I spent time with an iconic Canadian actor. What I learned is I am prejudiced. And that Hollywood loves and hates Indigenous people.
I met Tantoo Cardinal twice in September of last year, during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The first time was in a café on Toronto’s King Street. I recognized her, and then we exchanged brief pleasantries. I’d just been talking about her new films premiering at the festival and intended to set up an interview with her. And so, I did.
We met again later that week at her home. She was renting the lower apartment in a typical Toronto duplex (perhaps she is still there, I don’t know). She greeted me at the door after I had rung the wrong bell, disturbing her upstairs neighbour. She apologized to him, and ushered me in; my camera slung over my shoulder. Cardinal’s thick hair fell on her shoulders; it looked wet. She was curt, but I’d been told she would be busy getting ready for two film premieres later that day.
I’ve worked TIFF for many years. I’ve been around just about every calibre of film celebrity. But I was keen to interview and photograph Cardinal. Shape-shifting—that is, the melding of character and self—is Cardinal’s métier. Her resolute on-screen presence has drawn me to her films time and again, no matter how minor the role she might have played. Cardinal wasn’t nearly as excited to meet me. She began by asking what I needed from her—this made more sense to me later, that people like me typically want something from her. I suggested that we get photos done first. Where did I want to do the photos? Outside. I followed her through the narrow hallway, through an unremarkable kitchen, to the back of her house. She said the backyard was a good spot. It was. I photographed simple, natural portraits: backyard, sunroom, overcast day, diffused light and a sense of hurried bother. That was that.
Then she brought me to where we settled, in the living room; busy with bright art and décor, sweaters over furniture and a computer desk pushed against the wall. The computer screen faced the room where I sat on the sofa. Cardinal’s attention was fragmented between me, her computer screen, and her looming premieres. I grappled with conducting a great interview and my perhaps unrealistic anticipations. What had I expected? Perhaps, that Cardinal wouldn’t be so human.
I began speaking. Cardinal sat back in the chair across from me. Her posture softened, the distractions she set aside, and she listened to me segue to the interview.
Cardinal is of Cree-Métis heritage. Born in Fort McMurray, Alberta, she has spent her career playing characters in notable films and television roles such as Black Robe, Dances with Wolves, Legends of the Fall; television productions including North of 60 and more recently Netflix’s Godless. Cardinal starred in four films that screened at TIFF last year: Hold the Dark, Through Black Spruce, and the Grizzlies, and her first ever lead role in Falls Around Her.
She’s one of the most recognizable Indigenous actors in North America, if not the world, a Member of the Order of Canada and a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 2018 alone she starred in nine television and film productions. She is slated to work in another six this year.
She is an actor whose success I presumed was the natural result of her on-screen presence and her thespian acumen. Cardinal—from my point of view—was film-industry royalty and likely treated as such. In truth, Cardinal has been vastly overlooked. Her face and name recognizable, she’s been left in the Hollywood wings, relegated to the lower strata.
Hollywood loves to employ authentic Indigenous people—they make for great, award-winning cinema—but don’t tell them that. At least twice, once more recently, Cardinal was left uninvited to cast dinners and awards events for films in which she starred. “I would have expected you, as a major figure in your films, to have been celebrated,” I said.
Cardinal stared at me for a moment. “That’s from the privileged society that you would expect that,” she countered—unabashed reason laid out before me.
How I saw Cardinal was vastly different from her experiences. Despite my preparation and comprehension of what I’d planned to discuss, I too had maintained fixed ideas about her. My observations wouldn’t be transparent without acknowledging this. I’d identified with Cardinal from an early age. The roles she portrayed meant something to me, at times even influencing me. I hadn’t considered her primarily as an Indigenous woman. I saw her as a powerful, striking woman, and a talented actor—a vast oversimplification, and wrong.
Cardinal is certainly human. She is an Indigenous woman, activist, actor, role model, feminist, and steward of the land. Her activism is part and parcel of her acting, and her intersectional existence is her driving force.
If you don’t fully understand the term “intersectionality,” you’re not alone. I would guess that most people have a vague, if any, understanding of the term. But within our society’s institutions exists the profound need to work toward structural-level changes that promote social justice and equity. (1) According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the concept of “intersectionality” is defined as “the combination of various oppressions which, together, produce something unique and distinct from any one form of discrimination standing alone.” For example, I’m a middle-aged woman of European ancestry, born in Canada, raised in a middle-class home. In the context of this discussion, the intersections of my life are vastly different than the intersections of an Indigenous woman’s life. To be clearer; my experiences in our society as a white woman would be inherently different than the experiences in society an Indigenous woman.
