Over the past twelve years, Indigenous issues have been at the foreground of public conversations across Canada, and “decolonization” (variously imagined) has become a priority in many cultural, academic, and political institutions. The structural depth of these changes remains an open question, and many worry that symbolic gestures are too often offered in the place of real action on long-standing substantive issues, such as Treaty Rights, Land claims, and unequal social spending. Nevertheless, more Canadians have begun to reckon with histories of colonialism that have, for decades, been willfully ignored. With growing international connections between Indigenous communities around the world, new venues, and increased awareness, the importance of Abenaki activist filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s work to a global conversation about decolonization has never been clearer. This exhibition, The Children Have to Hear Another Story, attempts to explain how Obomsawin achieved what she did and what it has meant for her to do so. It is organized chronologically, beginning in the 1960s when she first came to public attention as a performer and activist commenting on Indigenous issues.
In the year Obomsawin was born, 1932, Indigenous children in Canada were sent by the state to church-run residential schools. These schools had the explicit mandate of destroying Indigenous cultures, beliefs, and languages and replacing them with the cultures and Christian religions of European settlers. If you were an Indigenous person who wanted to vote in a federal election in 1932, you would be required to give up your “Indian Status” and associated Treaty Rights and other collective rights — few people chose to do this. If you were an Indigenous woman and married a non-Indigenous man, you would automatically lose your status. If you wanted to practice ceremonies such as the Sun Dance or the Potlatch or even create the objects associated with them, you would be breaking the law as laid down in the Indian Act of 1876. And if you hoped to see Indigenous people in the public sphere, you would find a deluge of “Indian” imagery in popular media but very few Indigenous people representing themselves or their cultures. Likewise, in academia or public policy discussions, there were anthropologists and other “Indian experts” who spoke confidently about and proposed solutions to the “Indian problem.”
In the 1970s, Obomsawin’s work as a filmmaker began to be released through the National Film Board of Canada. Her documentary cinema is an act of listening and directly gives Indigenous Peoples opportunities to tell their own stories. The shift in the late 1970s into the 1980s of earlier activist movements developing into a broader, networked, and more explicitly political program was mirrored in Obomsawin’s films. By the 1990s, her energies as a filmmaker were spent living through and then analyzing the causes and effects of what is often referred to as the Oka Crisis or, by many Indigenous people, the Kanehsatà:ke Resistance: an outcome of the legacy and ongoing reality of colonial dispossession.
Although direct Indigenous political activism continued across Canada in the first decade of the twenty-first century, many significant changes were occurring inside institutions as attitudes evolved and long-closed doors opened. By the early 2000s, many art institutions, including Canada Council for the Arts, began to prioritize Indigenous inclusion. With the increased access to mainstream cultural institutions, Indigenous Peoples used these platforms to explore a wide range of questions, including how Indigenous thought and values might be sustained and put into action in these spaces. These are issues that Obomsawin has consistently addressed. Her latest film, released in late 2021, focuses on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, established as a condition of the settlement of a lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of Indigenous residential school Survivors.
Over five decades Obomsawin has created a model of Indigenous cinema that privileges the voices of her people and which challenges core assumptions — economic, environmental, political, epistemic, ontological — of the world system determined by colonialism that we all now inhabit and contend with.
Richard William Hill and Hila Peleg