CHIEF DAN GEORGE: ACTOR & ACTIVIST

ACTIVITY ONE – Chief Dan George in Photos – Visual Analysis

Instructions

Explore in detail Chief Dan George’s life by analyzing photos. These images provide evidence of Chief Dan George’s legacy. Each image is supplemented with background information and questions to answer.

‘Chief Dan George and His Indian Entertainers’, 1960
Credits: Courtesy of the UBC Museum of Anthropology Archives, Vancouver, Canada – Anthony Carter fonds. MOA a038273c141

IMAGE ONE – ‘Chief Dan George and His Indian Entertainers’

Questions:

  1. What tells us that these are “Indian” musicians?
  2. Why are these Coast Salish performers wearing “Plains Indian” costumes?
  3. This performance was said to be a form of resistance. What do you think was the impact of this resistance?

Background Information
This photo shows ‘Chief Dan George and His Indian Entertainers’ performing. Chief Dan George started this dance group in the 1940s when they traveled British Columbia playing at dances, country fairs, town halls and rodeos. They performed their traditional songs and dances, even though the Indian Act at the time prohibited Indigenous people from expressing their culture. This subversive resistance allowed Chief Dan George and his family to preserve traditional Tsleil-Waututh songs and dances.

As it was illegal to wear clothing from his own Coast Salish culture, his troupe wore Plains’ headdresses and buckskins. Their audiences were more familiar with and enjoyed this stereotypical image of the ‘Plains Indian,’ which was celebrated globally as exotic and colourful. With these Hollywood-style costumes, ‘Chief Dan George and his Indian Entertainers’ were perceived as ‘real Indians.’

When the Government of Canada’s ban on presenting traditional cultural practices was lifted in 1951, and the Indian Act revised, Chief Dan George formed the ‘Children of Takaya Dance Group’. It still operates today. It is the oldest and longest-running traditional Indigenous performing arts group in B.C. Today they play traditional Coast Salish instruments and wear black paddle jackets like the ones shown in Image Two.

Black paddle jacket and Photo of Chief Dan George Receiving the Order of Canada (1971).
Credits: Photograph by Tazim Damji, NVMA Volunteer; NVMA 16020

IMAGE TWO – Black Paddle Jacket and Chief Dan George Receiving the Order of Canada

Questions:

  1. What is unique about the first jacket? Do you see ‘paddles’ on it?
  2. Describe what is happening in the second photo.
  3. What is the significance of Chief Dan George wearing this paddle jacket and outfit to a formal event?

Background Information
The black jackets shown in both photos are called paddle jackets, which are Coast Salish regalia worn at special occasions. They are decorated with miniature Coast Salish canoe paddles on the front and back. Today the jackets are made of modern materials like black velvet. In the past, they were made of prized materials such as otter pelts. The paddle jacket on the left belongs to Chief Dan George’s family.

In the photo on the right, we see Chief Dan George receiving a medal of the Order of Canada in October, 1971. He was appointed to the Order of Canada for his work as an actor and as an advocate for Indigenous people. This award recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the country. In his lifetime, Chief Dan George received many other honours, including an honorary degree from Simon Fraser University in 1972 and a human relations award from the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews in 1971.

Collage of Film Posters
Credits: Ria Kawaguchi, designer

IMAGE THREE – Collage of Film Posters

Questions:

  1. What do you see in this collage of posters?
  2. What types of films was Chief Dan George in?
  3. What made him stand out as an Indigenous actor?
  4. How are Indigenous people portrayed in media and film/TV today?

Background Information
As an actor, Chief Dan George always played Indigenous characters and performed in many westerns. In 1960, his eldest son Bob was cast in the CBC television series Cariboo Country. When the actor playing the part of Ol’ Antoine fell ill, Bob suggested that a “real old Indian” be hired to play the part – his father Chief Dan George. Described as a natural, Chief Dan George brought an authenticity to the role and, as a result, his acting career took off. For the next decade, he appeared in many films as well as television and stage roles. He always chose his roles carefully and purposely chose roles that positively portrayed Indigenous people.

His breakout role came as ‘Old Lodge Skins’ in the 1970 film, Little Big Man. Chief Dan George was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor and became the first Indigenous actor to receive an Academy Award nomination. This thrust him onto the world stage; his culturally appropriate portrayal of Indigenous people was seen worldwide and influenced future films. Today, Indigenous characters are generally portrayed more positively and accurately than before. Arctic Air, North of 60, and Wind Talkers are examples.

Purple Paddle Jacket
Credits: Photograph by Tazim Damji, NVMA Volunteer

IMAGE FOUR – Purple Paddle Jacket

Questions:

  1. What does the fact that Chief Dan George wore this flashy purple paddle jacket to an awards event tell you?
  2. What do you think about this mix of traditional and modern dress?

