis Obomsawin explores the living history of her people in Waban-Aki

25 mins read

In Alanis Obomsawin’s deceptively simple first film, 1971’s Christmas at Moose Factory, children’s drawings of the holidays are explained and given context by the disembodied voices of the artists themselves, whose faces fade in at the conclusion. In the most recent offering from her now 35-year career with the NFB, the heartfelt tribute and cautionary tale Waban-aki: People From Where the Sun Rises, Obomsawin devotes a great deal of screen time to modern-day basket makers, artists, and canoe builders, who explain the history and tradition of their craft as they practice it. If one wishes to locate a deeper stratum of meaning below Obomsawin’s forthright and impassioned sense of social commitment and social justice, it might well reside in this emphasis on the tangibility of Canada’s Native peoples, the material traces of their past and the immediacy of their present. It is that cultural reality, as Obomsawin so unforgettably depicts, that the Canadian government has worked hard (and expensively) to efface.

Those seeking redress for marginalized groups often speak of giving a voice to those who have heretofore been denied one, a concept that is frequently tied to some notion of “authenticity”—a well-meaning program that can have the unfortunate effect of promoting exclusivity and insularity, separating those groups from the social body all the more. If Obomsawin, and some of her protagonists, occasionally use this kind of language, she also makes clear that that voice can be shared, that the Native cause is an intrinsic part of a general pursuit. “Ultimately, what we’re talking about here is social justice,” says a white lawyer aiding the Mi’kmaq fishermen of Burnt Church, New Brunswick in Is the Crown at War With Us? (2002), “rights are steps along the way.”

But Native rights and First Nations’ peoples are not, of course, subsumed by abstract principles. It is their very distinctiveness, along with an intimate knowledge of a tribal past and clear-eyed appraisal of a politically oriented present, which allows so many of Obomsawin’s unfailingly eloquent speakers—from tribal leaders and fiery public speakers to workers and fishermen to wives, mothers, and children—to articulate those principles with the weight of emotion and experience. The insulting and onerous legal obstacles that the government so frequently places in the path of Native peoples—“demanding that they prove foot by foot, bush by bush, that this land originally belonged to them”—is the antagonistic flip-side of a reality these people know all too well: that for their voices to have any resonance, culturally or legally, it must be grounded in the material, in the land they live on and the work they do. Like many a tool of oppression, objectification is a two-way street: the tactics that have been used over the centuries to divest Native peoples of humanity, responsibility, and thought can be turned on its head, and they can demonstrate, with objects of their own making, their capability for cultural longevity and political and economic self-government.

This struggle over objectification has been Obomsawin’s, on a personal and artistic level as much as a cultural one. Her life and career have been marked by frequent battles against her own appropriation as Native, entertainer, filmmaker and woman. Each of these public roles has intersected with and helped to shape the others throughout Obomsawin’s professional life. The constraints and assumptions foisted upon all of them have surely helped to forge her political and aesthetic convictions.

The true difficulty of Obomsawin’s position is that those constraints and assumptions can function within official support as much as official resistance; no less than condemnation, celebration can exert its own limitations upon what a filmmaker can say and do. Even as Obomsawin was rising to fame as a singer of traditional songs in the 1960s, the political and cultural motives embedded in her art were surpassed in the public mind by her exoticness and beauty, a docile role which she quickly rejected by her outspoken support of Native rights. When she was brought on, with much fanfare, to the NFB in 1967 as the first Native—and a woman, at that—to their creative team, even the effusive praise accorded her by that grey eminence John Grierson couldn’t shake an aura of glorified tokenism. It was only after four years of working in an advisory status that Obomsawin was finally able to make Moose Factory in 1971.

Obomsawin’s struggles with the bureaucratism and timidity of the NFB as she moved into more contentious territory with such films as Mother of Many Children (1977), concerning the daily challenges and traditional perseverance of Native women across Canada, and Incident at Restigouche (1984), the first of her explicitly political films detailing present-day government repression of Native communities, are well-known and part of her legend. It’s no rebuke to Obomsawin to say that this history hardly needs to be recounted once again—in person, still lovely and elegant, she modestly avers that her past troubles are definitively past.

On the other hand, the relative comfort and unabashed canonization she now enjoys runs its own risks of objectification. The countless awards including the Order of Canada, the universal acclaim for her seminal film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), her role as lauded elder stateswoman and spiritual figurehead of an emerging generation of aboriginal filmmakers and the publication this year of the first academic study of her work, Randolph Lewis’ Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker (a fine and sympathetic account marred by some truly unfortunate factual errors), have effectively secured her legacy. If the battles of Canada’s Native peoples are far from over, there is a tendency to regard Obomsawin’s involvement in them in something of a retrospective light, particularly as the most overtly dramatic era of her career appears to be past—in terms of public awareness, at least.

