This article was originally published in 2009
Chief Dan George was a logger, a dockworker, a musician, a poet, and, at nearly 60 years of age, he became a movie star.
But he never forgot his most important role: that of a First Nations man who wanted to be an example to his people.
‘In everything he did, the first question to himself – and to us – was always ‘Is this good for our people?” says son Leonard George, one of Dan George’s eight children.
Dan George (1899-1981) was born on the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, located on Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver. He served as chief of this tribe from 1951 to 1963.
George loved storytelling, movies, vaudeville theater and music. He led a family country band in his spare time – which turned into a full-time gig in the early ’50s when he could not longer work on the docks due to an injury.
Touring B.C. reserves with the band, George quickly became known as the ‘rock ‘n’ roll chief,’ so when CBC Vancouver was looking for First Nations people for its new TV series Cariboo Country in the late ’50s, they asked him to audition and, at the age of 57, George took on his first acting role.
Cariboo Country was a groundbreaking series in that it was a western that defied many of the stereotypes of this television genre – guns were for hunting, not shootouts, and there were no wagons fighting off hostile Indians. And, most importantly, the decision was made to hire aboriginal people in the role of Indians, a novel concept at the time.
As a result of Cariboo Country, George was soon on Hollywood’s radar and he spent the ’60s and ’70s working in film and TV. One of George’s most acclaimed roles was in the 1970 film Little Big Man, one of the first Hollywood westerns in which an Indian wasn’t a bad guy. It earned George Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.
‘Film gave my dad an opportunity to change the Hollywood image of Indians, which wasn’t a true image,’ says Leonard George.
George used his talent as a tool to transform the oppressive and stereotypical images of aboriginal people in North American cinema. He also wanted to promote better understanding by non-aboriginals of First Nations people.
‘He loved the opportunity to have people see that Indians are human beings as well as anyone else,’ says Leonard George. ‘The medium of film is so personal and intimate that he could show viewers what he was feeling in his heart.’
George was also an activist and influential speaker on the rights of native peoples of North America. Most famously, he wrote and performed a soliloquy, Lament for Confederation, at the 1967 Canadian centennial celebrations in Vancouver, which served as a scathing indictment of the appropriation of native territory by white colonists.
Some of this activism may have stemmed from the fact that, at the age of five, George was placed in a residential school where his First Nations language and culture were prohibited.
‘The effect was devastating on him,’ says Leonard George. ‘That’s why he worked so hard to show that change had to happen, that we are strong people and we must remember who we are.’
July 24, 1899: Dan George is born on Tsleil-Waututh Nation, located on the Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver
1904: Enters a residential school at the age of 5
1918: Marries Amy Jack, who is from a long line of chiefs from the Squamish First Nation.
1951: Becomes chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (until 1963)
1960: CBC TV series Cariboo Country premieres and Canadian audiences and the film community are introduced to Chief Dan George in his first acting role
1967: Recites his famous work Lament for Confederation at Vancouver’s 1967 Canadian Centennial celebrations
1970: At the age of 71, is nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in Little Big Man. Sadly, George’s wife Amy dies of cancer just weeks prior to the awards ceremony
1971: Made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Sept. 23, 1981: Dan George dies of natural causes at age 82 in Vancouver