Alanis Obomsawin

Alanis Obomsawin, CC GOQ (born August 31, 1932) is an American Canadian Abenaki filmmaker, singer, artist and activist primarily known for her documentary films.[1] Born in New Hampshire, United States and raised primarily in Quebec, Canada, she has written and directed many National Film Board of Canada documentaries on First Nations issues.

Alanis Obomsawin
BornAugust 31, 1932  (age 87)

Obomsawin's described "the basic purpose [of my films] is for our people to have a voice[...] no matter what we're talking about whether it has to do with having our existence recognised, or whether it has to do with speaking about our values, our survival, our beliefs, that we belong to something beautiful, that it's O.K. to be an Indian, to be a native person in this country."[2] Her best known documentary is Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, about the 1990 Oka Crisis, Quebec.[3]

Early life

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 7. During this period she lived with her mother's sister Jesse Benedict and her husband Levi who had six children of their own.[4] 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.

After moving to Montreal in the late 1950s, having learned English during a two-year stay in Florida, she performed as a singer and a storyteller, making appearances on reservations, in prisons and schools, and at music festivals.[2] She has one child, Kisos Obomsawin, born in 1969.

Film career

Obomsawin directed her first documentary for the NFB, Christmas at Moose Factory, in 1971.[5] As of August 2017, she has directed 50 films with the NFB, with her documentary film Our People Will Be Healed, about the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre in Norway House Cree Nation, premiering in the Masters programme of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.[6][7][8]

Her previous film was the 2016 documentary We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice, exploring a human rights complaint filed against the Canadian government over discrimination against First Nation children, which had its world premiere on September 13 at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.[9][10]

Obomsawin's 2014 documentary Trick or Treaty? was the first film by an indigenous filmmaker to screen in the Masters programme at the Toronto International Film Festival.[5] 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.[11]

Obomsawin's 2013 documentary Hi-Ho Mistahey!, about Shannen Koostachin, a First Nations education activist, premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.[12]

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.[13]

In 2010, she completed a short drama When All the Leaves are Gone, about her experiences attending public school in Quebec.[14]

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.[15][16]

Obomsawin's recent credits include Gene Boy Came Home, about Aboriginal Vietnam War veteran Eugene Benedict.[17] 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.[18] 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 with the Department of Fisheries and non-native fishers over fishing rights.[19]

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 the mid-1960s, when she 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 interviewed about it by the CBC-TV's Telescope series, which was seen by NFB producers Joe Koenig and Bob Verrall.[20][21]

"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.

Obomsawin is a member of Film Fatales independent women filmmakers.

Non-film work

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.[22] Her 1988 album Bush Lady featured traditional songs of the Abenaki people, as well as original compositions. Originally released on her own private press, it was remastered and re-released in 2018 by Constellation Records.[23]

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. Her work was exhibited at the Maison Lacombe in Quebec in 2007.[24]

Personal awards and honors

Year Award Name Film Name
2006 Best Documentary - Long Format (Alanis Obomsawin Award), imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival Waban-aki: People from Where the Sun Rises
2019 Best Canadian Documentary Award, Vancouver International Film Festival Jordan River Anderson, the Messenger

At the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival, Obomsawin received the $15,000 Best Canadian Documentary Award, for Jordan River Anderson, the Messenger.[25]

In May 2017 Obomsawin received an honorary doctorate from McGill University's School of Continuing Studies.[26] That same month, she was named a Commander in the newly created Order of Montreal, recognizing individuals who have contributed to the development of Montreal.[27] In March 2017, she received the inaugural Prix Origine at Montreal's Bâtisseuses de la Cité Awards, for her work on Indigenous issues.[28]

In November 2016, she received the Clyde Gilmour Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association, which called Obomsawin "a significant architect of Canadian cinema and culture."[29] Also in 2016, she received two of Quebec's highest honours when she received the prix Albert-Tessier for contributions to the cinema of Quebec in November,[30] and was named a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec, in June of that year.[31]

In October 2015, she received a lifetime achievement award from Chile's Valdivia International Film Festival.[32] In February 2015, the Montreal-based arts peace advocacy group Artistes pour la paix presented her with its lifetime achievement award.[33] In March of that year, she was among the first 35 people named to the inaugural Ordre des arts et des lettres du Québec.[34]

