Chief Dan George was more than just an actor. He was an Indigenous chief, an activist and a poet as well. He was one of the most important Indigenous individuals of the 20th century in Canada, and today I am looking at his fascinating life.
Dan George was born Geswanouth Slahoot on the Burrard Indigenous Reserve on July 24, 1899. His mother was believed to be a descendant of Chief Wautsauk, who went aboard the ship of George Vancouver when he explored the area in 1792.
George would say of his birth quote:
“I think I began my life here on Mother Earth just when my people, the Coast Salish, were starting to change from their old ways to the new ways of today. Before that, we lived the old life, hunting and fishing, that’s the only way I can describe it, hunting and fishing.”
His English name was Dan Slaholt, but his last name was changed to George when he was forced into Residential School at the age of five. At the age of 16, he left residential school to begin working.
As a young man, he would work several different jobs to make ends meet including as a school bus driver, longshoreman and construction worker. While working as a longshoreman, he would suffer a terrible injury when he smashed his leg on a lumber scow.
He would also marry his wife Amy and they would remain married for 51 years, having six children together.
In 1951, he was elected as the band chief for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, serving in that role until 1963. During these years, he would perform with Indigenous dancers at various shows, including winning the Search for Talent show in Vancouver three years in a row. Upon his third win, George stated quote:
“Our win is just another feather in our bonnet for the winning of good friends.”
While his performances brought praise, he still dealt with discrimination. At one performance in Vernon in 1957, George and his band were booked for a dance. Only two couples showed up and they played for those two couples from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. His friend, George Manuel would say quote:
“Dan tolerated a lot of discrimination. In spite of it, he was understanding in terms of humanity. He kept trying to persuade people to keep their heads up and to help to develop a society where we could all work together. He had a passionate belief in mankind.”
Even well into his 50s, George would still compete in canoe races as well.
When he left the office of chief in 1963, but was able to retain the honorary title, it was the first time in six generations that a member of his family was not chief. He would say quote:
“I have been so busy on other things I have been neglecting my people.”
Around this time, he decided that he wanted to begin acting, thanks to encouragement from his son, who was acting in a CBC film and said that the producer was looking for someone to play a quote:
So, in 1960 at the age of 60, he took his first acting role for a CBC series called Cariboo Country as Ol’ Antoine. His role was very well received and would lead to the role of Rita Joe’s father in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.
More roles would follow including on The Littlest Hobo and for the Walt Disney film Smith.
Throughout his acting career, George would work to promote better understanding of Indigenous people by non-Indigenous people.
In 1967, he would attend the City of Vancouver’s celebration of the Canadian Centennial, performing his soliloquy Lament for Confederation, which was an indictment of the taking of Indigenous territory by Europeans. The speech would greatly increase Indigenous activism in Canada and touched of a strong pro-Indigenous sentiment among non-Indigenous Canadians. I am going to play Lament for Confederation here, in its entirety because it is such a powerful and important work. It is just over six minutes long.
Following the speech, the Vancouver Sun would state quote:
Upon his death years later, the Vancouver Sun’s columnist Denny Boyd would state quote:
“I believe his greatest performance was played in Vancouver, speaking outdoors in a voice that rose and fell in vivid cadences of anger and sadness. It was the day they invited him to a party, and he sat on the birthday cake. I think it was the greatest thing he ever did…Chief Dan George stoned that crowd of 32,000. He stopped them cold and nailed them to their seats. Even the smallest children, who could not possibly understand his words, were hushed by the sibilant melancholy in that voice.”
In 1971, George would gain his most famous role, acting in Little Big Man as Old Lodge Skin. The role would earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, making him the first Indigenous person to be nominated. At the time, he was 71 years old and had 36 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
As Old Lodge Skin, he would adopt Dustin Hoffman’s character as his grandson following Custer’s Last Stand. He would say of his role quote:
“If you think deeply on the relationship of the white boy and his Indian grandfather, it shows the worth of integration, which is what we’re doing today and what I’ve dedicated my life to, the integration of Indians with the white man.”
He would say of his nomination quote:
“I don’t want Indians called second-class people anymore. Eight years ago, I dedicated myself to try to do something that would give a name to the Indian people. Even if I’m not selected as winner, I feel I’ve attained my goal. I’m not looking for glory for myself but for all the Indian people in Canada and the U.S.”
Following his nomination, many film critics state a shift began in Hollywood and its portrayal of the Indigenous, eventually leading to movies like Dances with Wolves, which featured another Oscar nomination for a Canadian actor, Graham Greene.
