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Alanis Obomsawin

The Vision of a Native Filmmaker

Randolph Lewis

Publication Year: 2006

In more than twenty powerful films, Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has waged a brilliant battle against the ignorance and stereotypes that Native Americans have long endured in cinema and television. In this book, the first devoted to any Native filmmaker, Obomsawin receives her due as the central figure in the development of indigenous media in North America.
Incorporating history, politics, and film theory into a compelling narrative, Randolph Lewis explores the life and work of a multifaceted woman whose career was flourishing long before Native films such as Smoke Signals reached the screen. He traces Obomsawin’s path from an impoverished Abenaki reserve in the 1930s to bohemian Montreal in the 1960s, where she first found fame as a traditional storyteller and singer. Lewis follows her career as a celebrated documentary filmmaker, citing her courage in covering, at great personal risk, the 1991 Oka Crisis between Mohawk warriors and Canadian soldiers. We see how, since the late 1960s, Obomsawin has transformed documentary film, reshaping it for the first time into a crucial forum for sharing indigenous perspectives. Through a careful examination of her work, Lewis proposes a new vision for indigenous media around the globe: a “cinema of sovereignty” based on what Obomsawin has accomplished.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: American Indian Lives


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p. vii-vii


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pp. viii-x

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pp. xi-xxvi

I got off a plane in Montreal a few years ago, hopped into a taxi with too many notebooks and not enough luggage under my arm, and asked the driver to take me to the offices of the National Film Board (NFB). With a pensive frown and an old-world twist of his mustache, he put the car into gear and adjusted the mirror to give me a glance. ...

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1. Abenaki Beginnings

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pp. 1-35

Alanis Obomsawin does not know the exact place of her birth, only that she was born somewhere near Lebanon, New Hampshire, on August 31, 1932, and that, when she was an infant, she slipped into a deep coma that neither her parents nor the local doctor could explain. ...

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2. Early Films

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pp. 36-69

The coloring is inside the lines, more or less, and the picture is a bright splash of red, blue, and green on construction paper. The lens is close enough to reveal an unsteady line, the product of a small hand still learning to manage the pencil. As the seconds slip past, we see nothing but drawings, seemingly the work of many different hands. ...

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3. A Gendered Gaze?

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pp. 70-87

Is it significant that the cardinal figure in Native filmmaking is female? Yes, I think so, although in ways that are more complex than I initially expected. I went into this project with some unexamined assumptions about the way gender identity would play out on-screen for Obomsawin, and I fear that this could have overdetermined my reading of her films. ...

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4. Documentary on the Middle Ground

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pp. 88-121

The spark was an unlikely combination of golf and greed. In 1989 an ill-conceived plan for sixty luxury homes surrounding an upscale golf course set off the most serious confrontation between Native people and government authorities in contemporary Canadian history, something that for U.S. observers might have evoked the deadly ...

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5. Why Documentary?

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pp. 122-155

Alanis Obomsawin has, as we have seen, known success as a storyteller, singer, activist, education consultant, and documentarian, yet it is the last role that has occupied most of her creative life.What is it about the documentary impulse that she finds so necessary and irresistible? Why documentary? ...

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6. Cinema of Sovereignty

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pp. 156-194

As the start of the new millennium came and went, Alanis Obomsawin followed the path of more than one well-regarded artist: having reached a certain stage in a storied career, she turned her gaze ever closer to home. Nearing and then surpassing seventy years of age, the filmmaker did not slow down in the slightest but instead returned her ...

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pp. 195-206

Today, Alanis Obomsawin has come full circle in her creative work to arrive at the very place where she started in the rural woods of Quebec and New Hampshire quite some time ago. In the process of beginning a new documentary on Abenaki culture, she will soon add her voice to the burgeoning “Abenaki renaissance” whose arrival ...

Appendix A: Filmography

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pp. 207-214

Appendix B: Native Documentaries

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pp. 215-218


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pp. 219-240


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pp. 241-254


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pp. 255-262

E-ISBN-13: 9780803256286
E-ISBN-10: 0803256280

Page Count: 262
Illustrations: Illus.
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: American Indian Lives