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Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin reflects on a storied career after winning MacDowell Medal

A black and white photo of a woman looking down and smiling.
Scott Stevens
MacDowell, Courtesy
Alanis Obomsawin has received the prestigious MacDowell Medal for her filmmaking.

For decades, Indigenous people have often been the subject of documentaries — but haven't had much say in how they are represented in those films.

Abenaki documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has spent her life's work changing that. Over the last 56 years, she's created dozens of films chronicling the lives and affairs of First Nations people.

Recently, Obomsawin, who is based in Quebec, was recognized for her work with the Edward MacDowell Medal. Given to one person each year for their contribution to American culture and the arts, past honorees include Toni Morrison, Georgia O'Keeffe and Robert Frost.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke with Obomsawin about the award and her filmmaking career. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: This year marks the first time that this MacDowell Medal was awarded to an Abenaki artist and to a female filmmaker. What's being recognized with this award meant to you?

Alanis Obomsawin: Well, I feel very honored — not just for me, but for what I represent. All those people who have been in all of the documentaries I've done over the years. There's 56 of them so far at the National Film Board that anyone can see for free on NFB.CA — mention my name, you get a good seat.

The program is based in New Hampshire; that's the homeland of your Wabanaki ancestors and where you were born. Is there something special about about that part of it?

I am very honored and very touched by it, because I heard so many stories about the land of New Hampshire, because our people kept going back there. There were wars for 300 years, and the English came and really pushed our people away. It's very dear to me because it is Wabanaki territory. Several years ago, it was established that our people were in those territories: Quebec, New Hampshire, Vermont for more than 11,000 years. That has been proven.

You've advocated for sovereign rights for First Nations people. How have you used your films to help deconstruct stereotypes of Indigenous people and to elevate their voices?

Well, to tell you the truth, I knew nothing about filmmaking or cinema of any kind. I was doing the same thing through my singing, especially concerning the educational system, which I felt was very racist and very dangerous to us, obviously. Because these books were used in the classroom, teaching children that we were savages. As I got older, I thought the children were hearing a wrong story — lies. If they heard another story, they would be different because children are not born like that. This is how I started using my singing and storytelling. And I know that it has helped influence change.

There was a studio here called Multimedia, and everything they did there was for the classroom. I got so excited when I saw that — it was like paradise for me. I was working on educational kits, and I was also learning the trade. This is how I started and I've been here ever since, which, I think, is 56 years now.

Is there a particular film of yours from any point in your career that you really hold close to your heart, or that you want to remind listeners of?

If I want to be honest, I have to say all of them because I had such a hard time making them. So every time I look at one film, I see another story of what I had to go through to make the film. So it's kind of a weird joke. They're all very dear to me because all the people that are in it, I just adore them. For all kinds of reasons.

You mentioned that when you began your career, you were a singer, a songwriter and a storyteller in the early '60s. I'm wondering how those sorts of performance arts created the right kind of scaffolding for you to become the filmmaker that you are?

Well, all the reasons are the same. And I have my own way of working. Before I go into a community to do a documentary, I interview people that I think is going to be in this film that I'm making to understand, to hear the voice of people. I feel that the sound of the voice for me, is very sacred. When people feel at ease and trust and tell you about themselves about their life story, often the voice changes, and I find that that's very sacred to me. It's very intimate.

As it comes into your mind, you often really feel things that happened at a particular time in your life and your voice changes — sometimes it's very sad, sometimes it's funny. It's all kinds of things that happen through the sound of the voice. And for me, it's sacred. I can always go back to the first voice with different images. You feel it, you know, that the person who's talking — it's so true, so beautiful. It's so sad. All those things come through. And for me, that's the main important thing to begin to film.

I love learning that. In an interview with the CBC, I think in 2021, you mentioned that your films are a mirror for the country. Reflecting now on the beginning of your career, up until now, has that view in the mirror changed?

Yes. I'm 90 years old now, and I am so fortunate that I've lived this long. Not only that, I still have my health. I continue working as hard as I always have. The reason why I feel so fortunate is that I'm witnessing the change that is happening in the country, especially Canada, in terms of how people are received — [we're] more respected. A lot of people are curious and want to see justice done to our people. There's a lot of good people everywhere, and I seem to meet them almost every day.

I am so encouraged because the doors are open. We have many institutions here in this country, and whereas before, it was very intimidating to walk into those places — now there are spaces for our people, there's money there, and [there is] wanting to make sure that Indigenous people have the room, can come there and become a filmmaker or become a doctor. Now, everything is possible. And this is why I feel even if I die tomorrow, I know that a lot of our people are working, have done everything to make the changes, and it's very encouraging.

Alanis Obomsawin will be granted the 63rd MacDowell Medal for her documentary filmmaking on Sunday, July 23. The award ceremony will take place in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Admission is free and open to the public.

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