Willie Dunn: writer of songs, maker of films (and trouble) and — in 1970 — his own man
Portrait Of The Artist As A YOUNG Half-Breed
Willie Dunn: writer of songs, maker of films (and trouble) and — in 1970 — his own man
I am free, and I dance
—From a poem by Duke Redbird
WILLIE DUNN drinks too much. He smokes too much. He has too many women. He gets into too much trouble, and there is a feeling about him that when he dies it will not be from living too long but too much. Willie Dunn is a songwriter and an NFB film maker who is as good at composing lyrics and screenplays as he is miserably inept at ingratiating himself with the police. Willie Dunn is a 28-year-old Montreal folk singer with a softly abrasive voice.
But if you ask him about himself he will tell you none of this. He will say, indelicately avoiding the French term Métis, that he’s a half-breed. For Willie Dunn well knows — though Willie Dunn doesn’t know why — that half-breed is a racial slur, like squaw. And when he says it he will covertly look at your face to watch you flinch.
He himself takes pride in the Micmac rather than the Scottish half of his ancestry. His life work is a celebration of our native peoples, and the best of his lyrics seem stripped to the granite of the Precamhrian Shield. He is a propagator of Traditionalism and Red Power, current and widely misunderstood pan-American movements of Indian nationalism.
One source of Indian self-respect is the rather brief period when native history was recorded, native nations not yet defeated. The luminous simplicity of Willie’s vision of ancient heroes —
Crazy Horse was a mighty man, he was a chief of the great Cheyenne
—moved Indian audiences everywhere. Willie’s status as a minor media celebrity and the throwaway style of his life im-
pressed a race neither sophisticated nor provident. Perhaps they sensed a transference of spirit from the dead warriors to the driven young man who now sang of them so proudly. At any rate, the celebrator became the celebrated and the legend of Willie Dunn was born.
But the white community had scarcely heard of Willlie Dunn. To those fearful of Indian activism he was somebody who in 1967 helped found the Vancouver-based Native Alliance For Red Power. This is a continental, nonstructured and hopefully nonviolent front to combat police harassment and bureaucratic slights and to push for self-determinism. More recently he became active in the North American Unity Convention, an insular, even secretive summer program of car caravans and multitribal gatherings on remote reserves.
The Convention has successfully reinstated “the old ways" — native cultural and religious traditions — among thousands of young Indians in Canada and the United States. If you could infiltrate this year's caravan, organized (loosely, by word of mouth) to roll up from
Oklahoma through the Dakotas to the Canadian prairies, you’d be confronted with spectacles that seemed 100 years old: the ritualistic burning of tobacco; interminable dances to the thump of one drum; prayers to a god more friendly and familiar than our own. And there has been a secret renaissance of the medicine man, the shaman, whose herbs and insights were prematurely buried by white doctors and clergymen, the latter as intolerant as the missionaries in Maugham’s Rain of whom someone said, “The founder of their religion wasn't so exclusive.” The caravan has its own innocence: alcohol, like tuberculosis a
white man’s sickness, is rigorously banned.
The 20,000 Indians expected to participate in this year’s Convention probably had 20,000 reasons for doing so. “It gives me enough strength to go on for another year,” said Willie Dunn. “What’s the use of writing songs if you think you’re going to die?” Maxi-activists could assert themselves. Last August, on the Maniwaki reserve 60 miles north of Ottawa, Kahn-Tineta Horn managed to expel an Indian because his employer was an agency of the despised federal government.
“You had to think, well, what the hell?” said Willie. “I mean, I work for the National Film Board. So he came back.” But the little drama pointed up the essential problem of being Willie Dunn, a city Indian who speaks no native tongue, a guarded but gregarious soul who haunts the darkest and noisiest pubs in Montreal, currently The Boiler Room and The Seven Steps, and whose drinking buddies include many Establishment types whom Kahn-Tineta Horn, for
example, would shun. When he was five weeks behind in his rent recently, it was to a white friend that he turned: "Well, this guy is a reporter. Most of my friends are reporters and CBC types. And Indians. But communications people understand each other.
The obverse of his fellowship with white peers is a moody hatred of the collective "white man.” Willie Dunn and the white man do not understand each other at all. He considers himself not a Canadian but a North American and participates in the national anxieties only through a glass darkly. His NFB short. The Ballad Of Crowfoot, is a collection of stills of plains Indians, proud and pathetic, culled from archives and backed by his own bitter song. The lyrics build to a shattering cry of outrage: we’ve been shafted and bent, rounded, busted and spent.
One day, over a fourth quart of Molson at The Boiler Room, whose clientele is inured to carelessly expressed anarchic sentiment, he told a friend that he was “at the point of picking up a gun and shooting about 10 of the bastards” — it not being clear who the bastards were.
But this wasn't typical of him. Willie's militance has usually been undermined by his humanity. The outburst occurred after he had described how an Indian girl named Cassie was sentenced to a term at Kingston Penitentiary for stealing. he said, two 15-cent pairs of earrings from a local store: “This store was broken into like 86 times in six months. The people on the reserve were so damned frustrated. Cassie was drunk. It was a kind of protest. It was like being locked up for stealing a loaf of bread.
