There are very few people who can say they have acted in Academy Award-winning films, been named to the Order of Canada and also been arrested for protesting.
Canadian Aboriginal actress Tantoo Cardinal is that rare exception, and in February, she was honoured with ACTRA Toronto’s prestigious Award of Excellence for both her powerful performance abilities and her ongoing activism efforts.
“It was the injustice toward our people that got me into acting in the first place,” Cardinal said in an interview with The Journal. “I just wanted to be able to do something about it; I wanted to be able to say something.”
Four decades into her career, Cardinal has credits in over 100 productions, including the critically acclaimed films Dances with Wolves, Black Robe, Smoke Signals, Legends of the Fall and the Canadian TV show, North of 60. She has amassed numerous accolades, including the Harvard University Sunhill Award for excellence in Aboriginal film making and four honorary doctorates.
When she entered the industry in the mid 1970s, mainstream thoughts and attitudes towards Aboriginal peoples and their cultures were very different than they are today, she said.
“When I started, there wasn’t all this Indian stuff all over the place; there weren’t posters all over walls, there wasn’t this idea of great pride in who we are,” she said. “I sat in an audition hall in Calgary and they were all white girls with dark makeup on and their Indian jewelry. I was the only Indian in there. That was when the Canadian film industry – in Edmonton anyways – was just kind of getting its stride because the Canadian content ruling had just come in and the mandate was to tell Canadian stories. In that thought was the idea, well, let’s hire Natives to play Native characters. That’s where I got my first opportunity.”
Even then, she said, the concepts were usually culturally “sparse.”
“They weren’t our stories because we were not the ones that were writing them or producing them or directing them,” she said. “It was all outside cultures that were telling their stories. There would be little roles where we would fit in here and there. That has changed, now that we have our own storytellers.”
Too often, those stories have included the struggle many communities face in challenging resource development operations on their land. It’s a tale the Fort McMurray native is all too familiar with after watching the Canadian oil and gas industry thrive in the backyard of her hometown.
Despite being arrested in 2011 for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, Cardinal continues to attend demonstrations and contribute her talents toward drawing attention to the “injustices” she sees happening around the world.
Most recently, Cardinal narrated the independent documentary film Crying Earth Rise Up! which depicts the struggles of people living on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The land is downstream from a uranium mine, which locals claim has contaminated the water supply, leading to deaths, birth defects and poor health in the people who live there.
This spring, she will also be featured in Down Here, another independent film depicting the experiences of a detective investigating the deaths of women living in Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside.
Ever the advocate, Cardinal had some advice to share with those looking for a career in the creative arts.
“To young people that want to get into the business, who have artistic inclinations, I would say listen to your artistic inclinations, whatever that is,” she said. “You have to do it because you have no other alternative. You have to create something, you have to write or you have to act, you have to sing, you have to dance, you have to produce. You have to do these things because it’s a part of who you are, because if you are trying to go into the business to try to be rich or to try to be famous, there’s a really high chance that you’ll be disappointed.”