Born Geswanouth Slahoot, Dan George was raised on the Burrard reserve in North Vancouver. He received his English name, Dan George, at St. Paul’s residential school, where he was sent when he was five years old.
Before he started acting at the age of 60, George had worked as longshoreman, construction worker, school-bus driver, logger and itinerant musician. He was also chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (Coast Salish people) from 1951 to 1963.
Chief Dan George was married to Amy George for 51 years and was father to six: Amy Marie, Ann, Irene, Rose, Leonard and Robert.
Dan George’s acting talent was discovered in 1960, after which he acted in a succession of roles as a gentle Indigenous elder on Canadian television and stage. His role as Ol’ Antoine in the CBC’s Cariboo Country (1960) was well-received, as was his role as Rita Joe’s father in the original production of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967, published 1970). Ryga expanded George’s initially minor role in the play after seeing him perform. George appeared in many television series including Bonanza, The Littlest Hobo, Kung Fu, The Beachcombers and Marcus Welby, M.D.
During his Hollywood career, George also starred or appeared in a number of feature films. His first, Smith! (1969), was inspired by an episode of Cariboo Country. Reprising his role as Ol’ Antoine, George joined the cast alongside fellow Indigenous actor Jay Silverheels. Not long after, George gained more attention for his role as Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man (1970). Starring alongside Dustin Hoffman, George earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. This was the first time an Indigenous actor was nominated for an Oscar. George won other awards for this role, including from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. The acclaim George garnered after Little Big Man was bittersweet because his wife, Amy, had died less than three weeks before the Academy Awards.
George also played Sam Two Feathers in the film Harry and Tonto (1974) and Lone Watie, alongside Clint Eastwood (as Josey Wales), in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). George acted in a number of other films including Alien Thunder (1974), Cold Journey (1975), Shadow of the Hawk (1976) and Americathon (1979).
Seen by many as a role model for Indigenous peoples, George refused to play roles or in films that in some way demeaned Indigenous peoples and culture. Despite his Hollywood success, Dan George never forgot his roots; George’s main residence remained his home on his reserve.
Lament for Confederation
During the 1967 centennial celebrations in Vancouver, Dan George recited his much publicized “Lament for Confederation” — a prose poem about the oppression and resurgence of Indigenous peoples in Canada. George asks the settler-colonialists,
Oh Canada, how can I celebrate with you this centenary, this hundred years? Shall I thank you for the reserves that are left me of my beautiful forests? Shall I thank you for the canned fish of my rivers? Shall I thank you for the loss of my pride and authority, even among my own people? For the lack of my will to fight back? No! I must forget what is past and gone.
George called for the empowerment of Indigenous peoples in settler society — a message that still held resonance 50 years later, during the celebrations for Canada’s 150th anniversary. As his great-grandson, Sid Bobb, has said about Canada since George’s powerful performance, “Much has changed and much remains the same.” Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to advocate for recognition of their treatment in the past and for means of moving forward.
Dan George wrote various books and poems during his career. He was best known as the author of My Heart Soars (1974) — a collection of poetry and his philosophies on life — and My Spirit Soars (1982) — another work of prose and poetry.
Awards and Honours
- New York Film Critics Circle Award, best supporting actor, Little Big Man (1970)
- Academy Award nomination, actor in a supporting role, Little Big Man (1971)
- Golden Globe Award nomination, best performance by an actor in a supporting role – Motion Picture, Little Big Man (1971)
- Golden Laurel, best male supporting performance, Little Big Man (1971)
- National Society of Film Critics Award, supporting actor, Little Big Man (1970)
- Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, Human Relations Award (1971)
- Officer of the Order of Canada (1971)
Chief Dan George is remembered as a talented actor and Indigenous spokesperson. In 2008, Canada Post commemorated his legacy with a special stamp. A school in Toronto, Ontario and another in Abbotsford, British Columbia, as well as a theatre in Victoria, British Columbia, bear his name — a testament to the ongoing influence that his works have had on various communities.