150+ Canadians Day 73: Chief Dan George

Chief Dan George contributed to peace by speaking up for Indigenous equality during his acting career. #Canada150

Chief Dan George is a famous 20th century Indigenous chief of the Salish Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a coastal First Nation tribe located on Burrard Inlet, British Columbia. He took over the role of band chief from his father in 1951, and continued in this role until 1963. He was known for quiet humour and gentleness, and his dedication to being a strong role model for his people.

Born as Geswanouth Slahoot, his English name was originally Dan Slaholt. The surname was changed to George when he entered a residential school at age 5. He worked for 27 years as a longshoreman, and as a construction worker and school bus driver after being injured on the job.  In 1960, when he was already 60 years old, he landed his first acting job in a CBC Television series, Cariboo Country, as the character Ol’ Antoine.

George is also an Oscar nominated actor, famously known in the film Little Big Man (1970). He also starred with Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales. In addition to many other film roles, George appeared in several episodes of the CBC series The Beachcombers.

During his acting career George promoted better understanding of First Nations people. He has been honoured with an Order of Canada, featured on a Canadian postage stamp and his name has been given to two Canadian schools and a theatre.

On Canada Day in 1967, George performed his soliloquy, Lament for Confederation, before 35,000 people at a centennial event in Vancouver. He indicted white colonialism, resulting stereotypes and the losses of Indigenous ways of life. This speech is credited with escalating native political activism in Canada and touching off widespread pro-native sentiment among non-natives. He lamented, “… since the white man came, I have seen my freedom disappear … When I fought to protect my land and my home, I was called a savage. When I neither understood nor welcomed this way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority.

He declared a vision that colonial tools of oppression could be used to become a way forward to self-expression and self-determination.

“I shall grab the instruments of the white man’s success—his education, his skills, and with these new tools I shall build my race into the proudest segment of your society.”

“We have taken so much from your culture; I wish you had taken something from ours … For there were some beautiful and good things within it. Perhaps now, that the time has come.”

Chief Dan George and his wife Amy (died 1971) had 6 children. He died at the age of 82, at home in Salish Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

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