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LISTEN: Tantoo Cardinal says progress being made in portrayal of Indigenous peoples in film

Actress Tantoo Cardinal

“It was just intuitive that we just didn’t really belong, or that we’re lesser or something.” — Tantoo Cardinal

By Jeremy Harpe of CFWE 88.1 FM Calgary
Windspeaker.com Contributor

“We are becoming visible,” says actress Tantoo Cardinal. That’s her interpretation of the accolades she has received in recent years.

From being made a member of the Order of Canada in 2009 for her contribution to the growth and development of Aboriginal performing arts in this country to her invitation this summer to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which produces the Oscars, she believes that the veil of invisibility is lifting from Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous people have been doing great things all along the way, Cardinal said, but not always recognized for their contributions.

“I’m a bit overwhelmed. And at first I was really nervous, like ‘what’s going on here’, but I think what it is is that there’s a shift, and there’s this place that’s opened up that belongs to us.”

She said it comes after many years of frustration at being kept out though.

“It was just intuitive that we just didn’t really belong, or that we’re lesser or something.”

Cardinal has said her motivation to act came from her involvement in the social justice and political movements of the 1960s. She said she wanted to change the way Indigenous history was told.

Jeremy Harpe of CJWE 88.1 FM Calgary asked the award-winning actress on Nov. 9 if she had seen the changes she had hoped to achieve all those years ago when she chose the acting path.

“I have observed some learning that wasn’t there,” she concedes, but people’s heads are filled with misconceptions, and there has been “more intention than innocence in the way we’ve been portrayed.”

Cardinal said the efforts that Indigenous peoples have made to “drag the truth out into the open” there has been change that has come within the entertainment business.

Cardinal cut her teeth in film in the 1970s as part of the Alberta Native Communications Society.

“It was really kind of a perfect little incubation to learn some basics in a comfortable way.”

Cardinal, who was born in Anzac, Alta., has gone on to include such Hollywood blockbusters as Dances with Wolves with Kevin Costner and Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt as part of her film credits.

She also has a long list of television credits to her name including Longmire, Mohawk Girls, Blackstone and even Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge in 1987.

“Different films stand out for different reasons,” she told Harpe. “They all had something to give, whether it’s like ‘whoa, I’ll never do that again’ or learning something here or there.”

She says she is in the moment when working on a role, and once the project is done, it’s gone. Though, she does admit to having some favorite characters. One was Bangor, which she played in a film called Where the Rivers Flow North in 1993. She also loved her character Marilyn Yarlott in Longmire, and Betty Moses in North of 60.

Cardinal views acting as a real responsibility, being called upon to interpret the human experience. It tests your mettle, she said.

It may be all fun and games for some, but it’s been a long time since she’s found such playfulness in the work, because its been a serious business to pull past the racism and all the “isms” that have kept Indigenous people in the back, in the dark, and dealing with a history of poverty and incarceration.

Cardinal was recently awarded the 2018 Technicolor Clyde Gilmour Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association.

Recently she wrapped up a project with Marie Clement and is working on a series that she really can’t say anything about. Film festival season will keep her hopping and she is set to travel to Sydney, Australia for that launch.

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