Voices From Native America – By Tantoo Cardinal

First Nations is the term that I think best describes who we are and what our position is in North America.

First Nation’s people in Canada have endured essentially the same experiences as those in the United States.

The Americans did it mostly with guns and the Canadians did it with paper, but after a certain point the Canadians got into guns and nooses as well.

The border doesn’t make any difference to the indicators of sickness in our societies; alcoholism and substance dependence, abusive domestic situations, the high suicide rates and depressing statistics are on both sides of the border after generations of brainwashing and assimilation.

We have to get rid of that brainwashing in order to reclaim healthier communities and at least in Canada, First Nation’s people have a higher profile than in the States.

I think that the way the emancipation has been dealt with, and the way that leadership has proceeded, has made a difference in Canada.

We are really behind in the United States so far as receiving any kind of recognition as a people but in Canada there’s something in the newspapers relating to First Nation’s issues nearly everyday.

Those contributions that are natural for us to make to society and civilization, that we haven’t been allowed to make for generations because of colonization, are closer to the surface in Canada but in the United States I think that African-Americans have the strongest civil rights profile.

I try to stay out of political structures now, to me they are too man-made and it’s a twenty-legged race in order to accomplish anything. You can’t get away from the twenty-legged race though because when you’re filming that’s what it is, but it’s more comfortable for me to work through those barriers in the arts rather than politics.

Growing pains
There were different events and situations that brought me to this arena. When I was a child there was nothing to say, You gotta be an actor! There was no such thing. We never even had a television or radio and we didn’t get electricity until much later. We hauled our own water and chopped our own wood, so in a sense I grew up along time ago.

I come from a part of the world where the Church and the government had done their thing and had brainwashed a number of generations, telling the people that Indian ways were of the devil and not only were they unlawful, Indian beliefs were shameful, sinful and evil.

My grandmother raised me and it was very much alive that you had to be ashamed and should hide (Indianness, so even though I came from that culture and that community where people visited one another and shared experiences and told stories, the structure was gone and the ceremonies were gone – it was all Catholic.)

So it was rage that got me into acting and of course that is what also got me into politics. I understood that the lies the Church and the government were spreading were outrageous and were hurting a lot of people, so I decided that I was going to play a part in exposing them – tell the truth, find the truth. I had to go through that process and unburden myself of the lies that had found their way inside of me.

We had been fed that Indians were stupid and simple, savage and pagan – whatever that was – and all that bad press. I became involved with the Native Youth Organization and one of the things we did in finding the truth was to look at the statements made by our Native leaders at the time that the treaties were signed and then look at the difference in thinking.

In the late 1960s all this stuff started emerging about Indian ways and what those philosophies really are, and then what the army and the government had hidden, and what the Church had hidden: how they had twisted it all and presented it back to Native people so that when brainwashed and emasculated the people themselves became a part in the oppression.

Why? Because we stood in the way of their money and political gain. We belong to the land, but they had to rip it up and turn it into coin and there was no time for sharing or respect because they believed they had a superior position in Creation.

The damage that the Residential Schools did is very deep. The unnatural separation of children from their parents and brothers from sisters, the severing of those bonds and the regulations that left those kids in the clutches of those perverts from the Church who had no respect for Indians anyway, was an abomination.

The arrogance of those who did it, perpetuated it and established laws to sanction it is absolutely disgusting. After all the emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse and psychological abuse suffered by those Native kids they weren’t even given a proper education – they were trained to be domestic help or hired hands.

When they went back to their communities they were strangers. They had been punished at these schools if they ever spoke the languages of their mothers and fathers and they hadn’t been allowed to pray in their God-given natural way or allowed to sing those songs, so they could no longer communicate with their parents or people. They had been taught that their parents and relatives were unintelligent and that Indian people were inferior.

And now, in this day and age, people are talking about and crave the wisdom of Native people! How come all of a sudden Native people have got wisdom white people want? I didn’t go to a residential school but everywhere you turned that devastation was there because it wasn’t only happening in the school system it permeated through the government and Church to the mines and to the people in the towns.

Same challenges
Basically we’ve got the same challenges that we’ve always had, mainly to break through this big, thick barrier called the European mind-set. It’s the same challenge but I think that we’re getting closer and closer together as human beings now because the environment is going to shit and we all share the fall-out from polluted waters and air and acid rain, and we are coming to the realization that our children are inheriting the same earth.

The gifts that we have as First Nation’s people are in the blueprints of our culture and in those blueprints is the wisdom that is going to be needed for this civilization to survive.