The confluence of political crisis, heightened public profile and Obomsawin’s own dogged courage in the Oka standoff, resulted in a new era of Native activism and a necessarily expanded discourse on Native rights. Obomsawin’s quartet of films, Kanehsatake, My Name is Kahentiiosta [1995], Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man [1997] and Rocks at Whiskey Trench [2000]) are the happiest of coincidences, caused when an artist is allowed to seize the proper historic moment to exemplify her case. And while Obomsawin has certainly not been content to rest upon her ’90s laurels and allow her audience to forget about ongoing governmental repression of Native communities—as witness her two excellent films from early in this decade, Is the Crown at War With Us? and Our Nationhood (2003) —the dramatic heights of her work from a decade and a half ago are admittedly hard to ‘top,’ if one believes that the staunch pursuit of social justice through film is still bound to the dictates of entertainment.

Obomsawin herself, however, encourages the dispelling of this glamorous aura around herself and her work, lately moving away from the dramatic subject matter of her best- known films, even though it causes her considerable inner conflict. “I still get calls from people all over Canada and the US telling me about the troubles they’re facing and asking me to come see them, and it hurts me to have to say no, because I would like to help everybody,” she says. “And I know they come to me because for a long time, I was the only one doing this work. But now, there are new filmmakers, younger filmmakers, who are going out and talking about these issues, making people aware of them. And I think it’s their turn now. As for me, I’d like to go back and do things I’ve always meant to do, but didn’t have the time to before.”

Waban-aki, clearly shows the direction which Obomsawin wants to pursue. If its gently nostalgic tone and rather diffuse narrative are not as inherently gripping as the Oka films or the more recent Crown and Our Nationhood, it nevertheless emphasizes once more the urgency of the crisis facing today’s Native peoples, as well as being perhaps the most “personal” of all of Obomsawin’s films, in the most obviously autobiographical sense. The first film she has made about her own people, Waban-aki also provides a fascinating dialogue with Obomsawin’s previous films in regards to her own role within them. Her public profile as an entertainer, and the inevitably gendered and racialized light in which it was cast, undoubtedly affected the ways in which she has managed her own presence within her films—which most often manifests itself in her physical absence. Her onscreen appearances are infrequent and usually in passing: her questioning voice is occasionally heard prompting interviewees; she is briefly visible behind the barricades in Kanehsatake in the company of other journalists experiencing the same frustration at having their film confiscated by the surrounding army, and later gives a bitter off-screen laugh when a soldier offers to “borrow” her camera in order to shoot footage in a restricted area.

Certainly Obomsawin’s most powerful and memorable onscreen moment is in Incident at Restigouche, where she verbally lambastes the conceited provincial minister of fisheries, Louis Lessard, who had ordered police action against local Mi’kmaq fishermen on the Quebec-New Brunswick border. “Are you telling me Montreal belongs to you?” he asks in disbelief. “Of course! All Canada belongs to us!” Obomsawin hotly replies, “but we always shared, and you took, took, took. Instead of being proud of us you spoke about ‘your’ Canada!” But even such explicit pronouncements are used as a means to further dialogue rather than end the discussion. Adopting a posture of stern attentiveness, Obomsawin allows the shaken Lessard to continue talking as he tries to justify his position.

It is this generosity towards her subjects, all her subjects, which truly distinguishes Obomsawin’s method. Even if her own authority as filmmaker is never in doubt—her distinctive voice coming in to make narrative links, explain context, and delve into history—Obomsawin to a great extent gives the film over to her subjects. In allowing them to speak at great length, to explain their own views and find the words to express their experiences, Obomsawin’s films create a de facto public forum—with, however, the kind of moral clarity that official “public” forums (such as the majority of the mainstream news media) tend to obfuscate. Hers is a determinedly democratic mode of filmmaking, where charismatic individuality, whether her own or those of her speakers, is only another element in a common dialogue.

It is thus quite pleasurable to see the filmmaker herself briefly move to the forefront in Waban-aki; indeed, the film begins with a black-and-white image of the young singer, eyes closed, singing about Odanak, the Quebec reserve on which she grew up. Later, as she speaks with an old woman about the long grass used to make baskets, Obomsawin lapses into personal remembrance, speaking from behind the camera of the scent of the grass in summer, her memory accompanied by footage of the young Alanis smiling in a wind-blown field. Waban-aki is filled with such tangible memories, sensations of touch, taste and smell: the baskets which women young and old weave with their dexterous fingers, the scent of leather from the ceremonial costumes, the small horse droppings used as hockey pucks. These memories are brought most fully into the present by a young man named Aaron York, who undertakes the repair of an old and damaged traditional canoe throughout the course of the film, methodically taking it apart to study its intricate construction. “I learn so much when I’m doing these things,” he enthuses. “It’s like having the builder here with me.” York’s odyssey with the canoe could be construed as a metaphor if it weren’t simply a fact: the material culture of a people binds the present to the past, knowledge and values passed down to future generations through traditional craftsmanship.