On March 11, 1971, Chief Dan George Day was proclaimed in Vancouver. The day was chosen by the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs to recognize the contributions made by George in changing the public image of Indigenous people. The proclamation would state quote:
“He has been instrumental in showing that the Indian, too often portrayed as either a blood thirsty savage or a dirty drunk, is a man, with all the strengths, weaknesses, emotions and feelings of other men. A man who has become almost a stranger in the land he once owned.”
During many interviews for the movie, George would speak of Indigenous rights in Canada. At one point, talk show host Dick Cavett asked him if it was easier to be Indigenous in Canada, to which George replied with a firm “No.”
George was also presented with a lifetime membership in the Chiefs Executive Council.
While he did not win the Oscar, George won awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle.
The same year he was nominated for an Oscar, George was awarded the Order of Canada.
The year was not without heartache though, as George’s wife Amy died after 51 years together. Around the time he received his Oscar nomination, she knew she was near death. She would tell him that if she died, he should not hesitate to go to the ceremony.
After his Oscar-nominated role, George began to get several offers for various roles. He would act in the play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, performing in Vancouver, Ottawa and Washington, D.C. He would also take on the recurring role of Chief Moses Charlie on the iconic Canadian show The Beachcombers. The role gave him the chance to act with his daughter, Charlene Aleck, who starred on the show for 18 years. He would play the role of Ancient Warrior in Kung Fu, and have roles in Alien Thunder, The Bears and I and Harry and Tonto. He was also scheduled to play the role of Shakespeare’s King Lear in 1973 but he had to cancel due to other commitments.
Throughout the 1970s, George would use his fame to help. In 1972, he was the national chairman of the International Brotherhood Week, and he was involved in the annual TB Christmas Seal drive. In 1972, it was announced that he would be the grand marshal for the Calgary Stampede Parade that year.
As an avid hockey fan, his fame rose just as the Vancouver Canucks joined the NHL. The Canucks management would always make sure they had a couple of tickets put aside for him for each game. One story tells of when he came to the arena for a game between the Canucks and Blackhawks. He asked the girl at the ticket office if they had any tickets for Dan George. She didn’t recognize him and asked if he had a reservation. According to all accounts, George had a good laugh and had to sit down.
He would also continue with his activism, both Indigenous and for other causes. When the United States conducted an underground nuclear blast in the Aleutian Islands in 1971, he would state quote:
“It is wrong to destroy anything created by the Great Spirit.”
He would also campaign for Indigenous prisoners in Canadian penitentiaries. He would be made a “honorary con for life” after he and a rock group performed two one hour shows for prisoners at a British Columbia penitentiary. During a pot-latch ceremony at one prison, he would address Indigenous convicts and say quote:
“One thing we all know is that those who are here on the inside, when they go to the Happy Hunting Ground, the good Lord will say to them that you have paid. You have paid, down on Earth.”
In 1974, he would release his album Chief Dan George & Fireweed in Circle. That same year, he would write My Heart Soars, a poetry work that was widely praised.
In 1976, he would star along with Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales.
In the summer of 1980, George fell and injured his hip, an injury he would never fully recover from.
On Sept. 23, 1981, Chief Dan George would pass away at the age of 82 in Vancouver. In 1982, a collection of his poetry was released as My Spirit Soars.
According to George’s son Leonard, his father knew his time was coming. He would say quote:
“His work kept him going until last year but during the summer he called the family together and told us not to hold on to him because he would be leaving us. He said he had had a full life and he told us to keep our traditions but to live for the future, not the past.”
While George’s health had been declining the previous years, his son said his death came down to the death of his beloved wife Amy a decade previous. Leonard would state quote:
“I think he died of a broken heart.”
Two schools in Abbotsford and Toronto are named for Chief Dan George, as is a theatre at the University of Victoria. In 2008, Canada Post released a stamp honouring him. He was also honoured in his life with several honorary degrees, as well as the Human Relations Award, given to him by the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews.
In 2010, Donald Sutherland would narrate a quote from My Heart Soars at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada.
I will end this episode with what the Windsor Star said of Chief Dan George following his death, stating quote:
“Chief Dan George was probably better than this country deserved. Despite continuing existence of bigotry and discrimination against Indians in Canada, this poet, philosopher, logger, actor and musician rose above it all displaying a magnificent humanity that brothers and sisters of us all. He lived his life with great dignity, not the pompous assumed dignity of the pretentious, but the pure dignity of wisdom and humor. His message was simple. Respect that dignity in others, regardless of race, creed or color.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, NewFederation.Org, Wikipedia, Victoria Times Colonist, The Interior News, CBC, The Ottawa Journal, The Vancouver Sun, Macleans, Edmonton Journal, the Montreal Gazette