Many Indigenous men and women have made their marks in the fields of sports, politics, the arts and many others. Here are a few of these illustrious personages who have brought prestige to the country, with some continuing to shine their light until today:
Tom Longboat (1887-1949)
Canada’s greatest long-distance runner.
In the early 20th century, Thomas Charles Longboat, an Onondaga, was considered one of the most famous athletes in the western world. His star began to rise when he won the Boston Marathon in 1907, the most prestigious road running event at that time. He defeated 123 other runners and smashed the record by five minutes. The following year, he was favoured to win in the Olympics but failed. Nevertheless, he won most of the succeeding races he joined, even setting a world record for the fifteen-mile race in 1912 (one hour and 18 minutes).
Longboat had a stellar career despite experiencing racism from the sports community (even from his coaches and managers) and the media. When he pioneered a training technique alternating days of intense workouts with days of lower-stress exercise and rest, he was labelled “lazy.” Today, this technique is widely adopted by athletes.
In 1916, Longboat joined the Canadian Forces serving WWI. He served as a dispatch carrier running orders and messages between military posts in France. While in the army he continued to join races, winning several inter-battalion sporting contests. After the war, he returned to the Six Nations Reserve to retire. In 1955, Tom Longboat was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame as “Canada’s greatest long-distance runner.” June 4th was declared Tom Longboat Day.
Tommy George Prince (1915-1977)
War hero and Canada’s most-decorated Indigenous war veteran.
Tommy Prince belonged to the Brokenhead Band of Ojibwa in Manitoba. He was a descendant of Peguis, the Salteaux Chief. He learned to be a superb marksman and excellent tracker from his father, a hunter and trapper. As a young man, he endured many failed attempts to join the Canadian military, with discrimination likely coming into play. He was finally accepted in the early years of the Second World War in 1940. Once enlisted, he quickly rose through the ranks, distinguishing himself by his tracking skills, covert abilities, bravery, and quick thinking. In 1944 in France, Prince endured a grueling trek across rugged terrain to locate an enemy camp. He travelled without food or water for 72 hours. He was able to return from this mission, which resulted in the capture of more than 1,000 German soldiers.
Because of his heroism, Prince has been awarded a total of 11 medals in the Second World War and the Korean War. His awards include the Military Medal (awarded by King George VI at Buckingham Palace), 1939-1945 Star, The Italy Star, The France and Germany Star, The Defence Medal, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, and War Medal. Prince was also one of the few non-Americans ever awarded the Silver Star of the United States.
Besides his achievements as a soldier, Prince had a strong sense of civic duty and campaigned for better educational and economic opportunities for Indigenous Peoples. After being discharged from the military in 1945, he experienced racism firsthand. As an Indigenous man, he did not have a voice in the elections and was not given the same benefits as other Canadian veterans. After his last tour of duty in the Korean War, he came home and eventually fell into hard times. He spent his last years living in a Salvation Army shelter and died in Winnipeg in 1977. More than 500 people attended his funeral, including men from his reserve, Manitoba’s Lieutenant Governor and the consuls from France, Italy and the U.S.
Alanis Obomsawin (1932 – )
Singer, artist, storyteller and distinguished filmmaker.
The multi-awarded artist first her gained her fame as a singer. She debuted at a concert at New York City’s Town Hall in 1960, singing stories and legends of the Abeniki Nation. She performed throughout North America and Europe, self-accompanied on a hand-drum and rattle, at museums, prisons, universities and folk festivals for most of the 60s. In 1967, The National Film Board invited her to serve as an advisor on films about Indigenous Peoples. This began her prolific career as a documentarist having written, produced and directed about 50 films so far. Focusing on redressing injustices to Indigenous Peoples, the filmmaker combines Indigenous oral traditions with methods of documentary cinema, making her documentaries unique and profound. Among her multi-awarded works include Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Metis Child (1986), Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), and Is the Crown at War with Us? (2002). Many of her films shed light on the struggles of Indigenous Peoples and have brought public awareness and change.
Aside from her numerous awards for her documentaries, Alanis Obomsawin has been bestowed the titles Officer of the Order of Canada and Grand Officer of the National Order of Québec. Among the many awards she has earned the Prix Albert-Tessier and the Canadian Screen Awards’ Humanitarian Award, multiple Governor General’s Awards, lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees. In November 2019, she received the Companion of the Order of Canada – the highest honour within the Order of Canada.
See some of her work here: National Film Board, Alanis Obomsawin
She recently won the Glenn Gould Prize for her lifetime contribution to the arts (October 2020): Indigenous filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin wins $100,000 Glenn Gould Prize.
