Tantoo Cardinal has sat around countless fires for the camera. Campfires in the forest and on the prairie, fires in teepees and cabins. And every one of them was fake, with silent propane flames licking logs that didn’t burn and crackling with sound effects. “In every show I’ve done, it seems like there’s always a fire somewhere,” says the veteran Cree/Métis actor, “and it’s always propane, with that smell.” But after playing more than 100 roles in film and television, Cardinal finally got a chance to act in front of a real wood fire. It happened to coincide with her first lead role in a prolific career that spans almost half a century, in Falls Around Her—a movie written for her by Indigenous filmmaker Darlene Naponse and shot on the director’s homeland, the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation territory near Sudbury, Ont.
She plays Mary Birchbark, a world-famous singer who retreats from the stage and holes up in a cabin on her home reserve in the northern bush, living in fear of an abusive manager. Fire serves as the ﬁlm’s central motif, a symbol of its heroine’s spiritual force, which mirrors Cardinal’s own personal history of rage and resilience as an artist and activist fighting to bring Indigenous voices into the foreground. After a lifetime of supporting roles, Cardinal carries the film with a scarily powerful performance, eloquent even in silence: a mesmerizing close-up shows her staring into the flames of a wood stove as unspoken thoughts and emotions play across her face in the flickering light.
“It was the first time I’ve been on a set with a fire-keeper,” says Cardinal, referring to a traditional role in First Nations ceremonies, “and I was elated to see that on our set, the power of that connection with the fire.”
We are conducting our interview in Whistler, B.C., where she has just received a Career Achievement Award from the Whistler Film Festival. The trophy is a hand-carved talking stick, a totemic sculpture created by an artist from the Squamish Nation—an appropriate honour for a First Nations actor whose voice is finally being heard. And it’s one of numerous accolades that have been catching up to her accomplishments. The latest is the Technicolor Clyde Gilmour Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association, heralding her lifelong contribution to Canadian cinema.
Likely the most recognizable Indigenous actress in North America, Cardinal, 68, is one of this country’s most prolific and versatile performers. She appears in four movies that premiered in 2018 and should open next spring—The Grizzlies, Through Black Spruce, Angelique’s Isle and Falls Around Her. She’s also been ubiquitous in the realm of premium TV, on shows like Westworld, Godless, Longmire and Outlander. And her disparate roles have required her to speak half a dozen First Nations languages. In just the past two years, she’s acted in Cree, Apache, Paiute, Cherokee, Ojibwe and Gwich’in—not to mention Elizabethan English as Gertrude in Hamlet for the Tarragon Theatre, a character Cardinal found so insubstantial she calls her “the Emoticon.”
Whether cast as an outlaw medicine woman forging passports in Longmire or a strict Inuit principal challenging a white teacher who brings lacrosse to her school in The Grizzlies, Cardinal sparks her characters with a fierce charisma. She has a way of enlarging even the most compact roles with a sidelong glance of gravitas and flashes of sardonic wit. Among the recent TV parts, her favourite was the Cheyenne outlaw in Longmire. “That character was so pronounced. She was a renegade, so sick of the world, which is how she ended up in the bush, helping others escape.”
Cardinal’s recent acclaim comes as the fruit of a 48-year career arc that has gone from Indigenous actors being cast as “only a colour,” in her words, to characters developed with an eye to authenticity. Kevin Costner’s 1990 classic Dances With Wolves was a milestone, with heroic Sioux speaking subtitled Lakota—even if they were led by a white saviour. Cardinal had a small role as the wife of a medicine man played by Graham Greene, who picked up an Oscar nomination. And it led to her working with the likes of Brad Pitt and Sam Shepard. “Brad was wonderful,” she says, but she becomes rhapsodic talking about Shepard directing her in the title role of Silent Tongue (1993), as a woman whose tongue has been cut out. “I thought he’d be very specific, let’s see what he needs. But he wanted to know what I was seeing. He trusted full-tilt whatever was in my system.”
Cardinal has carved out a unique place in a lineage of First Nations icons that include Chief Dan George, August Schellenberg and Greene. These are “performers who were cast in classic westerns but could maintain a dignity and singularity,” says Jesse Wente, director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office. “The fact that Tantoo has those Hollywood credits and that her celebration comes when she’s in the antithesis of those movies—movies that are Indigenous-led—shows the remarkable breadth of her career.” But Wente is disturbed by the fact that Canada’s three biggest Indigenous features in 2018—Indian Horse, Through Black Spruce and The Grizzlies—were made by white directors.
