by Sarah Pogany ’20
Alanis Obomsawin is a well-respected Abenaki storyteller, singer, activist, and documentary filmmaker. She was born in 1932 near Lebanon, New Hampshire but grew up in Québec. Her family moved to the Odanak Reserve near Pierreville, Québec when she was an infant, and later to Trois-Rivieres. The Conseil des Abénakis d’Odanak are part of the large group of Abenaki people who have lived in N’Dakinna (Our Homeland) for thousands of years.
Obomsawin began her career as a singer and storyteller in 1960, in an era during which many Indigenous artists performed and worked to raise consciousness surrounding Indigenous cultural identities. She made her debut performance at New York City’s Town Hall. Her performances include stories and songs in English, French, and Abenaki. She has performed across North American and Europe, often in aid of humanitarian causes, and at different festivals, like the Guelph Spring Festival and the Mariposa Folk Festival.
In 1988 Obomsawin released her first (and only) album “Bush Lady,” a cutting-edge work which featured traditional Abenaki songs while making a progressive feminist statement. The title track “Bush Lady” is the moving story of a woman’s journey. In her recording, she sings in multiple languages and uses a traditional hand drum along with flute, oboe, violin, and cello. Her music is very emotional. She performed “Bush Lady” in 2017 at Le Guess Who? Festival, which was held in Utrecht, Netherlands. After the audience gave Obomsawin a standing ovation, she said that “When they all stood up, I thought I was going to pass out. I was so touched. I just couldn’t imagine that they would like it so much.” The album had been out of print for decades but was rereleased after her 2017 performance and is currently available online.
Although her career began with singing and storytelling, Obomsawin is best known for her activist filmmaking, which has focused on documenting various Indigenous issues. In 1966, she was hired by the National Film Board as a consultant on projects related to First Nations people. In 1971, she made her directorial debut with Christmas at Moose Factory. Her filmmaking style uses Indigenous oral traditions along with methods of documentary cinema. One of her best-known films is Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986). In the film, a young boy’s suicide led to a government report on social services for Indigenous foster children in Alberta, Canada. Mental health issues contribute to significant problems in Indigenous communities, and the film helped to shed an important light on suicide and mental health.
In 2011, Obomsawin returned to New Hampshire for a Montgomery Fellow residency at Dartmouth College. Her full term residence included several public presentations and film screenings, guest lectures in Native American Studies classes, and teaching her own course, “Documentary Film: Are We Listening?” in which she guided students’ short film projects.
Today Obomsawin is 87 years old but continues to produce films. She has made over 50 films and won many awards, including the Canadian Screen Awards Humanitarian Award, awarded in 2014 for her exceptional contributions to community and public service. During a 2015 interview, she described the continuing goal of her filmmaking, saying, “I am not going to make a film to please an audience. I make a film to make changes and to have recognition for the people.” Obomsawin is an inspiration to so many people, within and beyond Indigenous communities.
Alanis Obomsawin. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/alanis-obomsawin
Auerbach, Keri and Alanis Obomsawin
2019. “A Conversation with Alanis Obomsawin.” Kosmos Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.kosmosjournal.org/kj_article/alanis-obomsawin/
2018, June 19. “Alanis Obomsawin: Bush Lady.” Retrieved from: http://drownedinsound.com/releases/20368/reviews/4151868
2015, July 8. “Alanis Obomsawin’s Legacy Interview // L’entrevue-héritage d’Alanis Obomsawin.” Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/lZW_b4-ZkQA
Sundberg Seaman, Kelly
2011, October 28. “Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin to Deliver Montgomery Fellow Lecture November 1.” Dartmouth News. Retrieved from: https://news.dartmouth.edu/news/2011/10/filmmaker-alanis-obomsawin-deliver-montgomery-fellow-lecture-november-1