July 11th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 28
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Geswanouth Slahoot
My Heart Soars Like a Hawk
Looking Back
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, Youtube and John Kinnear
Dustin Hoffman as the 121 year old Jack Crabb
Geswanouth Slahoot is the given name of a remarkable man whom I first came across in 1969 while watching the epic film Little Big Man. This movie ranks as one of the top ten best movies I have ever seen and is a must see for anyone who finds the old stereotypical Hollywood presentation of First Nation’s people as offensive as I do. Its opening scene is an interview with a gnarly looking 121 year old man named Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who claims to be the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn. His scratchy-throated narrative is used marvelously throughout the movie

One of the principle characters in this movie is Geswanouth who is called Old Lodge Skins in the film but is in fact the iconic Chief Dan George. The story of this special man’s rise to fame and work as a tireless champion of First Nations peoples is one worth knowing. I found his book My Heart Soars/ My Spirit Soars to be a profound work of prose and poetry that has affected me deeply. Its contents carries messages important to all of us that we should try to understand and embrace. Simple messages of spirituality and respect for others and your surroundings. A typical quote from Chief Dan George is: “There is a longing among all people and creatures to have a sense of purpose and worth. To satisfy that common longing in all of us we must respect each other.”
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I won’t go into the details of Little Big Man for those of you that haven’t seen it except to say that Dustin Hoffman was extraordinary in it, playing so many characters I lost count. He portrays a young settler that gets kidnapped and raised by the Cheyenne, a gunslinger that knew Wild Bill Hickok, an apprentice of a snake-oil salesman which gets him tarred and feathered, a town drunk, a hermit and trapper and eventually a mule skinner with Custer’s 7th cavalry. But it was Dan George’s rich character and profound words that have stayed with me for almost 50 years.

What struck me about Chief Dan George, in this movie, was his quiet demeanour amongst chaos and the simple thoughtful observations he passed on to Little Big Man. It left me wondering more about this enigmatic man so I dug a little deeper into his story.

In my copy of the My Heart Soars/ My Spirit Soars compilation author Harriett Shloossberg claims his given name was Teswhano which means: “thunder coming up over the land from the water.” Other sources say Geswanouth Slahoot which in English was Dan Slaholt. Chief Dan George was born in 1899 on a Salish Band (Tsleil-Waututh) reserve on Burrard Inlet and was one of twelve children whose father was the band chief. Like most native children of that time he was sent to a Catholic white residential school at the age of five where he remained until age sixteen. They of course felt bound to anglicize his name to George. I personally struggle to imagine how difficult that must have been, being separated from one’s family, culture, language and customs. They must have been heartbreaking years for him. We did this to First Nation’s children consistently for decades.

Dan George went immediately into the bush at sixteen to work and at nineteen married a Squamish girl who he was devoted to for 52 years and with which he had eight children. He worked as a long shoreman for almost 30 years and in the forties played bass fiddle for dances all across BC three or four times a week in a band known as Dan George and His Indian Entertainers. From 1951 to 1963 he served as his band’s chief.
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But it was in the sixties that his life was transformed when he played the part of Ol’ Antoine in the CBC TV series Caribou Country. He also performed in the powerful play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe for years, a role that gained national acclaim. An episode of Caribou Country got picked up by a Hollywood studio and he was tested for a Disney movie called Smith, with Glenn Ford. He got it easily and from there his career reached its peak with the role of Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man which he got an academy award nomination for.

Chief Dan George’s highest aim though was always: “a better understanding by white people of his culture and his people” which he pursued with determination, wisdom and courage. In 1967 he delivered a powerful speech to a crowd of 32,000 people in Empire Stadium in Vancouver on the occasion of Canada’s centenary celebration. His “Lament to Confederation” silenced the crowd and remains today a striking example of the First Nation’s take on our flag waving fireworks extravaganza.

Here then is the first part of this speech that was according to Janet Rogers: “perceived as a radical piece of writing delivered unapologetically by the one person who could make those kinds of critical statements and get away with them.” Janet Rogers is a Mohawk/Tuscarora writer from Six Nations in Ontario who has lived on traditional Coast Salish lands since 1994.

Here then is part of Chief Dan George’s lament:

“How long have I known you, Oh Canada? A hundred years? Yes, a hundred years. And many, many seelanum (lunar months) more. And today, when you celebrate your hundred years, Oh Canada, I am sad for all the Indian people throughout the land.

For I have known you when your forests were mine; when they gave me my meat and my clothing. I have known you in your streams and rivers where your fish flashed and danced in the sun, where the waters said 'come, come and eat of my abundance.' I have known you in the freedom of the winds. And my spirit, like the winds, once roamed your good lands.
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But in the long hundred years since the white man came, I have seen my freedom disappear like the salmon going mysteriously out to sea. The white man's strange customs, which I could not understand, pressed down upon me until I could no longer breathe.

When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed his way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority.

My nation was ignored in your history textbooks - they were little more important in the history of Canada than the buffalo that ranged the plains. I was ridiculed in your plays and motion pictures, and when I drank your fire-water, I got drunk - very, very drunk. And I forgot.

Oh Canada, how can I celebrate with you this Centenary, this hundred years? Shall I thank you for the reserves that are left to me of my beautiful forests? For the canned fish of my rivers? For the loss of my pride and authority, even among my own people? For the lack of my will to fight back?”

In 2017 Janet Rogers revisited his words, in a CBC opinion piece, on the occasion of our 150th celebration. In it she indicated she was deeply disturbed by on line comments that appeared in a Global News article about the 150th in Vancouver being a year-long celebration of First Nations culture, art and music. It was called Canada 150+ - the plus sign denoting the years of Indigenous history predating colonization The celebration’s theme was to be ‘Moving Forward Together’ and was in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.
Rogers speaks to Chief Dan George’s fourth paragraph in the lament in which he uses the terms savage and lazy. “Those names are still hurled towards us today but now they are less audible and more textural where they remain visible for many more to witness and add to.”
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“We have new cyber territories created through social media sites, where those who know better than to show themselves as the face of racism out in public do so from the comfort of their homes on stolen land, with the support of like-minded mobs and from behind anonymous avatars. This is the new battleground. And it really doesn't take much to incite a verbal/textual back-and-forth.”

“Want to take the temperature of racial progress in this country? Read any comment section of an Indigenous news story online and tell the Chief and I that we're wrong.”

I’d like to think we are working towards a more conscientious embracement of First Nation’s cultures and values and learning to be respectful of their ways. But there is still many who scoff and post racially biased comments like this one from 2017 after the Vancouver 150+ article ran which read: "The people who came to this beautiful country (and didn't have their hands out, looking for a free ride — but WORKED) — those who made Canada what it is today... will get NO recognition. Of course... And what was I thinking, silly me?"

Chief Dan George passed in 1981 and is buried on his traditional lands. I am sure if he were around today he would say: “It appears we still have a long way to go.”

Author’s Note: Let’s hope my brief insight into one man’s life doesn’t incite similar comments like those above. If it does it will merely reinforce the point.
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July 11th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 28
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