Chief Dan George (1899-1981), a member of the Coast Salish nation, gained fame as an actor relatively late in life. He is best remembered for his role as the Cheyenne elder, Old Lodge Skins, in the 1970 film Little Big Man alongside a young Dustin Hoffman. The success of Little Big Man gave George a platform from which to call attention to the plight of North America's indigenous peoples in the twentieth century.
A Vanishing Culture
George once delivered an open letter at a Canadian symposium on the matter of progress in the twentieth century and its effect on the indigenous cultures of North America. "I knew my people when they lived the old life," he said, according to a reprint of the speech in UNESCO Courier, "I knew them when there was still a dignity in their lives and a feeling of worth in their outlook; I knew them when there was unspoken confidence in the home and a certain knowledge of the path they walked upon. But they were living on the dying energy of a dying culture, a culture that was slowly losing its forward thrust." George was born during this transitional era, on June 24, 1899, near Vancouver, British Columbia, as the area was experiencing a timber boom and was rapidly being settled.
George's family was part of the Tell-lall-watt band of a Burrard Inlet group of Squamish, classified as a Coast Salish nation. He was named Geswanouth Slaholt, or "thunder coming up over the land from the water," but his name was Anglicized when he started school at the Roman Catholic Oblate Mission. His father believed it was best for his children's future to learn English, so he decided to send George's older brother to the Mission school. However, the boys were so close that Harry refused to go without his little brother, and so his father sent both boys. They knew no English when they arrived and were forbidden to speak their native language. George found the priests and nuns, in their strange garb, "terrifying for a little boy of my age," as he told biographer Hilda Mortimer in You Call Me Chief: Impressions of the Life of Chief Dan George. They saw their parents twice a month. "Every two weeks we'd catch the streetcar to the end of the line," he recalled, "then walk seven miles to get home on a Friday night."
Worked As Stevedore
George did well in school, but government funding for Native American education stopped when a student reached the age of 16. "I remember I cried when I left, for I felt that if I was to get anywhere in life I needed to study and learn more," he told Mortimer. "But I packed my clothes and walked the miles home." George worked as a logger, and, in 1917, he married Amy. Her father helped him get a coveted job as a stevedore in busy Vancouver Harbor. He worked loading timber beams onto ships for nearly 30 years, save for some lean times during labor strikes in the 1920s and the Great Depression in the 1930s, when he returned to logging to support his growing family. Sometimes they dug for clams or picked cascar bark, a typical Salish remedy for a stomach distress that was then sold to pharmaceutical companies for over-the-counter medicines.
The stevedore's life was typically a rough one, and George was an admitted gambler and drinker. His career was effectively ended when he was hit with a large load of lumber. "My bones were so tough nothin' was broken, but my leg and hip muscles were smashed to hamburger," he recalled in his biography. For the next ten years, George worked at odd jobs and even enjoyed a successful period as a country-and-western entertainer with his children as "Dan George and His Indian Entertainers." In 1951, he became tribal leader in lieu of his brother Harry, who had left the area.
A Star on "Cariboo Country"
By 1960 George had a grown son, Bob, who was enjoying minor success as a television actor. Bob George was cast in a new Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) series, Caribou Country, that was being filmed in British Columbia's Chilcotin Valley. When a white actor slated to play an Indian elder became ill, Bob George suggested his father as a replacement. George went on to appear in the series for the next few seasons and also won rave reviews for a stage performance as a heartbroken father whose daughter leaves the reservation for the city, only to be brutalized and eventually killed, in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. The play premiered at the Vancouver Playhouse in 1967 and went on to performances at the National Arts Center in Ottawa in 1969.
By this point George was already using his prominence to call attention to the plight of Canada's First Peoples. In the summer of 1967, he was invited to read a declaration at Vancouver Stadium in honor of the country's Centennial Celebration. "How long have I known you, O Canada?, " George reflected. "… . I have known you when the forests were mine; when they gave me my meat and my clothing. … But in the long hundred years since the white man came, I have seen my freedom disappear, like the salmon going mysteriously out to sea. … O Canada, how can I celebrate with you this Centenary, this hundred years? Shall I thank you for my reserves that are left to me of my beautiful forests? For the canned fish of my rivers? For the loss of my pride and authority, even among my own people?"
In 1969, George appeared in the Walt Disney film, Smith! The movie was based on the Cariboo Country stories and starred Glenn Ford. That role led to the offer to appear in the 1970 film Little Big Man with Dustin Hoffman. The movie was directed by Arthur Penn, and it is based on a Thomas Berger novel, which chronicles a notorious event in American history, the slaughter of several hundred Cheyenne in Oklahoma by U.S. Cavalry troops under the leadership of General George A. Custer. The blatant display of hostility helped set the stage for "Custer's Last Stand," the 1876 battle in Montana in which U.S. government troops were decimated by a combined Cheyenne and Sioux force. Custer died in that battle and was usually portrayed thereafter in popular culture as a heroic figure. The Penn film, however, set out to show a far more flawed leader.
