- Read ‘Chief Dan George’s Life and Legacy’ overview (below).
- Have a look at the 8 images presented in ACTIVITY ONE and choose 3 images that represent what you think is important about Chief Dan George.
- Explain your image choices and summarize your thoughts of Chief Dan George’s historical significance.
Chief Dan George’s Life and Legacy
BACKGROUNDER: Chief Dan George (1899-1981) is well remembered as a longshoreman, actor, musician, lecturer, poet, activist, environmentalist and Indigenous leader. He was born ‘Geswanouth Slahoot’ the son of hereditary Chief George Sla-holt. He was raised in a longhouse on Burrard Indian Reserve #3, now known as the səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Reserve, which is located near Deep Cove.
While Chief Dan George spent much of his life working as a longshoreman and logger, his acting career began in his 60s when he appeared in many television, movie and stage productions (1960s-1970s). He also created two Indigenous dance troupes; the first was ‘Chief Dan George and His Indian Entertainers’* which was followed by the more traditional ‘Children of Takaya Dance Group’. In addition to acting and dance, he also carved, was a poet and worked to protect the environment.
THE ARTIST: Chief Dan George formed a dance group in the 1940s called ‘Chief Dan George and His Indian Entertainers’ *. From 1885-1951, the Indian Act made it illegal for Indigenous people to practice and perform their traditional dances and ceremonies, and to wear traditional clothing. ‘Chief Dan George and His Indian Entertainers’* subverted this law by performing at country fairs and local rodeos as an entertainment group. As it was illegal to wear clothing from his own Coast Salish culture, his troupe wore ‘Plains’ headdresses and buckskins; this was accepted popular Hollywood-style perception of Indigenous people.
When the government lifted the ban on traditional cultural practices in 1951, Chief Dan George formed the ‘Children of Takaya Dance Group’. These dancers wear traditional Coast Salish black paddle jackets like the ones shown in Activity One. The Takaya group is the oldest and longest-running traditional Indigenous performing arts group in B.C.
As an actor, Chief Dan George performed in many westerns and always played Indigenous characters. Described as a natural, Dan George first brought authenticity to his role of Ol’ Antoine in the 1960s CBC TV series Cariboo Country. With this, his acting career took off and for the remainder of his career, he carefully chose roles that presented a positive and accurate portrayal of Indigenous people.
His breakout role came as ‘Old Lodge Skins’ in the 1970 film, Little Big Man. For this, he was nominated for an Academy Award for 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 roles are generally portrayed more positively and accurately than before. Arctic Air, North of 60, and Wind Talkers are examples.
Chief Dan George was not only an actor, he was also an artist in other ways. He was a carver and 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’. The album 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’s historical significance is multi-faceted. By using səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) songs and dances and regalia in the early days, he helped to preserve aspects of his culture that might otherwise have been lost. This legacy now lives on in the ‘Children of Takaya Dance Group’. He continued to celebrate Indigenous culture in his acting career through his purposeful choice of roles and by actively challenging stereotypes on film, television and stage. In this way, he paved the way for accurate depictions of Indigenous people in media.
THE ACTIVIST: Chief Dan George was an environmentalist long before many became concerned about 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.” “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). This sense of stewardship, a traditional part of Coast Salish culture, reflects Chief Dan George’s influence in establishing a culture of environmental activism. Many of his family members and members of the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Nations carry on this work.
SUMMARY: Throughout his life, he was an advocate for a better understanding of Indigenous cultures and worked to bring people together to create understanding and bridge differences. He became a spokesperson for his people and was nationally recognized for these endeavours when he was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1971. Chief Dan George died in 1981 at the age of 82, but was not forgotten. In 2008, Canada Post created a postage stamp to mark his accomplishments. He had helped create change for many; Chief Dan George was historically significant.
*The term ‘Indian’ was commonly used in the 20th century, but it is now considered outdated and offensive. It was used historically to identify Indigenous peoples in South, Central and North America. While it is no longer considered to be culturally appropriate, this name was chosen by Chief Dan George as he was naming his dance group.
Sources: the information collected here formed part of the North Vancouver Museum & Archives 2017-2018 exhibit, Chief Dan George: Actor & Activist (organized in collaboration with members of the George family and members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation), and accompanying programs.
Photos: Courtesy of the UBC Museum of Anthropology Archives, Vancouver, Canada – Anthony Carter fonds MOA a038352c; painting by Lorraine Fenkner, Courtesy Carol Lord with photo by Tazim Damji, NVMA Volunteer; NVMA untitled-31; NVMA 15933; photo Courtesy of Luke Thomas family.