Indigenous Lessons for Everyone

As part of the All Roads Film Project here at National Geographic,  four films are being presented March 31-April 2, made by women from and about indigenous cultures. Among these are two by celebrated filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin of the Abenaki Nation.

While many of her films deal directly with issues of First Nations people in Canada, others, including Friday night’s “Professor Norman Cornett” (image below by John Mahoney) deal more broadly with culture as a whole and education specifically, which she cites as her life’s true passion. I sat down with Ms. Obomsawin at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. and asked her about these things.

Different and the Same

“It’s such an educational aspect of life to watch a film from another nation, or a culture, or a family, or an individual,” she said. “And by watching these stories you learn all kinds of things that you never even heard of before.”

She also finds that experiencing these differences can reveal surprising similarities.

Once, she was shocked to hear a song from Peru and to find a sound “just for a second perhaps, or two” that was the same sound as she’d had in a song that she had written, a long time ago.  Her elderly aunt was less surprised, but no less moved, and told her, “You know… a wave of the sea, it comes, it goes, and one wave hits a lot of different people. And for different people…it feels different although it’s the same wave.” This was the reason, she felt, that “although we don’t know each other, we don’t speak the same language, we know nothing about each other–some place there was something that was the same.”

What if You Have No Traditional Culture?

I also asked Alanis how people who are out of touch with their own ancestral culture can reclaim some of the richness of living traditions. Should people try to rediscover their own traditions, or is it ok to try to adopt or become a part of another? “I think the main thing is to know your own,” she said. “When you know who you are, when you know your traditions and your language and a way of being–then you’re strong.”

“And then you can take in any other things as you walk in life. You can learn, be more enriched, but do it with respect.”

Where Are the Important Stories?

For Alanis, culture does not seem to be separate from family or even from personal history. She speaks of each in similar terms, and presents them all as important levels of self-understanding and important stories to discover.  When asked by young filmmakers where to find stories, she always says to start with your own family. In particular, she says it’s important to shed some light on the shady, unspoken corners of family history. Once you do, she said, “you realize ‘Why hide it?’ It’s important to know it.”

The risk of not clearing the air around such stories is the same as that of simply not talking about family history at all. “I think it’s a loss,” she said. “Often I meet people and they don’t know who their grandparents were; they never saw them.” Eventually then, children grow up and want to learn about their family “and it takes them years to try and find out a few things about who they are…Why not know it early?”

Whether talking about indigenous cultures or personal history, it’s clear that Alanis Obomsawin has taken full advantage of the best of her traditional culture, and used her curiosity and modern film-making technology to discover her own story, to share it, and to help others see the value in doing the same.


Watch videos and buy tickets for this weekend’s films at NG Live.

Alanis Obomsawin, a member of the Abenaki First Nation, is one of Canada’s most distinguished and celebrated documentary filmmakers. She has made more than 20 documentaries on issues affecting Aboriginal people in Canada. She received the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, and was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002.



Human Journey

Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.