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Tantoo Cardinal, Actress

August 9, 2010

Tantoo Cardinal is a Canadian Métis film and television actress. She is one of the most recognizable Native American actresses in the world, and has appeared in over 50 films, including Dances With Wolves and Smoke Signals.

Métis are Canadians of mixed Native American and European descent; Cardinal can trace her heritage back to Cree, Chipweyan, Lakota culture. In 1971, She discovered acting through her activism work; she’s been both an advocate and actress ever since.


Tantoo Cardinal, Courtesy of Indiana University.

On December 30th, 2009, Cardinal was made a Member of the Order of Canada “for her contributions to the growth and development of Aboriginal performing arts in Canada, as a screen and stage actress, and as a founding member of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company.”

Racebending.com contributor Gabriel Canada interviewed Tantoo Cardinal over the phone in July 2010.

NOTE: The opinions espoused by the interviewees represent their viewpoints alone, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff of racebending.com

RACEBENDING.COM: You’ve said in the past, that you first started acting as an extension of your involvement in the political movement’s of the 1960′s. You have said you wanted to change the way our [Native American] history was told. Can you elaborate on this for our readers?

TANTOO CARDINAL: I came through a time when our history was not handled justly in the recording of events. It was just coming to terms with how we were being portrayed, how we were being treated. This was a time when the only real avenues of expression were political. This was before any art involvement. I always felt we were being maligned, and if only people could see how we are in the community–with our songs and dance, our stories, the way people express themselves–then they could know who we are.

RACEBENDING.COM: When you were starting out as an actress, the Canadian Content Policy was also coming in at the time. It has been singled out as having a huge impact on Native actors. What was it? How did it affect you?

TANTOO CARDINAL: It created a mandate for Canadian content in cinema. It made Canadian film makers who did Canadian stories use Canadian actors and provided funding for filmmakers to make these movies. In that same germ of thought there was an issue of personal pride–that maybe we should have Native peoples playing Native roles. It was kind of a pushback since America was really taking over much of our culture in Canada.

RACEBENDING.COM: Were there any actors or actresses you admired growing up, or that informed your portrayals throughout your career?

TANTOO CARDINAL: No. Certainly not actresses. There were no Indian women I could look at on screen. I guess my inspiration would be, you know when you see stellar actors like Audrey Hepburn playing an Indian woman. I felt I might not know about acting but hey, I know about being an Indian Woman. I’m an Indian!

RACEBENDING.COM: In watching your films again before this interview, one was very striking–Black Robe–having been widely criticized for its violent depictions of Native peoples.

TANTOO CARDINAL: Well, Black Robe was based on Church records. Our side of the story was not told, it was the Church’s perspective. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to show our perspective, in our time in history.

RACEBENDING.COM: It was also a very three dimensional film. There was a mix of humor and sexuality that isn’t often found in Hollywood depictions of First Nation peoples. What do you think it will take to get more three dimensional roles like that for First Nations actors?

TANTOO CARDINAL: If we had the cash Black Robe had, with the filmmakers that have incubated and come out in these last few years, we could make a pretty dazzling movie that would tell our story.

RACEBENDING.COM: Speaking of big-budget depictions of First Nation peoples, there have been several high-profile examples, in recent years, of Hollywood “racebending” Native Peoples– by taking native characters from source material but casting white actors in their place. Most notably, this happened in The Last Airbender. What do you think it would take for Hollywood to give that same big budget to Native American film makers and actors?

TANTOO CARDINAL: It would take the world turning upside down.

RACEBENDING.COM: Was it the same for you starting out in the industry?

TANTOO CARDINAL: Racism and sexism have not been eradicated. When I started out, I was sitting in audition halls with white girls with all this brown makeup on and cheap turquoise jewelry. Somehow I made it in, thanks to a want for authenticity. Those struggles still persist, you know.

“Racism and sexism have not been eradicated. When I started out, I was sitting in audition halls with white girls with all this brown makeup on and cheap turquoise jewelry. Somehow I made it in, thanks to a want for authenticity.”

Someone asked me in my forties about being in my forties and how I felt with roles not available to women in their forties. Well, that’s the story of my career. Starting out, you see roles aren’t available. And then, all along the way, roles aren’t available. So it’s not a new element. It’s very frustrating for me to even watch movies because of that. There are many roles I feel I could have performed.

In America, however, they still see us [Native Americans] as dead. I don’t know what it’s going to take, but there is a serious denial element in American society. They don’t want to look at their potty training days. They tried to annihilate us. They destroyed our economic base at every opportunity, so I just sit back and watch now.

There has to be a major shakeup for us to be treated as equal human beings. Our stories, our characters, our being, has to be accepted as equal humanity to those who have the purse strings. Thank goodness we have allies, thanks goodness we have human beings who believe we’re human beings now.

There has to be a major shakeup for us to be treated as equal human beings. Our stories, our characters, our being, has to be accepted as equal humanity to those who have the purse strings.”

They don’t have any confidence they can make the money back with us. They just seem uninterested. I don’t know whether it’s guilt, or people thinking it’s just yesterday, I don’t know what the elements are. You’d have to talk to people who don’t consider us interesting or valuable.