We’re just starting to understand a lot of the things that have kept us in the darkness of oppression and as we as First Nation’s communities struggle to break free and to breathe, the same thing is happening in other communities.

So much of the journey that I have traveled has been about breaking through this oppressive machine that has made us lesser human beings in the minds of its operators and in their children’s minds and in their legislation and procedures.

Now our children and their children are sharing common experiences and there are incredible changes going on, not just among First Nation’s people but everyone, particularly amongst women.

Gender roles
Women’s rightful place is to be overseers of this movement in the community, society and civilization because women were given the incredible gift of creation and the honour that goes with it, the responsibility of carrying new life.

Men weren’t given that role, men are helpers, but where we are now in our evolvement as physical beings means that we have to get the guys off the pedestals they’ve made for themselves because they are damaging much of what we need for our children¹s futures in the pursuit of control, manipulation and power.

Dealing with that oppression is something that we, in First Nation’s communities, have had to do for generations – ever since that first boat hit the shores – but people are now starting to deal with issues of control and oppression on personal levels too.

If we were in Atlantis, the First Nation’s people would be the Believers in One, with the philosophy that all of this energy and power is for the betterment of the whole and not just for ourselves. We are all a part of Creation and the circle is the foundation of who we are.

Mixed roots
A lot of people who don’t know what their Indian heritage is say that they are Metis and quite a few who have no Indian heritage but would like to are starting to call themselves Metis.

I was born into my mother’s family and my grandmother who raised me was Cree, Chipewyan and Sioux. She didn’t belong to a reserve or have a treaty number because her father was considered a renegade by virtue of the fact that when the treaty was signed, he split.

That made him a Wanted Indian and the cops found him when he was living with the Sarcee, just outside of Calgary. He was Cree and Sioux and he married a Chipewyan woman, which is where my granny came from, and then my granny married a guy who was half French and Cree.

I was raised by her as my mother left when I was very young and my father left even sooner. My step-grandfather, the man I grew-up calling dad, was from Cornwall, England via Garry, Indiana, and his name was Winston Plews.

When I was 15 years old I left Anzac, which was just a few houses in the bush, to go to school in Edmonton. There were certain places where people would look at me and then take a second look at this brown girl and I used to get the feeling that they didn’t think it was appropriate for an Indian to be there; they were uncomfortable by my being there.

But to me, the fact that the guy I called Dad was English, meant to me that I could go anywhere I wanted to; and then I came to feel that we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by prejudice, whether we’re conscious of that energy or not.

I said to myself: Whether they like it or not, I’m here and I’m going to go where I feel compelled to go. Not everybody was like that. I’m thankful that I’ve also met strong kindness along this path.

The gift
I’d done a number of films before I knew I was an actor and that this was going to be my life. In those days I still had the brainwashing tape playing in my head, telling me I was stupid and ugly and no good and that I couldn’t contribute anything to society.

Then, one day I remembered that everybody has been given a gift from the Creator and I decided, I’m going to find out what my gift is. So I just did anything and everything that I could in my life, whatever inspired me, and that¹s how I eventually found it – acting.

It was in about 1982 that I finally realized, “Well, this is your career. This is something.”

It’s not easy and it’s never been easy at any time along the way. As an actor there are barriers that come from being brown and from being a woman but you’re born into that struggle and you have to push harder.

For an Indian actor to win an Oscar would be amazing, for an Indian actress to win it first would be miraculous.

Occasionally you feel that burden, that additional responsibility to your community, but without this vision of work that has to be done I wouldn’t be here – things have to change, the truth has to be told, the misrepresentations have to be eliminated – so we have a responsibility to act because it is what we can do that might make a difference. Today I don’t feel like it’s a responsibility, it’s just a place to be. It’s my life and it’s a gift to have that purpose.

I’ve met some incredibly strong-hearted people when the odds against us have been pretty thick; beautiful, generous, kind, dedicated people with vision and passion – to know they’re out there is an exciting part of all of this.

You throw whatever it is that you¹ve got in the pot and they put what they’ve got in the same pot and then this new idea comes out! Of how we can all work together, no matter what culture we come from. There can be conflicts when you’re working on a story or a scene but I’m really hopeful because I have seen a good progression.

Years ago there were so many people in a crew or on a set that were ignorant and just followed the misrepresentations they had been fed. Situations of racism and sexism were rampant but it’s exciting that in the recent past the crews and the groups that I’ve found myself working with haven’t been like that, they’ve been people who understand the circle and that place of putting energies together and working together.

Maybe that speaks of how many independent films I’ve done! It’s a broad generalization but money has a funny way of affecting people and making them separate from the humanity part of themselves.