Buffy Sainte-Marie (1941 – )
Pioneering and influential Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and artist.
Beverly Sainte-Marie was born on the Piapot Cree First Nation reserve in Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan. She was raised in Massachusetts by relatives after the sudden deaths of her parents. As a young girl, she was inquisitive and taught herself how to play musical instruments. Later on, she studied Oriental philosophy and education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and graduated with honors in 1963. Shortly, she moved to New York to become a songwriter. There, she made a name for herself by performing folk music in Greenwich Village then around the world at folk festivals, coffee houses, concert venues and in Indigenous communities. She first became famous for her song Universal Soldier, which became a peace anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement. So far, her prolific musical career has produced more than 20 albums and has won for her a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Academy Award for co-writing the hit song Up Where We Belong (theme from the movie An Officer and a Gentleman). Aside from these, Buffy Sainte-Marie has received the Polaris Music Prize, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, multiple Juno Awards, Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees. She has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1995 at the Juno Awards. In 1997, she was named to the Order of Canada. She has also been inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame.
The musician and artist has appeared in television and film, mainly in projects touching on issues related to the Indigenous Peoples. She appeared in an episode of the NBC TV series The Virginian, where she insisted that Indigenous actors be cast in the Indigenous parts and was successful in her campaign. She was in the children’s educational show Sesame Street from late 1975 to 1980. Her advocacy has led her to create the philanthropic non-profit fund Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education and the Cradleboard Teaching Project, which uses computer networking to connect Indigenous and mainstream school children. She is an early adopter of multimedia and computer technology, which she has used to enhance her unique musical sound, as well as in the creation of educational materials and digital art.
Sainte-Marie’s outspoken persona, fearless social commentary, and musical artistry have earned for her many devoted fans, including fellow musicians such as Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, and many others who have covered some of her songs. She continues to inspire a new generation of musicians, particularly Indigenous and female artists, with her music, artistry and social activism.
Richard Wagamese (1955-2017)
Award-winning novelist, journalist and educator.
Acclaimed writer Richard Wagamese is an Ojibwa and a Sixties Scoop survivor. The trauma he and his family suffered (his parents were survivors of residential schools) became a reocurring theme of his works.
At 16, Wagamese dropped out of high school and was living on the streets. He spent his time in libraries where he read voraciously and learned the basics of writing. During this period, he struggled with drugs, alcohol and post-traumatic stress disorder from his experience growing up in foster homes. He was able to surmount all these struggles to build a successful writing career. In 1979, he earned his first reporting job at a newspaper in Regina. He would go on to write a column for the Calgary Herald and then work as a television and radio broadcaster. He is the first Indigenous writer to win a National Magazine Award for column writing.
In 1994, Wagamese’s first novel The Keeper’n Me was published. It won the Alberta Writers Guild’s Best Novel award in 1995. Wagamese went on to publish eight more novels, a collection of poetry and five non-fiction books and anthologies. His novel Indian Horse (2012), the story of a residential school survivor with a talent for ice hockey, was adapted into a film produced by Clint Eastwood and released in 2017. Wagamese’s other works won for him The Canadian Authors Association Award (2007), George Ryga Award for Social Awareness In Literature (2011), National Aboriginal Achievement Award (Indspire Award) for Media and Communications (2012), Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize and Burt Award for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Literature (2013).
The novelist also lectured on creative writing at various universities. He was the Harvey Stevenson Southam Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Victoria in 2011 and faculty advisor on journalism at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Grant MacEwen Community College.
Wagamese died in his sleep at the age of 61 in his home in Kamloops, B.C.
Article updated November 10, 2020.
Sources: Tom Longboat, Bruce Kidd, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Tom Longboat, Heritage Minutes, Historica Canada; Who was Tom Longboat? Canada’s greatest long-distance runner overcame racism and set records, Time Magazine; Tommy Prince, Laura Neilson Bonikowsky; Alanis Obomsawin, Paul Williams, Zuzana M. Pick, Winston Wuttunee, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Alanis Obomsawin, Indspire; Alanis Obomsawin, IMDb; Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jeff Bateman, Steve McLean, Andrew McIntosh, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Buffy Sainte-Marie.com; Buffy Sainte-Marie: 75 things you need to know about the Canadian Icon, Andrea Warner, CBC Music; Richard Wagamese, Jules Lewis, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Ojibway author Richard Wagamese dead at 61, CBC News; and Ojibway author Richard Wagamese found salvation in stories, Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail. All retrieved June 28, 2018.
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