I love this girl and she’s in jail. There was a point when all my friends were in jail. I wondered if it was because of their association with me ... ”
Association with Willie Dunn is sometimes dangerous and always involving. Correspondence from an Alberta Cree named Rose: Your a star and a hero to my childrens eyes and mind, Willie, you see they heard you singing over the radio last Sunday, they went running to get across to our neighbors kids to come and listen to you also. I was so happy and pleased to see the kids eyes shine and gleam. Comment by Johnny Yesno, host of CBC radio’s Indian Magazine: Willie Dunn is a crazy bastard, a lazy bugger. I never ask him to do anything for me unless he’s hungry. I play his tapes and the audience always writes in to ask if the songs are on records. They’re not. Willie doesn’t care. There’s a guy from Columbia Records in New York that's been trying to pin him down for three years. Most of the time you can’t even find him. He can’t stay in one place. Comment by George Stoney. Willie's supervisor at the Film Board: He has a contempt for what he does well. Com-
ment by Duke Redbird, Toronto poet and actor: Willie isn’t lazy. He’s in the process of discovering himself, and it’s taking a long time. Willie has found that you can't have integrity among our own people without screwing the whites. That's why he gets into these scrapes.
Out at Canyon Creek, a mink-ranching settlement on Lesser .Slave Lake, Willie was drawn into a beverage-room brawl after a group of racist whites insulted his friend Tony Antoine, a cofounder of the Native Alliance For Red Power. The two of them were hauled off to jail. They spent a month there while friends at the NFB did what they could from Montreal and the incident became a cause célebre among western Indians, who raised defense funds at a special seminar at the University of Alberta and badgered the Slave Lake prison warden to distraction. Back in Montreal. Willie, an Indian pal and an NFB film editor named Don Rennick were incarcerated overnight after a white waiter at The Seven Steps found nothing comradely about what Rennick later described as “a comradely slap on the cheek.” Some of Willie's women friends were implicated but not arrested.
Given his loyalties and predilections, it would be surprising if Willie's work at the rigidly structured Film Board went smoothly. It doesn't. Members of the Indian Film Crew are not really NFB employees, but volunteers with the Company of Young Canadians. They receive a living allowance from the CYC and film-making equipment and limited expenses from the NFB's Challenge For Change program, which is designed to apply the art of film making to community problems in such depressed areas as Indian reserves. The basic idea is to let groups of people observe their own lifestyle. Anyway. Willie was soon in trouble over his use of an NFB return address on some organizational material about a planned Indian demonstration. With his job on the line, 25 film makers took his side in a dispute with an officious supervisor. “There were a couple of hairy meetings and I was reinstated,” said Willie.
His film-making credo — "Activism is where it should be at; you have to be prepared to put down your camera some time and open your mouth” — was tested at a Métis community called Loon Lake in northern Alberta. It didn't work. “We found some people there who were actually starving,” he recalled. “Instead of shooting our film, we exposed the situation to the press. Then the welfare people were all up there saying it wasn't so. We made a lot of noise. The trouble was, we hadn't been there long enough to really get to know the people, and when we said they were starving it hurt their pride. So they went against us. It was a lesson."
Willie Dunn has been an erratic but determined student of Indian nationalism since he left the army at 22, having served for a time in the Belgian Congo. “Where are the American Indians now?” a Congolese teacher had asked him, and Willie, a grade-10 dropout and the son of a Montreal boilermaker (a ScottishCanadian who was made to feel ashamed of his Indian wife and who had made her ashamed of her Micmac heritage), didn't know. Back home he bought an old car and drove east, to Restigouche, the reserve of his mother’s family, to find out.
"When I was driving down there, through the Matapedia Valley, I started thinking wistfully about Indians, building up a vast mysticism about the countryside and the Indians. I showed up at my aunt's door. They recognized me right away because I looked like the people there. Well, Uncle Pat and me got drunk together. He took me hunting and fishing, showed me around, showed me off. And 1 knew that I had found my kin. Later I realized that the black teacher in the Congo — he was also my kin.”
He spent much of the next five years on the road with his guitar, on one occasion living among the dropout band of Robert Smallboy on Alberta’s remote Kootenay Plains. Dropping out of urban society was on his mind during hungover mornings with a taste like old brass in cities along the folk circuit, the hum of alien traffic coming in an open window and over the back of a blonde he didn’t know. “I’d like to go out in the country, away from the hassle, the bars,” he told an Indian friend. “I’ve seen enough of life. All I need is a shack in the country.” But back in Montreal, working for the Film Board, he sensed that there was no lasting escape for a committed city Indian: “I should stay here and help in my own way. I’m going to start right now with music. I have felt that I'd be exploiting the Indian people to make records about our past. But if you don't do nothing, nothing’s going to happen. I'll go ahead and make those goddam records.”
Like his picaresque life, Willie Dunn’s plain lyrics can be seen as an expression of dark and unsuspected themes. His Ballad Of Charlie Wenjack, which depicts the attempt of a 12-year-old Ojibway to run away home from a hated residential school, may be an allegory whose hidden meaning is not pleasant. There is the suggestion that a people -— treaty Indians and Métis, dissident chiefs and the ruined descendants of fabled hunters, shamans and squaws and torn young activists — walks in single file behind the doomed boy, who made it forty miles, six hundred left to go, and it's a tong old lonesome journey shufflin' through the snow. n
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