Chief Dan George: Tribal leader, activist, author and actor

Chief Dan George: Tribal leader, activist, author and actor

Hello all!Chief Dan George

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 yearsChief Dan George close up

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.

chief Dan George

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.

chief Dan george

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!

quote Dan George

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 peoplechief dan george

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!

quote chief dan george

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!

talk to the animals, Chief Dan George

All my Relations

8 thoughts on “Chief Dan George: Tribal leader, activist, author and actor

  1. Shaz

    Thanks for this post Emily! You always inspire especially with the quotes that you include. I particularly liked the ‘If I had my child to raise over again’ one – each and every sentence is true in these times! It reminds me of a powerful poem that I read from the Dalai Lama once -here it goes (and that last line is the best in my opinion):

    “We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; we have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicines, but less healthiness; We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We’ve built more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communication; We have become long on quantity, but short on quality.
    These times are times of fast foods; but slow digestion; tall man but short character; steep profits but shallow relationships. It is time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.”

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Shaz
      thanks for sharing this with me! Awesome quote from the Dalai Lama. And absolutely relevant in the times we are in. If Chief Dan George was alive today, he would agree.

      Reply
  2. Garen

    I really can’t understand why people force religion and a language which is not their native tongue. Personally, if someone forced their beliefs on me I would resent them for it. It’s good to see that Dan George used his hardships as motivation to do good in this world. I think a lot of people would go the other direction and let it ruin their quality of life.

    I was wondering if there are any other movies he was in that are not mentioned in this article?

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Garen
      yes lots of anger and resentment and mostly trauma were caused by residential schools. And it is still felt to this day. It is hard to believe that the last residential school closed only 20 years ago! Chief Dan George used his experience as a motivation to help his people. Not an easy task. He was actually in many movies. I did mention a few but others include “The Outlaw Josey Whales”, “Alien Thunder”, and “Harry and Tonto”.

      Reply
  3. Yvonne

    Hi Emily,

    What an amazing man and life he had! He reminds me very much of Russell Means, who was also outspoken for issues concerning the Natives. I love the poem written by him “If I Had To Raise my Child Again”. It is really relevant to me and gives me the inspiration to be a better parent. “I would be firm less often, and affirm much more” speaks the most to me. Chief Dan George is a very wise man.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Yvonne
      yes Chief Dan George was a great human being and such a great defender of the rights of his people. Like Russell Means was. His words were just so wise. I like his poem too.

      Reply
  4. Dee

    I was taught beading from a native american I met. And I wish I could find her…she taught me souch about the earth and seasons and ways of the Native Americans…I have always been drawn to it my whole life…and I continue to keep these beliefs iny heart and mind…I was gifted with a beaded feather..and I still smudge with it..and I still bead and make things native american. ..she once said I must have been native american in another life…and I believe that to be true for I can’t get enough of the customs and traditions to this day…I will always remember the beautiful people I met on my journey. .and getting to know these wonderful, kind, and giving people I met…

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Dee
      So nice to see you here! You had great teachers it seems. It is awesome that you are sharing the work and the beauty of the people and the traditions with the world. I do understand how you feel when you say that you feel like you were Native in a previous life. I do believe that is how it is and feels for some. I know it is in my blood but I do not have any info nor can I prove it. But I can feel it. It is my way of life, where my spirit feels at ease and at peace. I just got back from a Pow wow tonight and it made my heart sing. 🙂

      Reply

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