Chief Dan George: Biography & Poems

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

This lesson will introduce you to a brief biography of Chief Dan George, and examine some major themes and techniques within his poetry. A short quiz follows the lesson.

Mural of Chief Dan George in Squamish, B.C.
Dan George Mural

From Movie Star to Poet

In the film Little Big Man, a touching segment features a Cheyenne elder, played by Chief Dan George, embracing his imminent death (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwgnDn8ez9g). Chief George later revealed that the director gave him substantial latitude to go outside the script, and draw on his own language and cultural heritage in performing the scene. This sort of negotiation between his native heritage and white authority stands as a defining aspect of his poetry as well.

Early Life and Career

A poet, writer, actor, musician, philosopher, and powerful voice for indigenous people, Chief Dan George, (July 24, 1899 - September 23, 1981) was born a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a Coast Salish tribe living along Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver. He would serve as Chief from 1951-1963. His family/tribal name, Geswanouth Slahoot, was anglicized to Dan Slaholt and then to Dan George when he was placed in a Catholic mission school at five-years old, where use of his native language was prohibited. Upon completing school, he worked in various labor jobs, including construction, logging, and stevedoring, but also as a traveling musician and performer. His family troupe, 'Dan George and his Indian Entertainers,' toured as a country-western act.

It was through acting, however, that he gained a voice for his poetry, and his advocacy of native interests. The road to Hollywood began with the TV series Cariboo Country-- a gig he began at 60 without any prior acting experience! This led to other parts and eventually to the role in Little Big Man that garnered him an Academy Award nomination. He went on to make numerous TV and movie appearances, including a memorable performance alongside Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, and earned high critical praise for his work in the play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame Star for Chief George on Granville Street, Vancouver, B.C.
Chief Dan George Star of Fame

Chief George's earlier poetry is collected in My Heart Soars (1974); a second compilation, My Spirit Soars, was published posthumously in 1982. Several of his poems are reprinted and critically discussed in Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology (2001), and a selection of his writing can be found on the Umilta Website (http://www.umilta.net/chief.html).

Poetry: Themes and Technique

The life of Chief George spans most of the century that brought the sweeping changes of colonization and European nationalism to the Pacific Northwest. He spoke frequently of his status as a person whose life was framed by two 'distinct cultures.' The first was his birth culture, based on tradition and continuity in conjunction with the cycles of the natural world. The second was defined by technology, frantic pace, and rapid change: i.e. modern North America. The experience of living within and between these two worlds emerges as a central theme within his poetry.

Keep a few embers

from the fire

that used to burn in your village,

some day go back

so all can gather again

and rekindle a new flame,

for a new life in a changed world.

Here, several characteristic features of his verse emerge. His lines are short, and the ideas are linked together through parataxis, repeated phrasing with conjunctions like 'so' or 'and', creating a continuous stream of thought. We see a central metaphor, with multiple layers and a deep concern over individual voice. The fire first signifies the essence of the village, a gathering point to share songs and stories, and continuously to renew communal bonds. He also draws on a popular idea of a flame that burns within, keeping alive hope and strength, but is also a persistent memory of the past, with potential to ignite a brighter future. Through context, the fire further stands for knowledge and passion.

In 'I Lost My Talk', the poem takes on the voice of a young native girl forbidden to speak her own language, and the word 'talk' is another layered, multi-purpose metaphor, representing her voice, identity, and self-knowledge all at once. In the last two stanzas, the poet seeks understanding and reconciliation between his speaker and the white Christian world that 'snatched' his own 'talk' when he was a child in the Catholic residential school:

Two ways I talk,

Both ways I say,

Your way is more powerful.

So gently I offer my hand and ask,

Let me find my talk,

So I can teach you about me.

In one of his lengthier poems, (most were fewer than 20 lines), 'Words to a Grandchild,' we see these elements yet again:

Our ways are good

but only in our world.

If you like the flame

on the white man's wick

learn of his ways

so you can bear his company.

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