By Clint Buehler
The world knew him as an acclaimed and ground breaking Native actor, but Gordon Tootoosis was much more than that. When he died in hospital on July 5th, many tributes to him revealed other attributes and achievements. Ironically, one of his most recognized roles was as the scheming and duplicitous Albert Golo, the sometimes chief on the TV series North of 60. That character was the exact opposite of who Gordon was.
Despite his success and fame, Gordon remained true to his roots throughout his career. He was born on the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan on October 25, 1941 to John Tootoosis and his wife, Louise Angus, one of 13 children. His father, great nephew of storied Chief Poundmaker, was a vigorous and outspoken crusader for Native rights, and in 1959 John Tootoosis was elected founding chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. His activism became more widespread as he took his message to other provinces, encouraging emerging leaders there. John and Louise’s children had been forced into the infamous residential schools, but despite those difficult times, Gordon would say later he was grateful for the education that enabled him to speak and write English fluently and taught him “how to deal with white people.”
Growing up Gordon spent summers at home away from residential school and received a different education. His father was determined that his children would learn the Cree language and experience traditional ceremonies, learning dancing, drumming, and sacred songs passed down through generations—a cultural grounding that would guide Gordon for the rest of his life and provide the foundation for his career as a performer.
Applying his natural talent as a dancer and powwow announcer, Gordon joined the Plains Intertribal Dance Troupe, touring throughout Canada, Europe, and South America in the 1960s and ‘70s. His emergence as an actor began with a recurring role in Stoney Plain, an Edmonton-produced television series, which led to his first movie role as Almighty Voice in 1973’s Alien Thunder, co-starring with Donald Sutherland and Chief Dan George. A steady stream of acting projects followed in movies, television, and theatre.
Gordon carried scars of racism he had experienced growing up and tried to heal them with alcohol, finally giving up drinking in the early 1980s thanks to support of his parents and particularly his wife Irene Seseequaisis, who had been at the same residential school. Gordon and Irene married in 1965, when he was 24, and moved to Whitehorse where they used their own experience to mentor young people also scarred by the residential school experience. They raised three daughters and two adopted sons and, when their daughter Glynis died of cancer in the late 1990s after her husband had committed suicide, they raised her four children as well. “It’s a dual role, grandparent and parent,” he once told an interviewer, describing the combination as a “tricky, difficult situation,” because he had four other grandchildren as well. “When they’re all here, I can’t treat one different than the other, and they play on that. They’re always one step ahead of me.”
Despite his great success as an actor, Gordon never “went Hollywood,” preferring to live and raise his family on his farm on the Poundmaker Reserve where he was active in the community, serving as a chief and as an activist with the National Indian Brotherhood and as vice-president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. Stricken with pneumonia, he died in a Saskatoon hospital at the age of 69, surrounded by his family.
Tantoo Cardinal, whose own career parallels Gordon’s in many ways, appeared in several projects with Gordon, most notably in Legends of the Fall and North of 60. She told the Globe and Mail, “I’ve known Gordon for about 40 years. Every time I saw him or met up with him, it was a nourishing thing.” They cared about the same things, she said. Concerned about the lack of opportunities for Aboriginal performers, Gordon and Tantoo became founding members of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company. To her he was a “dear, dear friend,” from a family she equated with royalty because “they maintained the traditions and the culture and kept it alive” during what she calls the “blackout,” the long, long time when “our ways” were outlawed and people had to perform their ceremonies in secret because the church and the government “were trying to wipe us out.” She said she will miss “his big heart, his sense of humour, his wisdom, his knowledge, his love of people, and the work that we do.”