Tantoo Cardinal is the epitome of a working actress. Her page in the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) shows an unbroken string of roles from about 1986 to the present, including in such classics as Dances With Wolves (1990), Silent Tongue (1993), Legends of the Fall (1994), and Smoke Signals (1998). Her television appearances include parts on Longmire, Westworld, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Cardinal is probably the most recognizable indigenous actress working today — even if, because she is a character actress and not usually a leading lady, most people don’t know her name. That may be changing, however. Cardinal has a major role on ABC’s new hard-boiled drama Stumptown, and she is the lead in Falls Around Her, a movie about a musician who returns to her hometown that was written and directed by Darlene Naponse.
Falls Around Her screens at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, where Cardinal will be honored with an award for lifetime achievement.
Cardinal is of Cree and Métis descent and was raised in the tiny village of Anzac in Alberta, Canada. As a child, she never dreamed that she would grow up to be an actress. “We were very isolated and did not feel invited to participate in things like that,” she says. “There was always a feeling of ‘they won’t let you in.’ ”
In advance of the film festival, Cardinal answered a few questions about her career. When she refers generally to “we,” she is talking about First Nations people of Canada and Native Americans.
Pasatiempo: What were the early days of trying to break into the business like for you?
Tantoo Cardinal: I did not try to break into the business. It was a case of “What can I do? What can I contribute to this mess?” Because we as a people are so maligned, so misrepresented. [There are] lies about us all over history. And the racism, and the looking down on us, and pretending that we’re people of no value, that we have no intelligence — the way we’re treated historically and on a daily basis; I was just sick with it. I had moved to the city to get to high school. I just needed to find out what it was that I could do. I started volunteering here and there, and then an opportunity for acting came along, and that’s what made sense. I felt like a duck to water. This was where I could change stories. I wouldn’t have to be tied to anyone’s politics. Well — little did I know — that travels with you.
Pasa: Was there a moment during your childhood when you realized you wanted to be an actress?
Cardinal: No, but I did remember that we had a school teacher that came into Anzac and put on some Christmas plays for the men up at the Air Force base. The kids in the school put on this play, and I just loved being onstage and getting the words out for the audience, whereas so many of the kids in the school were shy and spoke into their cuffs. The next teacher came in, in grade 7. He wrote a play called The Other Magi. It was about a fourth magi that never made it to the manger in Bethlehem because he was out doing good deeds. The teacher handed out all the girls’ roles, and I was devastated [to not get a role]. He read out the boys’ roles. And then he gave me the lead role! I was the magi! I had a great time. The whole community was there to see the show. I was a star, man.
Pasa: Do you think it’s important for indigenous people to tell their own stories on film, as in Falls Around Her?
Cardinal: Absolutely. It is crucially important because stories have been told about us. It’s kind of like what an ex will do — go around town and tell stories about you that are not true, just so that people don’t think he was the jerk. That’s what history is like. It’s a big dirty thing that this land was stolen and that these treaties that were made from a strong heart and a strong spirit were made in jest by the other side, and just laughed off. There’s a lot that has to be redone. Stories have to be retold. And who we are has to be revealed.
Pasa: Have you had opportunities to play roles that break stereotypes of indigenous people that are often presented onscreen?
Cardinal: That was always the case, especially in the beginning. I really tried to bring some small new idea, or something just a little off-the-page, because our stories were not prominent on television or in movies or onstage. My intention was to work with the people that I was working with, and with each opportunity that came my way to bring just a little new idea.
Pasa: What are you most proud of in your career?
Cardinal: I’m proud of how our stories are hitting everywhere. Our storytellers, our writers, our producers, our directors are just coming [into the public eye] en masse. And I was an integral part of that. I took the opportunities and I made the best of them. I did the best I could. I think it’s a good thing. I am proud of my people. ◀
▼ A Tribute to Tantoo Cardinal: Falls Around Her
▼ 7 p.m. Oct. 19
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ Tickets are $20; 505-988-1234, tickets.lensic.org