By Frank Larue
The University of Fraser Valley in Abbotsford bestowed an honorary degree on actress Tantoo Cardinal in June. She has been acting for almost forty years, and unlike many actors from Canada, she has never stopped working. Tantoo Cardinal has appeared in thirty movies and a multitude of television shows over her forty years in front of a camera. She had roles in Dances with Wolves (working with Kevin Costner and Graham Greene) and in Legends of Fall (with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins).
This year, Cardinal will celebrate her sixtieth birthday on July 20. “I didn’t know much about acting, at least in the way of formal training, when I started out,” she recalls. “With the government mandating that Canadian stories be told, people started to say, ‘why not get Native people to play Native roles,’ and that opened the door for me and others. Once I started, I took to it like a duck to water. I really do consider it to be my path—I had a passion for it from the get-go.”
Tantoo Cardinal was born in Anzac, Alberta near Fort McMurray—a Métis of Cree, Dene, and Nakota mixed with French and Ukranian. She moved to Edmonton at age fifteen to finish high school. She more or less stumbled into acting; her motivation was not fame or riches. “I got into acting through my political involvement, through a sense of justice. I wanted to see things change, to offset some of the lies that have been told about us throughout history,” she recalls. “The attitude of the public back in the ‘60s was so backward and ill-informed. By the time, I found out about our history and how we were treated; I was in a rage. It was really a time of darkness and great frustration. There was an incredible wall we had to get through.”
The early seventies marked her first forays into the thespian world, and by the end of the decade she was supporting herself with acting and was part of the first generation of Aboriginal actors (which included Graham Greene) to forge a sustained and successful career. Cardinal became a familiar face on television and in low budget films, and her work created a reputation of excellence.
In the early nineties, she was cast in Dances with Wolves, which not only won several Oscars, but also made her one of the most recognized Native actors in the film industry. “The function of art is to get people to talk, to discuss, and in the sense of that, Dances with Wolves was incredibly successful. People are so resilient to change and resistant to new ideas, so it has to come through stories, through entertainment,” she says. “I always felt that as an actor we have to have the courage to go into the territory of hard experiences and tell the truth of what’s happened to us as human beings. That’s where you find understanding. You don’t come through generations and generations of genocide and holocaust to be wimps, to be portrayed as monotoned and one-sided characters. That is just not possible! There are some roles that I’m just tired of. There’s nothing more for me to say in those roles. The historic little two-scene things where they don’t really respect the woman. They don’t have any idea of what the role of women is in the Indian community. That work still has to be done.”
Tantoo Cardinal has received many awards throughout her career, including the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Order of Canada, and now an honorary degree. “It’s wonderful to be receiving this honour. I come from a world where it was a very big deal when my aunt was the first in the family to finish high school. A lot of people were intimidated by higher education, so it’s nice to see things changing.”