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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin to receive prestigious award

BY Ben Powless May 22, 2023

The 63rd Edward MacDowell Medal will be awarded to Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, the filmmaker whose work has spanned 52 years, at a July 23 reception. 

MacDowell began as an institution for artist residencies in Peterborough, New Hampshire and has bestowed the Edward MacDowell Medal since 1960 to notable artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Toni Morrison and David Lynch.

Obomsawin, 90, is best known for her documentaries on contemporary Indigenous issues, including Incident at Restigouche (1984), Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), Trick or Treaty? (2014) and Walking is Medicine (2017), documenting the Nishiyuu walkers who trekked from Whapmagoostui to Ottawa. 

It was only after being hired by the National Film Board (NFB) that Obomsawin began her filmmaking journey in 1971. Since then, she has had her work showcased in the Museum of Modern Art, received the Order of Canada, and been made a member of the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. 

“As the Grand Dame of the Indigenous film world and the documentary field, Alanis Obomsawin’s exemplary 52-year body of work uplifting Indigenous stories and triumph inspired us with compelling and unequivocal enthusiasm to award her with the 2023 Edward MacDowell Medal,” selection panelist Bird Runningwater said in a statement. 

Obomsawin told the Nation that when she received a phone call informing her that she had won the award she didn’t even know it existed. However, it was of particular interest because she was born in New Hampshire – part of traditional Abenaki territory – before returning to Odenak, the Abenaki First Nation in Quebec where her parents were from.

“It was such a surprise. I felt very honoured. I thought, it’s great, I’m going to go back to New Hampshire!” she said. “I’m very thankful and very honoured with this award. I will be very happy to be there and it’s part of our history – it’s Abenaki country, and it feels very special to me.”

Reflecting on how far the world has come to recognize her works which highlight the voices of Indigenous peoples, she had a lot to share.

“I’m 90 years old and I’ve seen a lot. The changes are so big – our peoples are respected now,” she said. “I’ve never seen in my life such a welcome period for our people of all generations.

“When I was a child, we were punished if we spoke our language. But now everyone is encouraged to learn our language. It’s being taught in high school, at the elementary level, on reserves – it’s a very different time.

“People in Canada generally want to see justice done for our people. I’m so thankful that I’ve lived this long, to see this difference. Where we are going is extraordinary, we’ve never been there,” she added.

Obomsawin said that her message to young people recently has been to look into their hearts and realize they can do anything they want: “It is possible,” she stated.

“We have so many institutions in Canada where before we were intimidated to enter. Now, there are places and money, especially for Indigenous youth, allowing them to go into whatever they wish to go into,” she explained. “There’s a lot of encouragement. It’s wonderful.”

As Obomsawin enters her 10th decade, there’s no sign that she’s slowing down. She is currently putting together a box-set retrospective of her work, which she hopes will be helpful to students and educators. At present, the collection contains 19 full films and excerpts, plus additional bonus material.

If that wasn’t enough, Obomsawin is working on a new film. “I’m extremely busy,” she said defiantly. “Even after that, I’m still asked to do many things,” she added with a laugh.

Most recently, she attended the April 7 opening of an exhibition of her work titled The Children Have to Hear Another Story: Alanis Obomsawin at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

“I was very touched by what they’ve done,” she said of the exhibition. “One room is 1960: it’s everything from 1960. Another area is 1970. It’s wonderful the way they’ve put it together – the colour, the walls.”

Obomsawin said the organizers visited her archives in Montreal to do the research necessary to put the show together. “We had a lot of people who came to the opening and so much love from everybody – it’s a gift.”

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.