Obomsawin was named an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada for 2013.[35] In January of that year, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television announced that Obomsawin would receive its Humanitarian Award for Exceptional Contributions to Community & Public Service, presented at the 2nd Canadian Screen Awards.[36] At the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, she was a recipient of a Birks Diamond Tribute to the Year's Women in Film.[37]

In 2010, she was named to the Playback Canadian Film & Television Hall of Fame.[14] 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.[38] A retrospective her work was also held from May 14 to 26, 2008 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.[39] 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.[40][41][42]

In March 2001, Obomsawin received a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.[43] 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,[44] 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, an Honorary Doctor of Literature from Carleton University, an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Western Ontario (October 2007), Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of British Columbia (May 2010),[45] Honorary Doctor of Laws from Dalhousie University (April 2016),[46] as well as an Honorary Doctor of Laws (June 2018).[47] 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.

The impact of Obomsawin's career on documentary and Indigenous film has been highlighted by the creation of two awards in her name. Cinema Politica has awarded the "Alanis Obomsawin Award for Commitment to Community and Resistance" since 2011 and "was inspired by Ms. Obomsawin's awe-inspiring and unstoppable dedication to social justice and political documentary."[48] ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival presents "The Alanis Obomsawin Best Documentary Award" every year for achievement in documentary film .[49]

In June 2019 she was named a Companion of the Order of Canada.[50]

Partial filmography

Secondary literature

  • Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker, by Randolph Lewis, published in 2006 by the University of Nebraska Press
  • Jerry White, "Alanis Obomsawin, Documentary Form and the Canadian Nation(s)" in: CineAction, number 49, pp. 26–36
  • Harewood, Adrian (June 1, 2003). "Alanis Obomsawin: a portrait of a first nation's filmmaker". Take One.


