Tracey Deer distinctly remembers the first time she saw Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance: she was studying film at Dartmouth College, and the documentary was being screened in one of her classes.
For Deer, who was just 12 years old during the 1990 Siege of Kanehsatake (aka Oka Crisis), the film brought up “a deep swell of emotion” as she relived the trauma of that summer. “It just came crashing back. I had buried it quite deeply, and so I had a really visceral emotional explosive reaction to the film,” said Deer.
But the resurfacing of that trauma dovetailed with another feeling. “It’s when I first became aware of Alanis herself and Alanis’s work. To know that there was an Indigenous woman filmmaker out there making work that speaks to everything that I care about was incredibly inspiring,” said Deer, adding that discovering Obomsawin made her feel like her dreams were possible.
“It was one of the first steps to me starting to heal,” said Deer, who is now an award-winning filmmaker herself. Her 2020 feature film Beans is a coming of age story about a 12-year-old Kahnawa’kehró:non during the so-called Oka Crisis.
It’s been 30 years since Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance was released, and Obomsawin, now 90, is still making films that empower Onkwehón:we and chronicle their resistance to colonial power.
Obomsawin grew up in Odanak, an Abenaki community near the mouth of the St. Francois River, until the age of nine, when she and her parents moved to Trois Rivieres, where Obomsawin would be the only Indigenous student at her school.
“It was very difficult. We lived in the very poor section, and I was beaten up a lot because I was Indian,” said Obomsawin. From an early age, Obomsawin understood just how fundamental education can be, that schools are a place where people learn to hate, or love.
“If the children heard a different story, they would not behave like that, and this is why I’ve been fighting ever since,” said Obomsawin, pointing to how her bullies’ cruelty had been informed by a racist curriculum.
The director/writer/producer – almost always all three – of 57 films, Obomsawin has spent much of her life making documentaries with classrooms in mind. Her work is driven by an unwavering belief in the power – and sanctity – of storytelling, its ability to educate and enact social change.
But before Obomsawin was a filmmaker, she was a singer-songwriter, spending much of the early 60s playing music and telling stories in residential schools and prisons countrywide. She chose to perform in prisons because of the over-representation of Indigenous men in Canadian jails. “I thought, Jesus, my relations are in jail. I should go see them,” said Obomsawin.
In 1967, Obomsawin was hired by the National Film Board (NFB) to consult on a film that dealt with Indigenous sources and subject matter, but she soon began to make films of her own, with the first debuting in 1971, Christmas at Moose Factory, a short film made at a residential school in northern Ontario, composed entirely of drawings by young Cree children and stories told by the children themselves.
In the early years of her career, Obomsawin had to work tirelessly to fundraise for her films, going door-to-door at federal agencies in Ottawa asking for support. It continued like that for a long time until Incident at Restigouche, Obomsawin’s 1984 documentary about police raids that prevented Mi’kmaq salmon fishers from exercising their sovereignty over the Restigouche River.
One of the Abenaki filmmaker’s first explorations of guerilla filmmaking, the film boldly captures the brutality of the raids and features a heated exchange between Obomsawin and Lucien Lessard, then-minister of fisheries for Quebec. The film marked the first time Obomsawin’s work garnered international attention.
Restigouche gave Obomsawin a taste for how documentary film could be a form of protest and thereby a means of enacting social change. When the 1990 Crisis began, Obomsawin knew that she and her camera were needed behind the barricades. She would spend nearly the entirety of the 78-day standoff in the pines, leaving only once to drop off her film at the NFB headquarters for fear it would be confiscated by the police or military as the land defenders left the forest.
“The army and the police really were trying to get me out of there. They didn’t like the fact that I was Indigenous and documenting what was going on,” said Obomsawin.
“If I was to say I wasn’t afraid when I was there I’d be lying, because I was sleeping outside on the ground, and you never knew what could happen or would happen. It was intense,” said Obomsawin.
Upon the release of Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance in 1993, she faced a lot of backlash. There were years where she could not go out in public without being recognized and harassed from settlers who had opposed the Kanien’kehá:ka land defenders. “They really hated me for that,” she said.
“When you’re a documentary filmmaker, you don’t start thinking, ‘Should I do this? Am I going to feel bad?’ You just do it. That’s all,” said Obomsawin. She went on to make three more films about the Kanesatake Resistance: My Name Is Kahentiiosta (1995), Spudwrench – Kahnawake Man (1997), and Rocks at Whisky Trench (2000).
Obomsawin’s storytelling ethos is born of the belief that “each individual is important,” and this is demonstrated in her commitment to the interview as the site where each film begins. She considers the voice to be precious and sacred, and identifies the act of listening as its own artform. For Obomsawin, documentary filmmaking arises out of the idea that “poor people should see themselves.”
“Often, people are very beautiful and they don’t know it. So I want them to feel it,” said Obomsawin.
Sitting in her office at the NFB headquarters in downtown Tiohtià:ke, Obomsawin is dressed head to toe in a monochrome maroon outfit, with turquoise rings ornamenting her fingers – proof that her artistry extends to her fashion sensibilities. She reflects on how much has changed for Onkwehón:we throughout her 90 years: “I’m so thankful that I have lived this long, to see the difference. Because believe you me, a long time ago, I was a child and it wasn’t like that. It was terrible.
“Everything is possible for our people now,” said Obomsawin.
She is inspired by the generations of Indigenous filmmakers that have come after her, some of which she has mentored, including Deer, who share an excitement for the success of contemporary Indigenous cinema.
“Our kids are growing up watching content made for them. They can look up and see many of us. It’s not just one anymore,” said Deer. “In Alanis’s days, it was her. She was in the forest, sort of cutting that initial path, and now there’s a whole bunch of us that have followed her and that path is now wide.”
These days, Obomsawin is working with the film board to put together a box set of 19 documentaries, created for the classroom. She also has a film coming out this year called Wabano: The Light of Day, which showcases the first Indigenous wellness centre built by and for Indigenous people in Canada.
The recipient of countless awards for both her films and her activism, Obomsawin will receive her 13th honorary degree, from the University of Toronto, later this month.
“I’m not finished yet,” said Obomsawin. “There is a lot of stuff that I’m going to come up with.”