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Duke Redbird: A Look Back at the Film Career of an Indigenous Living Legend | Curator’s Perspective

Duke Redbird: A Look Back at the Film Career of an Indigenous Living Legend | Curator’s Perspective

Duke Redbird: A Look Back at the Film Career of an Indigenous Living Legend | Curator’s Perspective

Originally from the Saugeen Ojibway First Nation in Ontario, visionary poet, designer and broadcaster Duke Redbird is also an important figure in the history of Indigenous cinema. The director of the first Indigenous animated film, Redbird had roles in NFB productions during the sixties and made two more landmark Indigenous films in the decade following his 1969 debut.

To celebrate National Indigenous History Month, I’d like to dedicate this Curator’s Perspective to this acclaimed artist, whose credits include the roles of director, scriptwriter, designer or cast member on seven NFB films. All of Redbird’s films have a historical significance that extends beyond the walls of the NFB.[i]

But before we delve into his body of work, I invite you to watch the Indigenous film of the month, Janine Windolph’s Our Maternal Home (2023). This 23-minute doc depicts the filmmaker herself, venturing from Saskatchewan to Quebec, with her two children and a younger sister, as they trace their family origins to the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi.

Our Maternal Home, Janine Windolph, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Redbird Before 1968: Sharp Ideas in Powerful Films

Thanks to the Challenge for Change program, by the mid-1960s some NFB filmmakers had started focussing their cameras on the perspectives of Indigenous and marginalized communities in Canada, whose voices were rarely represented in the media landscape. Duke Redbird was one of the few Indigenous personalities who actively participated in these films, enriching them with a mindset that was ahead of its time.

PowWow at Duck Lake, , provided by the National Film Board of Canada

David Hughes’ Pow Wow at Duke Lake (1967) and Indian Dialogue (1967) are hard-hitting films that tackle a range of subjects, including segregated residential schools, the denial of citizenship rights, loss of language and mass incarceration. In Pow Wow at Duke Lake, Redbird has a powerful exchange with a priest who defends the quality of education of residential schools; and in Indian Dialogue, along with a young Harold Cardinal, the great Cree chief, Redbird talks about Indigenous identity, arguing that “we are not losing our culture, we are developing it, it’s alive… and even if our needs are one day met with rocket ships, we’ll always be culturally Indigenous.”[ii]

Indian Dialogue, David Hughes, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

A full display of Redbird’s visionary ideas (at the age of 27!) can be found in Peter Pearson’s Encounter with Saul Alinsky – Part 2: Rama Indian Reserve, in which some young Indigenous leaders confront the pragmatism of the famous American activist and writer Saul Alinksy. In this heated debate, the young activists question the corrupting influence of power and ask why Indigenous people cannot live traditionally and peacefully on the land. Alinsky responds, “You have got to be part of the world in order to change it. You are not going to make any changes by staying in your corner.” This film offers fascinating Indigenous perspective and insights on power and activism, with lasting resonance today.

Encounter with Saul Alinsky – Part 2: Rama Indian Reserve, Peter Pearson, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Charley Squash Goes to Town: The First Indigenous Animated Film in the World

The birthdate of Indigenous cinema at the NFB (and in Canada at large) is 1968, not only because the first, historic all-Indigenous production unit (a.k.a., the Indian Film Crew) was formed that year at the NFB’s Montreal headquarters as part of the Challenge for Change program; Redbird’s Charley Squash Goes to Town started pre-production in 1968 and was released in 1969, and is today considered the first Indigenous animated film.

In the mid-1960s, Redbird became the editor of an Indigenous newspaper called The Thunderbird, for which he created the character Charlie Squash.[iii] This character in turn inspired Redbird to propose the four-minute animated film Charley Squash Goes to Town to the NFB. With its minimalist approach and dry wit, the short pokes gentle fun at Indigenous stereotypes and challenges the idea of a young Indigenous person seeking to blend into conventional, non-Indigenous Canadian society. Redbird is credited with the direction, story and design of the film, while legendary filmmaker and musician Alanis Obomsawin created the theme song. Charley Squash Goes to Town was so well received that it was sold to Columbia Pictures and released in 1970 in theatres across the country.[iv]

Charley Squash Goes to Town, Duke Redbird, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau

Thanks to the success of Charley Squash, Redbird continued to direct in the early 1970s, reaching his pinnacle as a filmmaker with the non-NFB fiction film To Walk with Dignity (1972) and the short doc The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau (1974).

In To Walk with Dignity, he explored the communication challenges between Indigenous communities in Canada and government administrators. Redbird himself played some of the characters, while fellow filmmaker and musician Willie Dunn played a character double and Alanis Obomsawin again participated as a musician.

The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau (1974, co-directed with Henning Jacobsen) is a study of the eponymous Indigenous artist as he works among the lakes and woodlands of his ancestors. One of Canada’s most renowned painters, Morrisseau is depicted as vital and passionate, torn between his Ojibway heritage and other influences. The film includes a testimonial about the uniqueness of Morrisseau’s work by Jack Pollock, the Toronto art gallery owner who discovered his paintings in the early 1960s.

The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau, Duke Redbird & Henning Jacobsen, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Duke Redbird as Performer: Immortalized in Other Celebrated Indigenous Films

In the 1970s, Redbird also appeared in two other NFB films. He was famous for his poems, published in collections such as I Am a Canadian (1978) and Loveshine and Red Wine (1981), and in The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company (1972), Martin Defalco and Willie Dunn included three shots of Duke sharing his views on colonialism. But the best NFB depiction of Redbird can be found in Alanis Obomsawin’s Amisk (1977), about the James Bay Festival, “which took place over nine days in Montreal. This historic one-of-a-kind event was held in support of the James Bay Cree whose territory, resources and culture were threatened… and First Nations, Métis and Inuit performers came from across North America to show their support.”[ix] Redbird makes a glorious two-minute appearance at the festival (32:14–34:54 in the film), with the camera focusing solely on his face as he recites a beautiful poem. Amisk contains footage of so many great Indigenous artists and so much great music that it’s well worth watching every second.

Amisk, Alanis Obomsawin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

June in Canada: National Indigenous History Month

Duke Redbird’s NFB body of work includes seven films: two as director and five as cast member or participant. He is one of the few Indigenous filmmakers at the NFB who worked on fiction, animated and documentary films. Redbird helped modernize Indigenous cinema at the NFB and Canada, raising the bar quite high for future Indigenous filmmakers everywhere. His groundbreaking Charley Squash Goes to Town might be my favourite animation by an Indigenous filmmaker at the NFB, with perhaps Terril Calder’s Meneath: The Hidden Island of Ethics (made 50 years later, in 2021) being a close contender.

To commemorate National Indigenous History Month, we invite you to get to know Duke Redbird’s films and to acknowledge the enormous contribution Indigenous artists have made to our cinema—and to the arts in general—by viewing some of the amazing titles we’ve programmed on the Transmission of Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenous-Made Animated Films channels.


[i] Barry Barclay, Our Own Image: A Story of a Maori Filmmaker (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[ii] David Hughes, Indian Dialogue (NFB, 1967), 00:18:57-00:19:20.


[iv] Ibid


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