This was intersectionality in Technicolor, in 3D and my assumptions part of the problem. I’m a woman, yes, and the descendant of settlers or colonizers. It was vital that I understood this; that we as a society understand this. To examine privilege and oppression honestly, we have to strive to comprehend how and why our society continues to disregard and exploit marginalized people, including Indigenous people.
I’ll retain some of my notions about Cardinal as a woman and an actor whose talent all but eclipses the films in which she stars. But I’ll do so differently. To understand Cardinal’s success, to celebrate her talent, I acknowledge the intersections from which her talent, her activism, and her existence arise.
From various nations, cultures, languages, and regions, Indigenous actors are expected to represent all Indigenous people in film. How could Cardinal represent a whole people through her portrayals? “We all have common experience. So, I think that’s the tie,” she replied.
She has acted in the roles of Indigenous woman from different regions, nations, and eras. But Indigenous actors seem to be systemically denied acknowledgment of the intersectional pressure exerted on their work. Cardinal recognized this pressure early on, but, like most of us, she is empowered by validation. “Years back I felt pressure for being considered a role model and all that. I didn’t feel much like a role model. However, it kind of keeps your shoes tied … Keep proceeding in a direction even when you may feel completely discouraged and depleted, that’s when someone will come up and say thank you. And that kind of keeps you going.”
It’s Cardinal’s connection with the community that drives her. “That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m doing the things that I’m doing. I was looking for ‘what was it that I could contribute?’ To tell the truth, to change images, to be a part of the move forward and so that’s what it was, and that’s what it is.”
Cardinal insisted that she knew what she was doing all along and she knew why she was doing it. “[I’ve] lasted this long because I know why I am here. I’m not here about glamour or notoriety or any of those things. It’s just one opportunity to the next to contribute to our visibility. And our visibility as in Indigenous people in general? Yeah. I don’t really represent anyone else.”
I suggested that it was not a choice so much as thrust upon her. She corrected me. “But it is a choice because of my taking such a public place to live and to walk. That’s my choice.”
In the film industry, have things changed over the years for Cardinal? If so, have they changed enough? “Well, now I find that people, productions, people I end up working with, they know who I am, they know I’m around, they know I have opinions, and they know I care about that content. What I found in the beginning, it was very difficult to get respect for what my perceptions were … I found my way through with the people who were willing to hear and listen, who believed that what I had to say had some credibility or some value. And so now, I think that more people in production are aware of that part of me and they know that’s a part of the package. I think. I really do feel there is more ear to it.”
Throughout much of her work, Cardinal has had to fill in the gaps because, for the most part, she said her characters weren’t well written. So she filled in their history. “This is our position in the society, and we have to fill in who we are. So much is taken away to begin with.”
I asked her how she brings this broader commentary to each of her roles. In reply, she referred to one of her earlier roles. “Take Black Robe; I didn’t have much [of a role] there at all other than to be filled with an arrow. At the same time, really feeling if I’m here, and I am present, and other people are going to recognize that we as Indigenous people are kind of held in the back and women are kind of held in the back, and if I am full, audiences are going to know there is more to that woman than we are seeing.”
How did Cardinal imbue her Black Robe character with such significance? By “knowing who she is, researching the time, seeing what she may have experienced, what she may be aware of.”
In Falls Around Her, Cardinal was given her first leading role—in a career which spans nearly 50 years. Falls Around Her was written and directed by Darlene Naponse. Of her conversation with Naponse about the film, Cardinal says, “We talked about the direction she wanted to go in to start writing her script.” On developing her character in the film, Cardinal says it wasn’t difficult to play this role because the world depicted in the film is already part of her world.
Cardinal carries the burden of representation, activism, and her opinions with her. I told her it seemed like a lot to take on for every role. “But, for me, it’s worse if I don’t have anything like that. I can’t function without addressing what needs to be addressed. Because that’s why I’m here.” She responded as though this was the only possible answer.