There is also a situation where an adept filmmaker isn’t trusted with the budget unless a white filmmaker is alongside. I’d say that scenario was prevalent about fifteen years ago. It’s just a persistence among our artists that’s needed. You have to make it with peanuts and pop bottle budgets.

RACEBENDING.COM: There have been more than four thousand movies, over the course of the history of film, that feature First Nation peoples. With all of that out there, and the success of so many of those films–including your own that feature First Nation people so prominently–why do you think that fear of financial viability still exists?

TANTOO CARDINAL: I think It’s racism. You know, I played a lead in an independent film in Vermont. We had the hardest time just getting it in to screen at Sundance.

RACEBENDING.COM: It really is an incredible situation considering the films you have been in. They haven’t just had an impact on Native cinema, but on cinema as a whole. Black Robe won best Canadian film of the year, Dances with Wolves was nominated for seven Oscars, Legends of the Fall won for best cinematography and you still have to fight to get into Sundance. Just a few years later your film Smoke Signals would win the Audience Prize and Film Makers prize at the same festival. It’s an incredible success for these films, but that success hasn’t translated to wins for Native Actors themselves. Why is that?

TANTOO CARDINAL: Can you imagine, if we had all been white actors? What that would have done for our careers? You talk about a glass ceiling. We have a moon high ceiling. More than just a hundred years of cinema history, it’s four centuries of history. It has more to do with the respect of society as a whole.

You talk about a glass ceiling. We have a moon high ceiling. More than just a hundred years of cinema history, it’s four centuries of history.



The trailer for Older than America

RACEBENDING.COM: It seems to be something you’ve tackled in your films as well: respect of Native culture in society. You specifically tackled the topic of Indian Boarding schools in your films Older Than Americaand The Education of Little Tree. How important is it to address these issues in film and television? Do you think that the lack of positive portrayals of Native peoples in media contributed to that practice continuing as long as it did?

TANTOO CARDINAL: It’s essential that we continue to tell our stories. It’s not enough for us to be the backdrop. We can’t be there just to tell white stories. It’s important for the whole health of us as a people.

“It’s essential that we continue to tell our stories. It’s not enough for us to be the backdrop.”

The U.S. and Canadian Constitutions were inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. Two elements weren’t adopted: that the women chose who the leaders are, and that they can decide when the leadership isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. Society is supposed to be governed with women and children in mind. There has to be more respect for women and children in the overall society. Even today, we have to fight to be accepted as equals.

Another tragedy of those boarding schools is trying to sever our relationship with what they call God. For years, children were being told that their ways were “of the devil.” It put a lot of fear into people and now a lot of the healing has to take place, by praying in the Indian way, getting in touch with the Creator. I think that all cultures are the same they all have this connection far back in history.

RACEBENDING.COM:You’ve brought issues of women and children to many of your films. It seems to have been a very important part of your career. You even portrayed a victim of sexual abuse in Silent Tongue. Was it something you’ve actively sought out, or are these the type of scripts that come to you?

TANTOO CARDINAL: Well, they do come to me, but it’s both. It’s something I’m very concerned–about both the environment, and violence against women. Some of it you don’t get an opportunity to see. For instance a great movie was Loyalties; I made it in Canada about 25 years ago, about domestic violence.

For me, what I like to see in my work is that it gets people thinking, or that it ignites some kind of passion one way or another. That is the only way we will ever see change happen, is people waking up and really wanting to get to the bottom of things.

I brought up the point about the Constitutions, because I feel we are an important enzyme in society. Society can’t function healthily if women and children aren’t being treated healthily.

“Society can’t function healthily if women and children aren’t being treated healthily.”

RACEBENDING.COM: You have a very diverse career. It’s a drastic shift from Where the River Flows North to Older than America or Black Robe. Whether its horror or comedy or a children’s film, how do you deal as an actor with all these different approaches to film making?

TANTOO CARDINAL:Well, the only thing I can do really is try to be as truthful as I can. As an actor you don’t have all that much power, you only have that moment and the little space your given. You have to trust creative forces.

If I keep looking to the great big picture and my contribution, it’s very depressing. My ability to influence is very limited as an actor because I don’t have those other skills–I am no director or writer. I value with my life the people who really do want to do proper portrayals. In doing proper portrayals, it’s where you get to the issues. Art is supposed to make you want to think and discuss. I have to be satisfied with doing that.

“I value with my life the people who really do want to do proper portrayals.”

RACEBENDING.COM: In closing what advice would you give to a young actor starting out today?

TANTOO CARDINAL: Trust your intuition!

Racebending.com would like to thank Ms. Tantoo Cardinal and Gabriel Canada for this interview!

Categories: Interviews
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About the Author

Gabriel Canada is a contributing writer to Racebending.com. Gabe Canada is from Indianapolis, Indiana where he is currently studying Journalism at Indiana University. He joined Racebending as a fan of the original Airbender series. Outside of school he runs a local anime meetup group and is the cofounder of a production company, Kind of Epic Films.

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