  1. "HorizonZero Issue 09 : WITNESS". Retrieved January 20, 2018.
  2. Pick, Zuzana (1999). "Storytelling and Resistance: The Documentary Practice of Alanis Obomsawin". In Banning, Kass (ed.). Gendering the Nation : Canadian Women's Cinema. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press. p. 78.
  3. National Film Board (1993). "Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance". Archived from the original on April 30, 2011. Retrieved May 23, 2011
  4. Alioff, Maurice; Schouten Levine, Susan (June 1987). "The Long Walk of Alanis Obomsawin". Canada Cinema (15).
  5. Walker, Connie (August 6, 2014). "Alanis Obomsawin's Trick or Treaty? to screen at TIFF 2014". CBC News. Toronto. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
  6. Brownstein, Bill (November 10, 2016). "There's no stopping legendary documentarian Alanis Obomsawin". Montreal Gazette. Postmedia. Retrieved November 15, 2016.
  7. Berger, Laura (September 15, 2016). "TIFF 2016 Women Directors: Meet Alanis Obomsawin — "We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice"". Retrieved September 18, 2016.
  8. "TIFF announces Canadian film lineup". CBC News. Retrieved August 9, 2017.
  9. "Alanis Obomsawin documents Cindy Blackstock's fight for equality for Aboriginal children". Day 6. CBC Radio. September 2, 2016. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  10. Berger, Laura (September 15, 2016). "TIFF 2016 Women Directors: Meet Alanis Obomsawin — "We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice"". Retrieved September 18, 2016.
  11. "Alanis Obomsawin brings "Trick or Treaty" to Studio Q". CBC Player. December 17, 2014. Retrieved December 4, 2015.
  12. "Toronto film fest unveils docs, horror and Athens lineup additions". CBC News. July 20, 2013. Retrieved August 17, 2013.
  13. Dunlevy, T'cha (November 9, 2012). "The People of the Kattawapiskak River examines a community on the edge". Montreal Gazette. Postmedia Network Inc. Archived from the original on November 13, 2012. Retrieved November 9, 2012.
  14. Bailey, Patricia. "Hall of Fame 2010: Alanis Obomsawin". Playback. Brunico Communications. Archived from the original on November 28, 2010. Retrieved November 18, 2010.
  15. "Professor Norman Cornett: "Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?"". NFB Collections page. Retrieved March 30, 2009.
  16. "Notable NFB Presence at Hot Docs 2009". NFB press release. March 24, 2009. Retrieved March 30, 2009.
  17. NFB collections page
  18. NFB collections page Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  19. NFB collections page Archived September 30, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  20. Obomsawin, Alanis (March 27, 2017). ""For 150 years, people have been told lies about Canada's history"". The Review. Toronto International Film Festival. Retrieved March 28, 2017.
  21. Taylor, Jillian (February 14, 2015). "Alanis Obomsawin passes knowledge to aspiring filmmakers". CBC News. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  22. Robb, Peter (February 19, 2015). "Alanis Obomsawin: The power of art revealed in film". Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  23. "CST133 Alanis Obomsawin: Bush Lady | Constellation Records". Retrieved April 10, 2019.
  24. "Obomsawin, Alanis - Bush Lady". Museum of Canadian Music. Archived from the original on June 12, 2016. Retrieved May 24, 2016.
  25. "VIFF 2019 BC Spotlight Gala Award Winners" (Press release). Vancouver International Film Festival. October 5, 2019. Retrieved October 7, 2019.
  26. "Spring 2017 Honorary Degree recipient bios | Newsroom - McGill University". Retrieved June 2, 2017.
  27., Zone Société - (May 17, 2017). "Montréal honore Dany Laferrière, Yannick Nézet-Séguin et Françoise Sullivan". (in French). Retrieved June 2, 2017.
  28. "Vingt Montréalaises d'exception nommées "Bâtisseuses de la Cité"". TVA Nouvelles (in French). Agence QMI. March 17, 2017. Retrieved August 24, 2017.
  29. "Alanis Obamsawin honoured with 2016 Technicolor Clyde Gilmour prize". CBC News. The Canadian Press. November 24, 2016. Retrieved November 25, 2016.
  30. "Alanis Obomsawin Wins Prix Albert-Tessier". Point of View. Documentary Organization of Canada. Retrieved November 7, 2016.
  31. "Alanis Obomsawin: Grande officière (2016)". Ordre national du Québec. Gouvernement du Québec. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  32. Mango, Augustin (October 10, 2015). "'Motu Maeva' Wins at Chile's Valdivia Film Festival". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  33. "Les 7 doigts de la main nommés Artiste pour la paix". Le Devoir (in French). February 17, 2015. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  34. Lemay, Daniel (March 20, 2015). "Ordre des arts et lettres du Québec: Liza Frulla sera honorée". La Presse (in French). Retrieved November 3, 2016.
  35. "RSC at the Movies". Royal Society of Canada.
  36. Walker, Connie (January 13, 2014). "Canadian Screen Awards recognize Aboriginal talent". CBC News. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  37. O'Connell, Sandra. "TIFF13: Appreciating Canadian women in film". Vancouver Province (16 September 2013). Postmedia Network Inc. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  38. "Alanis Obamsawin at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival". CBC Aboriginal. April 15, 2009. Archived from the original on August 10, 2010. Retrieved October 26, 2015.
  39. "MoMA PRESENTS MAJOR EXHIBITION OF THE FILMS OF CANADIAN FILMMAKER ALANIS OBOMSAWIN" (PDF). News release. Museum of Modern Art. April 18, 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 8, 2010. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
  40. "Alanis Obomsawin biography". Governor General's Performing Arts Awards Foundation. Retrieved February 10, 2015.
  41. "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.
  42. "GOVERNOR GENERAL'S PERFORMING ARTS AWARDS" (PDF). News release. Rideau Hall. March 12, 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 6, 2011. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
  43. "2001 Winners". Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved March 25, 2015.
  44. McNary, Dave (November 7, 2004). "Org to fete doc pioneer". Variety. Reed Elsevier Inc. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
  45. "Dr. Alanis Obomsawin, O.C." 2010 Honorary Degree Recipients. University of British Columbia. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  46. "ALANIS OBOMSAWIN, O.C." Dalhousie University Convocation. Dalhousie University. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  47. "Meet the honorary doctorates of spring convocation". Ryerson University. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  48. "Alanis Obomsawin Award".
  49. "imagineNative Alanis Obomsawin Best Documentary Award". Archived from the original on April 5, 2017.
  50. Dunlevy, T'Cha (June 27, 2019). "Alanis Obomsawin, 15 other Quebecers to receive Order of Canada". Montreal Gazette. Archived from the original on July 4, 2019. Retrieved July 4, 2019.
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