Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors, Film
“This one Indian will not vanish from your memory.” -- Judith Crist, New York Times.
Chief Dan George was born on July 24, 1899 on Burrard Reserve No. 3 in North Vancouver as the son of a chief of the Tsleil Waututh or Burrard band. He was given the name Tes-wah-no but was also known as Geswanouth Slahoot. In English he was Dan Slaholt. His surname was changed to George when he went to a mission boarding school at age five. There he was forbidden to speak his native language and wasn’t allowed to practise Aboriginal traditions or beliefs. Dan George left school at age 17 and worked as a logger for three years and as a stevedore for 28 years. He stopped working as a longshoreman in 1947 after a large swingload of lumber smashed into him, damaging his leg and his hip. He then worked in construction and as a bus driver.
Dan George also formed a small dance band that entertained in clubs. He played the double bass and travelled to rodeos and country fairs in a group called Dan George and His Indian Entertainers. During this period he was elected Chief of his Reserve and served for 12 years in that capacity.
In the 1960s he was asked to audition for the role of “Old Antoine,” in the CBC series Cariboo Country after the white actor playing the role had fallen seriously ill. Producer Philip Keatley needed a replacement within one week so Chief Dan George was hired at age 60. To seal the deal, Keatley gave minor roles to Bob and Leonard George, the chief’s two sons. One episode of the series, entitled How to Break a Quarterhorse, won the Canadian Film Award for best entertainment film of 1965 and became the basis for a movie adaptation called Smith starring Glen Ford and Keenan Wynn. In the final scene Dan George was called upon to deliver the speech of surrender given by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe of Idaho. During his audition, the cast of the movie was so impressed by his performance they formed a receiving line so everyone could shake his hand. One critic wrote that Dan George played the role to “ultimate perfection.”
Chief Dan George also gained widespread recognition for his performance in the original stage presentation of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (Vancouver Playhouse, 1967). Another famous performance was his recitation of A Lament for Confederation before a crowd of 35,000 at Empire Stadium in Vancouver during centennial celebrations in 1967.
At age 71, Dan George was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for portrayal of a Cheyenne chief opposite Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man (1970). He won the New York Film Critics Award and the National Society of Film Critics Award for that same role. Starring with Frances Hyland, Chief Dan George earned rave reviews for subsequent productions of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and in Washington, D.C. In Washington, when he was approached by activists seeking to enlist his support for militant actions at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973, he allegedly responded, “We buried the hatchet in Canada long ago, and although treaty after treaty has been broken we have never dug it up. We have troubles, but we have our council of chiefs to work on them.”
Other film appearances included playing elderly Indians in both Harry and Tonto (1974) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1974) with Clint Eastwood. He also appeared in a forgettable and demeaning Bob Hope movie called Cancel My Reservation, for which he was criticized. He also made guest appearances on TV shows such as Incredible Hulk, Bonanza and The Beachcombers. He received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from SFU in 1972 and from the University of Brandon in 1973. He died September 23, 1981. Chief Dan George’s grave alongside Dollarton Highway, in the burial compound on the Burrard Indian Reserve in North Vancouver, is not prominently marked.
Chief Dan George is credited as the author of one of the bestselling books from B.C., My Heart Soars (1974), plus a posthumous volume, My Spirit Soars (1982) and The Best of Chief Dan George (2004). These are thin collections of poetic oratory with illustrations by Mission artist Helmut Hirnschall. According to his Chief Dan George’s biographer Hilda Mortimer, who co-wrote You Call Me Chief: Impressions of the Life of Chief Dan George (1981), “Dan George’s writing was not really his own. He had a mentor and a guide who dictated most of what he uttered. This was a very erudite and warm Catholic priest [Father Herbert ‘Bert’ Francis Dunlop, O.M.I.] who actually wrote most of what is in Dan George’s books. It is ironic to remember Dan George as a writer because, of course, there was almost no tradition of that kind of literature for his generation at all.” His granddaughter Lee Maracle strongly rebuts Mortimer's claim and maintains Dan George directly narrated the words that appeared in print.
My Heart Soars (Hancock House, 1974)
You Call Me Chief: Impressions of the Life of Chief Dan George (Doubleday 1981)
My Spirit Soars (Hancock House, 1982)
The Best of Chief Dan George (Hancock House, 2004)
Mortimer, Hilda & Chief Dan George. You Call Me Chief: Impressions of the Life of Chief Dan George (Doubleday 1981).
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005]