“It’s important for aboriginal people to tell their own stories,” Willie Dunn told his fans, “because Hollywood has done enough.”
Mr. Dunn was given his unofficial middle name – Roha’tiio – by a Mohawk chief in Akwesasne. It means “his voice is beautiful.”
A singer, songwriter and award-winning documentary filmmaker, Mr. Dunn was a trailblazer in the native community. The spirit of his work was saturated with the lives and histories of aboriginal people. He always said that reclaiming a voice for native people is critical because optimism and hope haven’t brought change.
“Please understand that Willie and other activists, singers and poets of his generation had no role models to direct them …” said elder Albert Dumont. “The drum and our ceremonies came back into the light because of them.”
Mr. Dunn died on Aug. 5 in Ottawa of cancer. He was 71. He leaves his partner, Liz Moore; children William, Lawrence and Pamela; and granddaughters Jessica, Mya and Melody.
Over his career, Mr. Dunn released several albums, including Willie Dunn, The Pacific, Metallic and Son of the Sun. He was inducted into the Aboriginal Walk of Honour and earned lifetime achievement recognition from the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards.
He was compared to Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot, but the power in his protest ballads were more like Pete Seeger’s We Shall Overcome, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier or Neil Young’s Ohio.
Particularly notable is his 1968 National Film Board short, The Ballad of Crowfoot, about the 19th-century Blackfoot chief. The film, set to Mr. Dunn’s song by the same name, is considered Canada’s first music video and one of the earliest NFB films directed by an aboriginal filmmaker.
Using a powerful montage of archival photographs and film footage of buffalo being slaughtered, it starkly displays the history brutally inflicted upon aboriginal Canadians by colonial settlers. “You are the leader, you are the chief. You stand against both liar and thief,” Mr. Dunn sings. “… They shoot the buffalo. Kill the game. Send their preachers into shame.”
The Ballad of Crowfoot won seven international awards, including a Gold Hugo for best short film at the 1969 Chicago International Film Festival.
Mr. Dunn’s other NFB credits include working as a filmmaker on These Are My People… and The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company. His music was used as a soundtrack for the films Incident at Restigouche, detailing a 1981 police raid on the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, and Okanada, about the 1990 standoff in Oka, Que.
Often called a First Nations ambassador for Canada, there’s a story in the native community about Mr. Dunn whispering into the Queen’s ear during her 1971 visit to British Columbia to celebrate the centennial of the province’s entry into Confederation. “We are not your children any more,” he reportedly said.
Born in Montreal on Aug. 14, 1941, into a family of eight children, he was of Mi’kmaq and Scottish/Irish background. His father, William Dunn, was a labourer, a poet and a sometime hobo. Willie recorded into music one of his father’s poems, Rattling along on a Freight Train. Every Saturday afternoon his mother, Stella Metallic, would tune in to the Metropolitan Opera. Poetry, music and the noise of children filled their home. Later in life, Mr. Dunn would perform T.S. Eliot’s poetry and Shakespeare’s sonnets to the sound of drumming and native chants.
According to his partner, Liz Moore, Willie was 15 when he was handed his first guitar. He taught himself to play and sneaked into Montreal cafés to watch blues musicians Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
In his 20s, Mr. Dunn served a three-year stint in the army and was awarded a United Nations medal for service in the Congo.
His old army friend Ken Diamond recalls the two of them almost freezing to death while hitchhiking from Camp Borden in Ontario to Montreal. But Mr. Dunn made it back to Montreal at the peak of the sixties folk music explosion, and tucked his guitar under his arm and cast off again.
He toured the clubs in New York’s Greenwich Village, then performed more widely across the United States, including at the legendary Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where the likes of Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and the McGarrigle sisters played.
In 1971, forging a link between his love of music and his interest in aboriginal issues, he helped establish the Native Council of Canada. Tony Belcourt, founding president of the Métis Nation of Ontario, who worked with Mr. Dunn in the early years of the Native Council, called his songs radical poetic documentaries of historic injustice.
“Willie was among the best of Canadian protest songwriters of the sixties and seventies, if not the best aboriginal songwriter. Because he wrote about Canadian people and Canadian issues, aboriginal people, both Métis and First Nations.”
Following on the heels of Crowfoot, Mr. Dunn wrote the song Charlie Wenjack, based on the story of a 12-year-old boy who died on the road after fleeing a residential school in 1966. “Nobody was talking about residential schools back in the sixties or seventies. It was just this plethora of injustice that was going on. The whole range was something that Willie wrote about,” Mr. Belcourt said.
“Willie Dunn’s music spoke truth to power and all power to the people,” said Brian Wright-McLeod, author of The Encyclopedia of Native Music.
He recalls flicking on the TV one day at nine years old and stumbling across The Ballad of Crowfoot. “Growing up in a white community, it was really empowering and fulfilling to see something like that,” Mr. Wright- McLeod said. “It made such a huge impact on me. … Willie Dunn was like a bard for those times.”
As a native performer, Mr. Dunn faced challenges and limitations on where he was invited to play. While on tour in the late sixties, he was booked by his agent to perform at a saloon in Kenora, Ont., where he was quickly heckled off the stage by people offended by his protest ballads. Mr. Dunn quietly put down his guitar and slipped out of the bar into safety.
“He kind of had some words with his agent over that,” said Mr. Wright-McLeod. “He laughed about it – it’s just one of those things, we still face that stuff.”
Over the next few decades, however, Mr. Dunn’s career took him to larger venues where he was neither threatened nor heckled, including in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. Some of his work was recorded under a German record label, and it’s possible he was played more widely in Germany than in Canada.
In 1993, Mr. Dunn stepped toward a more traditional route for political protest. He won the NDP’s nomination for Ottawa-Vanier in the federal election, finishing fourth against Liberal incumbent Jean-Robert Gauthier.
He returned to singing, corralling support in that familiar arena. He participated in the First Peoples Arts Showcase tour in 1998 and the Nations in a Circle spotlight of 2002. In 2004, he won a Canada Council grant to attend the WOMEX Showcase in Germany.
After a lifetime of songwriting and performances, he slowed down in his sixth decade, choosing a paintbrush over a microphone, and creating beautiful talking sticks depicting eagles, trout and salmon.
But according to his old friend Mr. Belcourt, “Willie’s regular self was sitting on the floor with everyone else, playing his guitar, singing his songs and enjoying a cool beer.”