He insists that Indigenous filmmakers must be allowed to tell their own stories. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Don McKellar is a bad filmmaker or that he made a bad film,” he concedes, referring to the director of Through Black Spruce. “I don’t believe that. But why wouldn’t we want to go out and engage people from the communities we’re telling stories about?” Then he adds, “What’s lost in a lot of these discussions is nuance. I don’t think collaboration’s bad. We should be open to it.” Black Spruce producer Tina Keeper, “made the choices she wanted to and I support her in that. I’d just love to see Indigenous people get the same opportunity to tell our stories that other people have had.”
Cardinal shares that sentiment and is enthused by the new generation of Indigenous directors—it took one to give her a lead role—but she’s wary of any hard-line stance against white people directing Indigenous stories. “There’s all kinds of grey areas I don’t hear being addressed. I get my back up with these purists that have emerged from somewhere and have not been on all those battlefields I’ve been on. If I’d waited for a Native director, I wouldn’t have even known I was an actor.”
In an age when cultural conversations are navigated with extreme caution, Cardinal can be blithely outspoken. “She’s extremely opinionated, and I’ve seen her be very combative,” says McKellar, noting that her “casual leadership” on the set of Through Black Spruce outweighed her small role in the film. “She has such respect in the community that she’s able to assert that authority effortlessly,” he adds. McKellar says it was embarrassing to ask an actor of Cardinal’s stature to play such a minor part in Black Spruce. But the role demanded a Cree speaker, and Cardinal appreciated the chance to act in Cree, as an elder living off the land in northern Ontario’s Attawapiskat. Before filming, the production was rocked by controversy over Joseph Boyden, who wrote the novel on which it’s based, and whose claim to Indigenous heritage came under fire. Cardinal defended the film, says McKellar, and “the way she dissected the issue really helped me.”
On the Boyden question, Cardinal is blunt: “He’s not the most Indian guy around, but I have a lot of empathy,” she says. “I have a sister who was adopted out and raised in San Jose, Calif., and I wouldn’t want anyone bothering her about who she is and where she comes from.” Besides, she adds, “he looks like a Métis. I am a mixed-blood person. The very definition of my nation is the mixed blood.”
The eldest of three children, Cardinal was born in Fort McMurray, Alta., and grew up in the nearby hamlet of Anzac. Her maternal grandmother, who spoke only Cree, named her Tantoo after the brand of an insect repellent that she slathered on the newborn while picking blueberries to be sold and shipped south by train. She never knew her white father, who left when she was six weeks old, and her Métis mother moved to Edmonton when she became pregnant with Cardinal’s brother, Robert. So Cardinal was raised by her grandmother and her mother’s stepfather, who separated when she was 10. “I come from a fractured background,” she says. “The family is fractured, the community is fractured, and around Fort McMurray, the land is beyond fractured.”
Cardinal is sitting on a quilt-covered sofa in her rented house, the ground floor of a modest Toronto duplex. As she migrates from one wilderness film location to another, she is rarely home—hence the title of the one-woman show she’s writing, No Fixed Address. In a corner of the room is a desk, a laptop and a TV stacked with DVDs—Oscar screeners sent to her as a new member of the diversity-conscious Academy. A variety of Canadian acting trophies are nestled on shelves among the art and memorabilia. There’s a bone necklace, a turtle-shell pendant, a square of birchbark etched with a mandala of tooth marks (her “paycheque” for narrating a documentary on the lost art of birchbark biting). A black-and-white photo shows her gazing up at Sam Shepard under a New Mexico sky, his eyes shadowed under a white Stetson, with two crow feathers splayed across the frame. “Crows,” she says, “are storytellers.”
Cardinal’s own story is rooted in anger. “There are a lot of nicks and quirks and scars and shattered places when you come from a world of abandonment,” she says. “It rides in you.” As a child, she raged against the curse of Catholicism. “I can still see the grass going past my face as my grandmother was dragging me by my hair to the church. She was terrified that if I wasn’t a good Catholic, she would go to hell.”
Her world began to open up when a Mennonite teacher arranged for her to finish high school in Edmonton. There, at 15, she met Mennonite Fred Martin, a mathematician and university graduate who had marched in the incendiary civil rights protests in St. Augustine, Fla. Three years later, she married him. Their son is the eldest of her three children, who each have a different father. Cardinal won’t even mention the two other dads, but speaks warmly of Martin, who raised their son after they divorced in 1976 and went on to have a distinguished career as a civil rights organizer and champion of the Métis. (Like Cardinal, he has been invested into the Order of Canada.) She also speaks with pride about her children—Cheyenne Martin, 45, an economist; Riel Cardinal, 29, an emergency medical technician; and rising star Cliff Cardinal, 33, a musician, playwright and actor who has been burning up the stage to rave reviews.
