Chief Dan George: Tribal leader, activist, author and actor
How is everyone doing? I am away from home this weekend for a much due visit to my family. I am however missing my home with all the ceremonies and culture it has. I just miss home. However, I am grateful to be surrounded by love. So, as I am not on the West Coast right now, I thought I would write an article about a great leader from that area: Chief Dan George. Oftentimes known (and sometimes criticized) for his acting career, Chief Dan George was also a residential school survivor, a leader and outspoken about the rights of Indigenous people. Let’s hear about his life and great and wise words.
His early years
Chief Dan George was born on July 24, 1899, on the Burrard reserve, in the Burrard inlet (North Vancouver, BC, 20 minutes away from my home :)). The Burrard reserve is home of the Tseil-Wautuh nation, a Salish nation. At that time, Chief Dan George was known as Geswanouth Slahoot. Which in itself was the “English version” of his childhood nickname: Teswahno. But like many Native children at the time, he was forced into attending a Catholic residential school, St-Paul’s boarding school. There, he was forcibly renamed according to his father’s English name: George. As children were not permitted to speak their native language or they would be subject to incredible punishment. Just thinking about it makes me sick. Therefore, Chief Dan George is also a residential school survivor.
Following high school, after years of attending residential school, he became a longshoreman for more than 2 decades until he was hit by a load of lumber. Following his injury he held various construction jobs and then became a school bus driver! A man of many trades and not afraid of hard work.
And then he became a chief and an actor
He officially became Chief Dan George in 1951, as the chief of the Burrard band, a position previously held by his father. As well as his official title, he was made honorary chief of two other bands: Shuswap and Squamish. A high honor if there was ever one. For those not familiar for the territory in BC, the Squamish territory is approximately 45 minutes north of the Burrard Inlet with the Shuswap territory being 4 hours east. He held the position of Chief from 1951 to 1963, when his acting career took off at the age of 64.
His first big role was in a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) mini-series, Caribou Country. And when one of the episodes was made into a Hollywood movie named Smith, Dan George played his role of Old Antoine. His breakthrough role, however, came in 1970 in the movie Little Big Man (he played Old Lodge Skins) also starring Dustin Hoffman. And as a result he was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Supporting Actor. The first ever Native person to ever be nominated for an Academy Award! Just think of the progress since. In the sense that we just had a big name actor, Leo Dicaprio, acknowledge the rights of the Indigenous people in his acceptance speech!
But it was also a time of sorrow
As at the same time of his Academy Award nomination, his wife of 52 years, Amy, was admitted to the hospital for a chronic ulcer. She unfortunately passed away less than a month before the Oscars ceremony. Chief Dan George (writing his name without “chief” in front of it just does not feel right….) nevertheless continued his acting career and starred in a few different movies such as The Beachcombers, The Incredible Hulk and Harry and Tonto. Finally he also worked on stage in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, a play which made its way from Vancouver, BC to Washington, DC.
Chief Dan George for the rights of the Native people
Like others I have discussed on this site, including Russell Means, Chief Dan George, was known to be outspoken about Native issues. Although somewhat of a Hollywood celebrity, he was also known to be a representative of the Native people. He wanted to be a role model for the Native people, wanting to succeed to show them that it was possible. He took that responsibility very seriously, seeing personal failure as failure for the Native people. He always stood by his beliefs and did not compromise his integrity with any role he accepted. He always made sure that the movies he starred in were not denigrating Native people. A’Ho!
Chief Dan George was known for being outspoken about Native issues, but I think also especially for the way he spoke about them. Like Russell Means or any great chief, when he spoke, everyone would just listen. He chose his words carefully and spoke in such an eloquent manner that one was almost entranced by his words and sayings. One of his best known speech took place on Canada day in 1967 at the Empire Stadium in Vancouver. His Lament for Confederation performed in front of 35 000 people with his family singing and drumming. I really wish I could go back in time to hear that one!
Chief Dan George was highly respected and when he spoke, people listened. If one needs proof, he was given the second highest honor for merit in Canada: he was made an Officer for the Order of Canada. Although successful in his acting career, he continued to live simply on his reserve with his family. He continued to be the spiritual man that he was and the great speaker that he was. He did not ask for anything in return, he just did it for the good of the Native people. His words were profound and hit deep. When I read them, I am just amazed how precise they were. As I read them, I find myself nodding in agreement and thinking “yes!”. Because he was just so damn good.
I leave you with one of my favorite sayings of his as well as a video of his centennial speech. Let me know what you think of them below 🙂 Also check out his writings at the beginning of this article and below!
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