I then referred to a comment she’d made earlier: I asked her how it happened that she was not invited to a cast dinner for a film she starred in. Cardinal sat up and leaned forward. “There is a certain amount of disregard for our importance, particularly as Indigenous women, and older women. We’re taken for granted. ‘Fill that slot thank you very much,’ and the real people are the ones that are carrying the story ... There is a tendency to not consider us equal.” She then reminisced about her role in Dances with Wolves, which won seven Oscars. She wasn’t invited to attend the Academy Awards with the other cast members. A ticket was finally offered to her (in the nosebleeds) when the oversight was discovered. Of the man who offered her the ticket as an afterthought, she said, “He treated me that same way on set. It did not occur to him … even though I was a key woman.”
How might we prevent social inequity and injustice? “Unfortunately, the thing with racism, and sexism, and ageism is that you kind of got to pick it, you got to pick it when you see it, pick it when you find it because it’s pervasive. And a lot of people who are packing it don’t realize they got it,” she offered.
Cardinal made it clear that representation and activism is implicit in her work. So, I asked her how we might bridge the gaps as a society. “I would love for everybody to do what we have to do in our Indigenous community and that is ‘decolonize.’ Pick through our own selves to see what’s sitting in there by the colonizers. The precept of what civilization is. When in truth there is a root that is not what’s being presented to us on a daily basis.
“Check out our prime minister, oh ‘the most important relationship that is with the Indigenous people.’ And that is so patronizing when you see the action. ‘I see so much you do that I can’t hear a word you say.’ You know, the first thing he’s going to do, supposedly an environmentalist, and continuing with extractive energies rather than what’s given. This is what people have to understand, that our life is really connected to our planet and that this society that’s established has denied that, and has tried to muffle anything along those lines.”
Cardinal is an avid environmental activist. “[I] really wish people would come to know their big momma—Mother Earth. And understand that’s where the power is. I mean, check out that hurricane. Oh, it’s a monster. Oh my God. You know. It’s not going to get easier either.
“Yes. You can be a little bit of an activist, but not too much of an activist … that’s still the rule in our society it seems,” she scoffed. “And do not threaten our wealth.”
Cardinal described her concern about the overarching perception in our society that Indigenous people are a burden. She explained that fuelling people’s fears is the idea that power depends on Indigenous people being kept in the margins.
During our first conversation in the café, Cardinal mentioned that she would be wearing gloves to her TIFF premieres—they were a family heirloom. Finishing up our interview, I asked to see the gloves she’d told me about. She jumped up and went into the hallway, returning with a pair of white rabbit-skin gloves, with white fur on the cuffs, and the backs adorned with coloured beads in the shapes of flowers. “My cousin brought these out … My Grandmother Mom had made these for her sister who had passed away … They’re like a gift from heaven; they dropped out of the sky. [I] didn’t know they existed. They are made with such love, of rabbit, handwork making these.” Cardinal pulls them on and she holds up her gloved hands and smiles.
Towards the end of 2018, the Toronto Film Critics Association (TFCA) announced that Cardinal was the recipient of the 2018 Technicolor Clyde Gilmour Award, recognizing a Canadian industry figure who has made a substantial and outstanding contribution to the advancement and history of Canadian cinema. “Tantoo Cardinal’s win represents the first time in the history of the TFCA that our annual Technicolor Clyde Gilmour Award goes to an actor,” said TFCA president Peter Howell. “And what a great year for Tantoo it has been,” Howell pointed out. “As one of Canada’s most respected stars of the screen and stage, she is finally getting the recognition she deserves in her 48-year career, including her first-ever lead role in the upcoming film Falls Around Her. We’re delighted we can contribute to her acclaim.” The 2nd annual Awards Gala was held on January 8th, 2019 in Toronto where Cardinal received her award.
This month history was also made when actor Yalitza Aparicio became the first Indigenous woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the film Roma. Let’s hope they remember to invite her to the Oscars.
How do we decolonize; what does the term mean? I asked a long-time colleague and friend for his perspective. “To decolonize we must educate and eradicate systemic racism we find in religion, curriculum, government, literature and art; it was established in times of fear, conquest, poverty where ideology was molded by its past to protect its present. The future is built on the past we perceive so to correct what we see and know today we must erase the blackboard and use words all can see,” explains Arnold J. Isbister of the Plains Cree. Isbister is also a prolific Indigenous artist and published author based in Saskatchewan.
1. Rosenthal, L. (2016). Incorporating intersectionality into psychology: An opportunity to promote social justice and equity.