Telling stories and driving change: Tantoo Cardinal on the long, slow evolution of Hollywood

With almost 100 big and small screen credits on her reel, Tantoo Cardinal is a matriarch of the silver screen. This year she had three films showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, Falls Around Her, The Grizzlies and Through Black Spruce.
Falls Around Her stars the iconic Métis actress Tantoo Cardinal, as an Anishinaabe musician from Northern Ontario who returns home after years on the road. (TIFF)

With almost 100 big and small screen credits on her reel, Tantoo Cardinal is a matriarch of the silver screen.

This year she had three films showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, Falls Around Her, The Grizzlies and Through Black Spruce.

What's unique about Falls Around Her is that it's about Indigenous people and made by Indigenous people. It was written and directed by Darlene Naponse who is Anishinaabe from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek in Northern Ontario.

Cardinal said making the film was different than working on a mainstream movie because Indigenous cast members didn't have to keep an eye on wardrobe, hair and language for cultural accuracy.

Cardinal explained she didn't have to spend time, "making sure you are not being asked to do something that is completely culturally inappropriate or completely wrong."

Instead, they could focus on the story.

Tantoo Cardinal at TIFF for The Grizzlies debut. (TIFF)

The Cree/Mé​​tis actor has been been bringing characters to life since 1970, with roles on TV series like Longmire and North of 60 to blockbuster movies like Legends of the Fall and her most recognizable role as Black Shawl in the Oscar-winning, Dances With Wolves.

Looking back at her role in that movie, Cardinal said her perspective on the film hasn't changed.

"At the time I thought this might just be the end of white people playing Indigenous characters. That's what I was hoping would happen out of this," she recalled. 

Although Cardinal said shooting the film with a non-Indigenous crew had its challenges, there were lots of good moments.

"I loved that we were using the Lakota language," she said. "And the woman who did the wardrobe for the principal characters, she did it all old style. She brain-tanned the hides, she used all original elements to make our clothes. Stepping into them, they had an aura of their own ... it was just such a pleasure to get into those clothes."

When she started making movies, Cardinal was one of the few Indigenous actors working in the film industry.

"Gordon [Tootoosis] and I were basically the only Indigenous faces on the movie set."

And when it came to roles for Indigenous women, Cardinal was often alone.

"August Schellenberg was one actor who stood up and said, 'My wife has to be in this scene.' And he had to fight the director and the producers so that I could be in this one scene in Black Robe and then you see the movie and they cut me in half."

Kicking down doors, making windows

Still, there is no other place she wants to be, for Cardinal, a career in acting was the only choice.

"It was the opportunity that came my way when I was out there looking for, what is it that I have that I can contribute to some kind of change, some kind medicine. It was like a duck to water."

Over the years, Cardinal has kept going, kicking down doors and "making windows."

"You have to a lot of patience," she said. "The patience of the elders, to say this will change and change is coming and it's bit by bit, we can't do it all at once."

It's that patience and tenacity that got Cardinal this far and it's something she said Indigenous people need now more than ever. Especially, when it comes to answering questions about who has the right to tell Indigenous stories.

Controversy sprouted on social media over another movie Cardinal has a role in, Through Black Spruce. That film is based on the novel by Joseph Boyden who has faced questions about his Indigenous identity. For Through Black Spruce, Cree producer and actor Tina Keeper chose Don McKellar, a non-Indigenous filmmaker, to direct.

Cardinal said, while it is ideal to have Indigenous stories made by Indigenous community, that is not always possible.

"Had I decided at that time 'Well, all our stories have to be done by us.'' How long would it have taken me to be able to get there because our filmmakers didn't start showing up for a long, long time. They were getting educated. They were still being born. They were getting their diapers changed," she laughed.

"We are in the process of getting to that place."

On joining the Film Academy

The diversity problem in Hollywood is well known, there was even an #OscarsSoWhite campaign that started in 2015. This year, Cardinal was one of 928 new members from diverse backgrounds who were invited by the Film Academy to join its ranks. 

Cardinal said she's not sure what to expect but added that if Indigenous people truly want to flip the white privilege factor and see more diversity, then more people need to get involved with the industry.

"We got a little ways to go but we got lots of recruits. We got fresh horses and I think we are in good shape. We haven't arrived but we're on the way."