Civil Rights Spirit of 1960s
Prior to Little Big Man, Native Americans had usually been depicted as savages or double-crossers by Hollywood. George was cast as a Cheyenne elder, Old Lodge Skins, who befriends Hoffman's character, a cavalry soldier named Jack Crabb. In the film, Crabb is fascinated by Native American culture, and Old Lodge Skins serves as a mentor of sorts to the confused Crabb. Film critic Pauline Kael, in her 5001 Nights at the Movies, described George's role as "part patriarch, part Jewish mother." In his death scene, George climbs a mountain to die alone. He later recalled that Penn, the director, allowed him a great degree of artistic license when it came time to shoot the scene. "That was my own song, my own dance, and my own way of talking to the great white spirit," he told Judy Klemesrud in a 1971 profile for the New York Times. "Those things were all my idea."
Little Big Man was a critical and commercial success and ushered in a new era in Hollywood's characterization of Native Americans. Other films followed that attempted to show U.S. history from a more balanced perspective. For his part George was honored with a New York Film Critics Award for best supporting actor. He was 71 years old at time. "I really don't feel I should be given credit for this part," he explained to Klemesrud. "I was an Indian chief for 12 years, so I really didn't have to do much acting."
Declined Larger Role
George was also nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role as well. Tragically, his wife of more than 50 years died just before the ceremony. He returned to his two-room wood house on the Berard Reservation, where he lived with one of his daughters and her children. Despite his age, he joined a rock band in 1972 called Fireweed and toured with them. He also accepted other film roles, but was sometimes criticized by an increasingly political Native American and Canadian indigenous groups for taking roles deemed unsuitable for Native Americans. One of them was Cancel My Reservation, a 1972 farce that starred Bob Hope. When The Ecstasy of Rita Joe debuted in Washington in 1973, a group of militant Native Americans affiliated with the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the theater lobby in hopes of persuading George to serve as their spokesperson. George he refused the request. The group had recently taken over South Dakota's Wounded Knee Reservation by force for several weeks, demanding a review of the 300 treaties signed between Native American nations and the U.S. government. George refused to become involved, believing that using guerrilla tactics was counterproductive. According to Notable Native Americans, he was more "interested in changing predominant images of Native Americans in the media, as well as derogatory images that many Indians had of themselves."
Still, George did become an unofficial spokesperson for Native American causes and environmental issues. He was invited to a 1975 symposium on the future of northern Canada's indigenous peoples and used the open-letter format of his speech to call attention to the plight of all First Nations. "Do you know what it is like to feel you are of no value to society and those around you, to know that people came to help you but not to work with you, for you knew that they knew you had nothing to offer," he asked his audience. Such eloquent words were later published in two volumes of poetry, My Heart Soars and My Spirit Soars.
A Fitting Finale
George made guest appearances on popular television shows of the era, such as High Chaparral, Bonanza, and Kung Fu. He also appeared in many more films including Harry and Tonto, a 1974 box-office hit, and he appeared as Clint Eastwood's hapless traveling companion in The Outlaw Josey Wales the following year. His last role was another farce, Americathon, released in 1979. The film is set twenty years into the future—in 1998—and imagines the United States government is on the brink of bankruptcy. Foreclosure is imminent at the hands of a corporation run by a Native American group led by George's character. The film starred John Ritter as the beleaguered American president who decides to hold a telethon and featured guest appearances by Elvis Costello and Jay Leno.
George died in his sleep on September 23, 1981, on British Columbia's Berard Reservation where he had been born. He left behind six children and 36 grandchildren. In 1998 the American Indian Motion Picture Award Ceremony honored him posthumously on the occasion of a film documentary on his life, Today Is a Good Day: Remembering Chief Dan George, which included interviews with his family and Hoffman. The festival director, Mike Smith, spoke about George and the importance of his role in Little Big Man nearly three decades earlier. Smith called it "the first film that really showed the other side of Native people, the love and the respect of family and culture."
Kael, Pauline, 5001 Nights at the Movies, Holt, 1991.
Mortimer, Hilda, with Chief Dan George, You Call Me Chief: Impressions of the Life of Chief Dan George, Doubleday, 1981.
New York Times, February 21, 1971.
UNESCO Courier, December 2001, p. 16.
Windspeaker, December 1998, pp. 18-20.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 1999.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 17, Gale Research, 1997. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (March 4, 2002).
Notable Native Americans, Gale Research, 1995. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (March 4, 2002).