Money isn’t everything
There are many factors that come into deciding what roles to take. It has to have something in the script and this is how I support my children so I have to get paid!

Money is a factor but sometimes the right script has no money but you still have to do it, even though it might cost you more than what you make from the film; you have to do it because of its passion or the writer’s vision, the creative energy.

I think of every movie I’ve done as being part of a process. Each one of them has been a victory for me in the struggle of trying to get things closer to the truth.

There’s been something that had to be addressed on every single production I’ve gone on – whether it was characterization, wardrobe, or a prop – and even where you wind up in the shot all the time, the Indian woman is always back there, even if she’s supplying the lead, like she’s the mother of the lead.

This industry is so male-gestated and so sometimes I have an incredible struggle: where do women fit in this whole scheme? So there’s the process of trying to make it habitable for that circular way of operating and being.

As an actor your power is limited because by the time you get to work most of the decisions have been made: the development has been done, the characterizations, the dialogue – even the shots have been decided before you get on board.

On the set of Black Robe
Black Robe was a film I turned down twice and then finally I recognized that it wasn’t up to me. The force that guides let me know, ‘Just shut-up and go to work’. That’s what the grandmothers were saying.

I literally felt like I was being pushed out of the door to work on it and I didn’t want to do it because I was tired of being in situations where you talk over the script with the people who are in charge and try to work on changes, and there was so much in that script.

I didn’t want to deal with it but when I got there all of these other actors who wanted to get at these issues that were not right in the script were all sat around the table!

That’s a scary thing to a lot of actors because they don’t want to create conflict with the directors and producers because it can jeopardize your livelihood but friction is one of the essences of creation.

The film was really from Church records and Bruce Beresford, the director, did the job that he was asked to do by making it from the colonial perspective. We did as much as we could to try and bring in some truth and we made the changes that were available to us but there was only so far that we could go because it actually was about the colonial perspective.

I think it accomplished its purpose in that it made people react; maybe some non-Native people who saw it wondered, How could they do that? What were they thinking?

There were some things that happened during the filming of Black Robe that told me that there are certain things that we as human beings have to do and that there’s a force that goes beyond that.

That’s where the power and strength is, being guided by that rather than people, politics and words – those are all a part of it but they have to be guided by that essential spirit.

There was a scene where a baby was still-born and in the script my daughter was braiding this white guy’s hair while I was taking down tipis and everybody else is just walking back and forth like, “So what, she’s putting her dead baby out’, as this woman was putting her baby out to the trees.

It made us look like we had no heart or feelings attached to that incident. I’d used up all my bargaining chips in terms of getting changes and I was depressed about it going into work that morning, thinking it was wrong – firstly my daughter wouldn’t have been braiding some guy’s hair while I was working, and on and on.

Then, when I got to the set, there had been a problem in continuity so my daughter couldn’t have been braiding the guy’s hair so they had her taking down the tipis which left another woman and I available to come out of the tipi with this woman and her baby because in an earlier scene we’d refused to be sleeping while she was giving birth, so we could be with her.

At that we were asked to say something to her as she came out carrying her still-born baby, a ‘There, there, Never mind’ kind of thing. So we found something to say but it was too quiet as the point of the scene was for the Jesuit to see us, so it had to be louder – so I thought about a song.

They would never have allowed us to bring a song in there so I decided not to tell them and that I would just do it and by the time they called ‘Action’ again, the song had come.

I started singing and all these guys who were supposed to be just walking back and forth, oblivious, stopped and paid respect to this woman -and it just happened – I could never have negotiated that but it happened in that moment and it was a big moment for me.

Positive images
I think both Black Robe and Dances With Wolves had something to contribute to the overall feeling of what’s in people’s hearts and minds.

I think the power of Dances With Wolves is that it brought some positive images forward that we were really, really needing and that was extremely important. For some it touched a place of spirit and belief and it made people feel good.

Black Robe was darker but the darkness didn’t make it more truthful as some people tend to think. That’s one of the problems we have in this industry, that we can¹t get at the truth. Smoke Signals did that, but overall it’s so hard to handle with a sense of humour when all this horrible human calamity is going on – especially when it’s being written from a place of guilt because it’s not written from within the community where it can be more personal.

The magic of art is that people can look at the same thing and get something completely different out of it. As long as it inspires thought and it inspires discussion and some kind of dialogue!

As an artist you work from that place of soul and energy and when we work we try to touch those places in other people. If we do, we somehow become a part of them, just like people whose work I admire has touched my heart and soul. That’s our job as artists.