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Alanis Obomsawin screens film at Wexner Center for the Arts

Acclaimed First Nations filmmaker shares stories of injustices, hopes for the future

Acclaimed Indigenous filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin visited the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University earlier this month to screen her 1993 documentary “Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.”

Members of Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO) Cuisine, from left: Ty Smith, Tashina Smith, Masami Smith, Lorna Hotain. Photo: Kathryn D. StudiosThe event included a reception with the artist before the screening, featuring fry bread and vegetable soup from the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio, and a Q&A with Obomsawin following the film. 

John N. Low, associate professor in the Department of Comparative Studies and an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, offered a land acknowledgment before the film, and Provost Melissa L. Gilliam welcomed Obomsawin to the university. Colin Bird, consul general of Canada in Detroit, introduced the film. Obomsawin is a filmmaker at the National Film Board of Canada.

Obomsawin is 90 years old and has created over 50 films during her decades-long career, many of which focus on Indigenous stories.

“She has devoted her life to being a visible advocate for First Nations issues, for Indigenous struggle,” said Layla Muchnik-Benali, film/video curatorial assistant at the Wexner Center. Muchnik-Benali met Obomsawin in June at the Flaherty Film Seminar. A long-time fan, Muchnik-Benali invited the artist to the Wexner Center.

“She is a powerhouse, a force of nature filmmaker,” Muchnik-Benali said. “She has gone largely unrecognized in the United States but is quite well-known in Canada. They’re our neighbors to the north; we should know more about what happens there.”

Obomsawin’s film tells the story of the Oka Crisis, which captured the nation’s attention in 1990. For 78 days, members of the Mohawk tribe in Oka, a small town in Quebec, protested a government decision to turn burial grounds into a private golf course. The documentary unpacks the centuries of abuse the Mohawk suffered at the hands of numerous world governments, demonstrating that this incident was one of many.

The film “is about truth and it is about reconciliation,” said Bird. “I’m using those words with a sense of the importance of those words because the story you’re about to see is not a happy story from Canada.”

After the film concluded, Muchnik-Benali interviewed Obomsawin, who said that despite the many injustices she has witnessed over her lifetime, she sees a new awareness of First Nations peoples in Canada.

“I don’t want you to leave thinking only about the bad stuff, because where we are now, we’re going someplace I know we’ve never been before,” she said. “Our people, our words, they’re heard, and they’re respected.”

Obomsawin shared stories about her childhood and the prejudice that she faced in school. The prevailing narrative in much of Canada was that Indigenous people were “savages,” she said. This view led to her being physically attacked many times.

“I began to understand that if children hear a different story, they wouldn’t beat me so much,” she said. “I knew our history and I thought, ‘they have to hear this story, not the story from the book.’ And that’s how I started.”

The Oka Crisis was a watershed moment for the Indigenous peoples of Canada, Obomsawin said. The Mohawk tribe, especially in Quebec, faced a tremendous amount of hate from the local white community for its actions. But the same actions brought the larger First Nations community together.

“In our communities across the country, it gave them the courage to stand for the land they have left, for the people,” she said.

In the end, the Canadian government spent more than $155 million attempting to defeat the protesters. While the episode is a dark one, Obomsawin chooses now to work with the government to tell stories like this.

“I want to say that there’s a lot of good people around in government, in places like this,” she said, gesturing to the audience in the auditorium. “I refuse to say it’s all dark. … We have a lot of things that we don’t like happening, but there’s an awful lot of good happening. It’s possible. And every one of you is important. You all have something to give. That’s the way I believe.”

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