Chief Dan George – Celia Cohen
Chief Dan George was one of Canada’s best known and highly regarded actors and writers.
One of his most noteworthy contributions was a spoken-word poem he wrote and read at the Centennial celebration in Vancouver on July 1, 1967 entitled A Lament for Confederation. In this piece, Chief Dan George decried the treatment of First Nations peoples since the arrival of the colonialists.
I have seen my freedom disappear like the salmon going mysteriously out to sea.
When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed his way of life, I was called lazy When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority
The full video and text of the poem can be found at the end of this article.
Chief Dan George was born Geswanouth Slahoot in 1899 and was a chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a Coast Salish band located on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver.
The Tsleil-Waututh Nation, People of the Inlet website tells us: “Our Tsleil-Waututh Nation is one of many groups of Coast Salish peoples living in the Pacific Northwest, throughout British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. Our knowledge of the lands and waters of our territory has shaped our people.”
“Our oral history tells us up to 10,000 Tsleil-Waututh members lived in our traditional territory, before contact with Europeans. Our ancestors’ survival depended on cycles of hunting, harvesting and preserving foods, and on trade with our neighbours.”
Chief Dan George’s Tsleil-Waututh Nation has had humans on that land since time immemorial. Time immemorial means time so long past as to be indefinite in history or tradition and can also be called time out of mind. Archaeologists and scientists are still investigating when humans arrived on the Tsleil-Waututh Nation land, with some estimates now of over 130,000 years ago.
His consciousness, borne out of his experience growing up in North Vancouver as an Indigenous person including his time at a residential school, allowed him to give dignity to the roles he played.
Gifted with a distinctive voice – deep and sonorous, Chief Dan George had gravitas. He embodied a key actor’s quality: ability to have stillness on stage and screen. His directness of intent, humility and simplicity of playing made him compelling to watch.
His first role, at age 60, was Ol’ Antoine in the CBC Television series, Cariboo Country based on Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse, a novella by Paul St. Pierre.
He is best remembered for portraying Old Lodge Skins opposite Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man (1970) and for his role in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), as Lone Watie, opposite Clint Eastwood.
For his role in Little Big Man, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and became the first Indigenous actor to do so. He also received the award for Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics for the same role.
Chief Dan George played the role of Rita Joe’s father in George Ryga’s stage play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, in performances at the Vancouver Playhouse, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and Washington, D.C.
Bill Waiser, in his book In Search of Almighty Voice: Resistance and Reconciliation, corrects the story of Almighty Voice. Chief Dan George played the role of Sounding Sky in the 1972 film, Alien Thunder, which mistells the story of Almighty Voice, a Cree man, born in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan from the One Arrow Willow Cree Nation.
The incorrect story — the myth – of why Almighty Voice ran away from the North West Mounted Police Duck Lake barracks after being arrested for killing a cow is that a Mountie said they were going to hang him.
Prior to that, Almighty Voice had confronted and threatened the local Indian Affairs agent who also doubled as the Justice of the Peace and didn’t want to come to trial before him. That’s why he fled.
He knew they wouldn’t hang him for killing a cow, so to say that’s why he fled is to call him stupid – which he wasn’t – far from it.
Almighty Voice was part of the resistance movement of the First Nations peoples at that time against the repressive conditions on the reserves which included the 1885 North-West Resistance of Metis and Aboriginals.
For 19 months the Mounties hunted Almighty Voice and finally, at Batoche, with 100 Mounties and a 7 and a 9 pound canon, shelled him and his brother-in-law Topean and his cousin Little Saulteaux killing them all.
Almighty Voice’s head was blown off with a canon ball and the Mounties put the remnants of his skull on their trophy shelf.
Waiser, in his many meetings with elders and Chiefs of the One Arrow Nation, tells of how the community has been embarrassed for over a hundred years and lived with the shame of how Almighty Voice’s story has been mistold.
They have asked the Mounties to return his skull for a proper burial.
Chief Dan George’s name was forcibly changed from Geswanouth Slahoot to Dan George when he entered the St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver, B. C. at age 5. Closed in 1984 the Squamish, Musqeuam and Tsleil-Waututh nations have launched a joint investigation into the St. Paul’s school site seeking answers about the children who attended and never returned home.
Before he started acting, he had worked as a longshoreman, construction worker, school-bus driver, logger and musician. For 27 years he worked as a longshoreman on the Vancouver harbour docks until he was injured. He then began earning money touring around British Columbia with a band called Dan George and His Indian Entertainers. He played the bass fiddle.
