SANTA FE, N.M. - A Luminaria Award for Lifetime Achievement in Film was presented to Aln8bak (Abenaki) filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin by the Canadian Consulate at the recent Santa Fe Film Festival.
Obomsawin was born in N'dikinna (Abenaki for ''our land'') near Lebanon, N.H., and returned in infancy with her mother to the village of Odanak, the historical village of aboriginal refugees of southern New England who fled north after King Philip's War.
One of Obomsawin's family members in particular has been credited with naturally preserving Abenaki culture by immersing her in story and song as a child. Until age 9, Obomsawin's second cousin Theophile Panadis taught her the Abenaki lifeways. When the family moved to an area without other tribal people, Obomsawin held on to Panadis' teachings.
She became a professional singer/songwriter, performing at various venues around the world. Two producers from Canada's public film producer and distributor, the National Film Bureau, heard Obomsawin's Abenaki singing in 1967 on television and invited her to consult on an aboriginal story film. She then began to produce her own material, creating more than 30 documentaries.
Interestingly, it is the armed conflict between aboriginal Canadians and the municipal, provincial and federal Canadian governments that is the subject of Obomsowin's most well-known documentary. Her four-film series on the Oka Crisis of 1990 documents what the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper referred to as "the ... most significant event to take place on Canadian soil since the Second World War."
In 1535, France claimed the aboriginal village of Hochelaga (known today as contemporary Montreal) as its own. In 1990, government and private plans to construct luxury housing and a private golf course on "the Pines," land that was disputed in a Mohawk land claim, brought about open conflict. Quebec police were replaced by units from the Canadian army after a police officer was killed in a raid to remove Mohawk people from their land. Journalists were evacuated or forcibly removed from the area.
Obomsawin stayed and shot her film without a crew, using slow speed on her sound recorder to stretch out her audio supply.
Unique "Native-view" methods of storytelling allow the Oka documentaries to explain for the first time how Natives are supported by other tribal peoples around the globe - describing to the world a people of pan-nationalistic, as opposed to imperialistic, belief. At the time of the events described, the closing by other Native supporters of the Mercier Bridge into Montreal brought world attention and understanding to the dominant culture.
The first of the series, "Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance," documented the uprising. "My Name is Kahentiiosta" followed; it is about a Kahnawake Mohawk woman who was arrested after the 78-day standoff. "Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man" profiles Randy Horne, a steelworker from the community. Finally, Obomsawin recently completed "Rocks at Whiskey Trench."
Obomsawin also produced, wrote and narrated the 2007 "Gene Boy Came Home," about Abenaki Vietnam War vet Eugene Benedi. "Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises" is a documentary of conversations with people who still live in the village where she was raised. In 2003, she produced "Our Nationhood," about the Listuguj Mi'gmaq who are determined to live off their traditional lands, and "Is the Crown at War with Us?" about the Mi'gmaq of Esgenoopetitj, who battle for their fishing rights. Other films include "Incident at Restigouche" (police raid of another Mi'gmaq reserve), "Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Metis Child" (adolescent suicide) and "No Address" (Montreal's homeless).
Obomsawin has received awards ranging from the Order of Canada to honorary doctorates.