Cardinal says she adopted activism and acting almost in the same breath. Métis leader Harry Daniels helped her land her first role, in a 1971 TV docudrama about 19th-century missionary Albert Lacombe. Her wardrobe included a 150-year-old white doeskin dress, and Cardinal still remembers falling asleep on the grass between scenes wearing the costume and waking up with a revelation—that acting was how she could make a difference in the world. After starring in her first feature, Marie Ann (1978)—as the “country wife” of trapper Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, Louis Riel’s grandfather—she found herself being cast as “the woman in the back who has to bring a certain colour” to colonial stories. In the early ’80s, her rage simmered “until I blew apart. I went off the rails. Just said, ‘F–k the world and give me the wind.’ I threw myself in that place of no food, no clothing, no shelter, and didn’t really care if I survived. I went to a lot of different places.”
Cardinal ended up in Los Angeles, where she kept sending out resumés and photos and getting no response. Then she dropped in on a meeting of the Native American chapter of the Screen Actors Guild and met the casting director of Dances With Wolves—sent by Costner to find “a woman the audience will feel comfortable with when all the men are gone on a hunting party or a war raid.” The shoot wasn’t as “peaceable” as she’d expected, says Cardinal, who had to wrangle some toxic rivalries on the set. “But there were amazing energies. The spirit world, our ancestors, were definitely involved, and that piece was meant to be.” At the Oscars, where the film won Best Picture in 1991, she recalls Costner telling her: “People will say all kinds of things about the movie, but you were the first one cast. I needed my baseline.”
Dances led to more small but potent roles opposite Hollywood stars. “My characters had no arcs,” she says, laughing. “There were only moments.” But she made them count, and when not on camera, she would watch and learn, treating the set as a master class. She remembers coming across Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn playing a scene in Legends of the Fall as if the camera did not even exist, “giving each other absolutely everything.” And she describes her experience with Shepard on Silent Tongue as pure magic. “There was my energy force, his energy force, then the force of the character being created between us,” she says, scything the air with her hands. “It was almost tactile.” The shoot was so intimately directed that even her rape scene with Alan Bates was easy—“By the end of it, I felt I’d been playing with Bambi and Thumper.”
The “moments” of Cardinal’s characters were often brutal. In Anne Wheeler’s Loyalties (1987), she’s assaulted by a drunken boyfriend and her daughter is raped by her boss. In Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe (1991), she plays out a death scene with an arrow through her neck. Black Robe also left a sting of controversy. When Sandrine Holt, a runway model of French and Chinese heritage with no acting experience, was cast in a starring role as her Algonquin daughter, Cardinal voiced her consternation to a producer: “We’ve got actresses who can do that.”
Casting protocol has since evolved, and as Cardinal’s career matured, so did the community of Indigenous talent, many in Canadian TV series such as North of 60, Mohawk Girls and Frontier. A close friend is Winnipeg actor-producer Tina Keeper, who met her 30 years ago and plays her sister in Falls Around Her. “We both come from old-style Cree cultures,” says Keeper, “cultures that were non-English-speaking with no modern amenities. We have a lot in common. We’ve often discussed the difficulty of creating space for yourself as an actor, and how there have been so many obstacles to authenticity.” As a producer of Through Black Spruce, Keeper has had to ride the whitewater of identity politics swirling around the film. “Indigenous film sovereignty is a goal we should be after,” she says. But she asked McKellar to direct the film in 2015, when no experienced Indigenous director was available. And, like Cardinal, she sees the value in cultural collaboration.
Cardinal, meanwhile, continues to follow the wind and find those powerful moments. Her one-woman show is on the horizon. A memoir is gathering in her mind. And she’s shot another movie directed by an Indigenous woman—Marie Clements’s Red Snow, about a Gwich’in soldier from the Canadian Arctic ambushed in Afghanistan. These days, in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she feels immense relief that the word “genocide” is finally deemed legitimate to describe the history of her people. She will drop it into a conversation or an email, a persistent reminder of what made her who she is.
But she’ll point to the scar from an operation on a cleft palate when she was two and marvel at how someone from her broken family took her on a train hundreds of miles through the northern bush to find a doctor in the city, who succeeded with an experimental surgery 10 years before it was accepted.
Cardinal likes to say she was “born under a lucky star.” It’s a kind they don’t make in Hollywood.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was edited to add an additional quote from Jesse Wente and clarify a response from Tantoo Cardinal.