As a writer his books include, The Best of Chief Dan George: Poems, My Heart Soars, My Spirit Soars, When the News is Bad, Abundant Rivers.
At the time Chief Dan George wrote and delivered his A Lament for Confederation in 1967 there were political activities taking place on a number of fronts. The anti Viet Nam war movement, women’s liberation, African-American uprisings, students demanding freedom of speech as well as the anti-colonial movement worldwide.
In 1973, Marlon Brando was nominated for an Academy Award for The Godfather and announced that he would boycott the ceremony and send Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native-American actress — an Apache – and President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, in his place. When it was announced Brando had won, Littlefeather refused the Oscar saying Brando wouldn’t accept it. She then read part of his lengthy statement which was later published in full in the New York Times.
“The motion picture community has been as responsible as any,” Brando wrote, “for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing him as savage, hostile and evil.”
Specifically, Brando was supporting the struggle the Sioux and the American Indian Movement were waging with their occupation of Wounded Knee at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Wounded Knee occupation lasted for 71 days, during which time two Sioux men were shot to death by federal agents and several more were wounded.
The Tsleil-Waututh Nation, People of the Inlet website reads, “Our oral history tells us up to 10,000 Tsleil-Waututh members lived in our traditional territory, before contact with Europeans. Today our nation is 600+ people strong and growing.”
“We continue to negotiate for a treaty agreement with Canada and British Columbia which started in 1994.”
In 2019, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation applied to the federal government for an Addition to Reserve involving lands currently under their jurisdiction. As defined by the Government of Canada, Addition to Reserve adds land to existing reserve land of a First Nation or creates a new reserve for First Nations.
In 2008, Canada Post commemorated Chief Dan George’s legacy with a special stamp. There is the Chief Dan George Middle School in Abbotsford, B.C. and the Chief Dan George Elementary School in Scarborough, Ontario. There is the Chief Dan George Theatre at the University of Victoria and in 2017 the North Vancouver Museum and Archives held an exhibit that featured photographs, footage and other of his memorabilia.
He held an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Simon Fraser University.
Chief Dan George is remembered as a talented actor, writer, musician, an Indigenous spokesperson, an environmentalist and spiritual healer.
He was also a witty man, known for his inspirational quotes which are remembered and repeated today. Such as, “When the white man came, we had the land and they had the bibles. Now they have the land and we have the bibles.” And, “Where no one intrudes, many can live in harmony.”
Chief Dan George died September 23, 1981 and is buried at Burrard Cemetery.
A Lament for Confederation
Chief Dan George, 1967
How long have I known you, Oh Canada? A hundred years? Yes, a hundred years. And many, many seelanum more. And today, when you celebrate your hundred years, Oh Canada, I am sad for all the Indian people throughout the land.
For I have known you when your forests were mine; when they gave me my meat and my clothing. I have known you in your streams and rivers where your fish flashed and danced in the sun, where the waters said ‘come, come and eat of my abundance.’ I have known you in the freedom of the winds. And my spirit, like the winds, once roamed your good lands.
But in the long hundred years since the white man came, I have seen my freedom disappear like the salmon going mysteriously out to sea. The white man’s strange customs, which I could not understand, pressed down upon me until I could no longer breathe.
When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed his way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority.
My nation was ignored in your history textbooks, they were little more important in the history of Canada than the buffalo that ranged the plains. I was ridiculed in your plays and motion pictures, and when I drank your fire-water, I got drunk _ very, very drunk. And I forgot.
Oh Canada, how can I celebrate with you this centenary, this hundred years? Shall I thank you for the reserves that are left to me of my beautiful forests? For the canned fish of my rivers? For the loss of my pride and authority, even among my own people? For the lack of my will to fight back? No! I must forget what’s past and gone.
Oh God in heaven! Give me back the courage of the olden chiefs. Let me wrestle with my surroundings. Let me again, as in the days of old, dominate my environment. Let me humbly accept this new culture and through it rise up and go on.
Oh God! Like the thunderbird of old I shall rise again out of the sea; I shall grab the instruments of the white man’s success _ his education, his skills, and with these new tools I shall build my race into the proudest segment of your society. Before I follow the great chiefs who have gone before us, Oh Canada, I shall see these things come to pass.
I shall see our young braves and our chiefs sitting in the houses of law and government, ruling and being ruled by the knowledge and freedoms of our great land. So shall we shatter the barriers of our isolation. So shall the next hundred years be the greatest in the proud history of our tribes and nations.