Background Information
In 1971, Chief Dan George received the award for Best Supporting Actor, from the New York Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics, for his role as ‘Old Lodge Skins’ in Little Big Man. At the awards ceremony, Chief Dan George wore a purple lamé paddle jacket with matching pants (see photo). The New York Times described the awards ceremony: “And there was [Chief Dan George] in Sardi’s [an upscale New York restaurant], standing before assorted movie mavens and press agents. ‘I really don’t feel I should be given credit for this part,’ he said as he accepted the New York critics’ plaque. ‘I was an Indian chief for 12 years, so I really didn’t have to do much acting.’ It was hard to tell which was more incongruous – modesty in Sardi’s, or an Indian chief in a purple lamé jumpsuit.” (New York Times, February 21, 1971).

His purple lamé, the 1970s version of the paddle jacket, was both a demonstration of pride in his Coast Salish culture and a willingness to modernize and adapt clothing traditions to the modern world. His pride in his Tsleil-Waututh culture was bold and self-assured. Chief Dan George was a role model for the emerging self-awareness found in Indigenous communities of the 1960s and 1970s. We see this flourishing today with increased focus on reviving Indigenous languages and cultural expressions.

Chief Dan George gained worldwide recognition for his role as ‘Old Lodge Skins’ in Little Big Man, especially after he was also nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. How he portrayed Indigenous characters in the movies was seen worldwide and had an impact on how Indigenous people in North America were viewed.

Chief Dan George Postage Stamp, 2008
Credits: Photograph by Tazim Damji, NVMA Volunteer

IMAGE FIVE – Chief Dan George Postage Stamp

Questions:

  1. What does this stamp tell you about Chief Dan George’s reputation and historical significance?
  2. In the background of the stamp there are teepees. Is this appropriate?

Background Information
Chief Dan George’s image was used on a postage stamp issued in 2008. Generally, individuals who have their image on postage stamps are well-known and have made a contribution to Canada. They are chosen by the Canada Post Stamp Advisory Committee. Other recognized Canadians include musician Bryan Adams, hockey celebrity Wayne Gretzky, activist Terry Fox, North Vancouver mountaineer Phyllis Munday, and women’s rights activist Nellie McClung.

Poems by Chief Dan George
Credits: The best of Chief Dan George, p. 59 and 70

Photo by Preston L. Tait, BCMC 40:44

IMAGE SIX – Poems by Chief Dan George

Questions:

  1. What values and attitude to nature does Chief Dan George express in these poems?
  2. In what ways do local Indigenous nations continue to protect the environment?

Background Information
Dan George was an  environmentalist at a time when many people had not yet realized the impact of modern society on nature. He lamented the degradation of the environment in and around his beloved Burrard Inlet: “The wild beauty of the coastline and the taste of sea fog remains hidden behind the windows of passing cars,” he wrote in his poetry collection.  “Tread lightly on the earth,” he implored, “The sunlight does not leave its mark on the grass. So we, too, pass silently.” (My Heart Soars, 1974).

The Tsleil-Waututh are stewards of Burrard Inlet and their traditional territory. They have worked to clean up the Inlet and promote sustainable practices and clean energy. This sense of stewardship is a traditional part of Coast Salish culture, but it is also a reflection of Chief Dan George’s influence in his community. He established a modern culture of environmental activism in his community and demonstrated that they could influence the future of their environment. Many of his family members and members of the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Nations carry on this legacy.

In Circle Album Cover and Chief Dan George with Guitar
Credits: Photograph by Tazim Damji, NVMA Volunteer and photo by Lorraine Fenkner, Courtesy of Carol Lord.

IMAGE SEVEN – In Circle Album Cover and Chief Dan George with Guitar

Questions:

  1. Looking closely at the In Circle album cover, identify non-Indigenous designs and art work.
  2. Compare the second photo with Image One (above). What changes in Chief Dan George’s style do you see?
  3. What does this change tell us about Chief Dan George?

Background Information
Chief Dan George was not only an actor, he was an artist in many ways. He was a carver, a poet, and his musical career did not end when ‘Chief Dan George and his Indian Entertainers’ finished touring. In 1974, he released the country rock album named In Circle with the non-Indigenous band ‘Fireweed’. This LP was recognized by the Georgia Straight as one of 50 important Vancouver albums and one on which “country rock and cultural reconciliation collide” (Georgia Straight, May 4-11, 2017). It was an important collaboration between an Indigenous artist and a non-Indigenous group.

Chief Dan George Holding a Black Staff
Credits: Courtesy of the UBC Museum of Anthropology Archives, Vancouver, Canada – Anthony Carter fonds. MOA a038355c

IMAGE EIGHT – Chief Dan George Holding a Black Staff

Questions:

  1. The previous seven images have spoken of Chief Dan George’s life and legacy. Have you found that these images support the claim that Chief Dan George was a person of historical significance? Please provide evidence for your answer.

Need More Information?:
Read Chief Dan George’s Life and Legacy
Read Chief Dan George’s ‘Lament for Confederation’
View Useful Vocabulary