If Obomsawin’s filmmaking is most often straightforward and workmanlike, it’s only so that these histories can speak the clearer. “Personal” impositions from Obomsawin—or needlessly elaborate readings from critical enthusiasts—would only confound the message she wants to convey; simple and lived truths would be reduced, as they so often are, to platitudinous pieties, and vice versa. In his book, Lewis quite rightly rebukes Laura Marks’ rhapsodizing about the “authentic” Native voices on display in Kanehsatake, whose claim to their land “cannot be expressed in the terms of legalistic, territorial discourse.” Lewis then points out that “Mohawks have used the courts, political action, civil disobedience, and occasional violence for 270 years of resistance, as the title of the film suggests.”

This is one of Obomsawin’s chief aims: to bring Canada’s Native communities into the classical arena of political struggle. The language of the Mohawks of Kanehsatake and Kahnawake or the Mi’kmaq of Burnt Church and Restigouche or the Abenaki of Odanak may be “mythic and sentimental,” as Lewis acknowledges, but it is also strategic and political—and neither dimension negates the other. Where Marks’ brand of discourse celebrates the irreconcilable, Obomsawin is forever insisting upon the absolute necessity of dialogue between opposing positions, a facilitation which by no means subjugates the distinctiveness of Native culture in order to introduce it to the mainstream of thought and debate. Rather, it illuminates the utter centrality of these marginalized peoples to the social, economic and industrial functioning of the continent.

This comes across most pointedly in one of Obomsawin’s very best films, the Oka coda piece Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man. Nominally detailing the experience of Randy Horne, a Mohawk warrior who was brutally beaten by four members of the Canadian Forces during the Oka standoff, the film expands to encompass both Horne’s community in Kahnawake and the occupational community of which he is a part: the large contingent of aboriginal steelworkers who have plied their trade all over the continent throughout the 20th century. Interviewing Kahnawake residents who have worked on some of the largest bridges and skyscrapers in North America, Obomsawin illuminates the enormous contribution of “traditional” people to our “modern” way of life—and it allows her to score a delicious polemical point in Rocks at Whiskey Trench, when an obese and obnoxious Quebecer objects to the Mohawk occupation of the Mercier Bridge during the Oka crisis (“They didn’t build that bridge, the Quebecois did,” he protests—and is quickly refuted).

Tradition in Obomsawin’s films is never a regression to an illusory “simpler” way of life, but rather a wholly viable means of living in the modern world, and indeed improving upon it. Our Nationhood, her chronicle of the Listuguj (formerly Restigouche) Mi’kmaq’s 1998 stand to reclaim the logging and fishing rights to their traditional lands, devotes its second half to the community’s fortunes after the securing of limited concessions from the government. This is, of course, not a complete triumph for the Mi’kmaq, which Obomsawin makes clear by including much footage of open (and sometimes angry) debate after the negotiating team returns to the community with the agreement. But as the film sympathetically demonstrates, it is by means of these incremental gains that pride, prosperity and independence can be restored to the community. Three years after the protest, Obomsawin returns to Listuguj to observe its new life: an environmentally sustainable plan for logging and forest development, a small- scale commercial fishing fleet which allows a timeframe for spawning rather than fishing the river dry, a fleet trainee program, and the channeling of profits to home repair, local education, job creation and community development.

Though Our Nationhood, largely comprised of handheld video footage, is perhaps not one of Obomsawin’s most “polished” films, it is here that the invocations of ancestor worship and cultural tradition most powerfully transcend platitude. While its inhabitants caution that they still have a long way to go, in Obomsawin’s hands this community incarnates a vital, genuinely democratic ideal in a time where such words are usually an alibi for rapacious self-interest. The alternative model of development floated by this Mi’kmaq community is not simply a niche victory. Against the omnipresent spectre of the globalized economy, Listuguj provides an emulative model of communal and regional self- management—the crowning irony (pun intended) being the community’s award for Best Managed River from the very government that had denied them their traditional rights for so long.

Such gestures, of course, do little to efface the long memory of oppression visited upon the Mi’kmaq. In 2001, the community stages a march to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the raid chronicled in Incident at Restigouche, and Obomsawin reunites with some of her subjects from her earlier film. In one evocative moment, she dissolves from her 1981 interview with a teenage fisherman at the riverside to the now greying man standing in the exact same location. Faulkner’s well-known dictum could serve as the theme for all of Obomsawin’s films: for Canada’s Native peoples, in both victory and defeat, the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.

This is not an assurance, however, but a fragile link that needs to be maintained, and one that is threatened by life’s joys as much as its evils. In one of the most affecting moments in Waban-aki, an Odanak resident states that “When our people fall in love, they kill themselves a little—not personally, because when you fall in love you grow as a person. But as a nation, as a culture, we are dying.” He hopes that his young daughters will meet and marry Abenaki men, but is sadly cognizant of the likelihood that they, like so many other young women and men, will leave their community to find their lives and loves, and gradually forget the precariously maintained world from which they came.

It is likely for this reason that Obomsawin has placed such an emphasis upon children and their education in her films—and indeed, she now hopes to return to making children’s films, a course she began with Christmas at Moose Factory over three decades ago. After an artistic lifetime spent educating those of us who should have known of these things long ago, Obomsawin now wishes to return to the most important link in the chain and help provide them with the material they need to maintain it.

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