To many people in the Native and Indigenous communities, Tantoo Cardinal (Cree/Métis) is revered as a grande dame of acting.
At the prestigious Governor General's Performing Arts Awards in her home country of Canada earlier this year, Cardinal received the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award honoring her 50-year career in film, television and theater. It is a career encompassing more than 120 roles.
The lifetime achievement honor for Cardinal was the latest in a long list of awards which also includes being made a Member of the Order of Canada, a distinction established by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967 to honor extraordinary achievement to the nation. More specifically, her appointment to the Order recognized her contributions to the growth and development of Aboriginal performing arts in Canada.
Cardinal has also received honorary doctorates from four universities.
It would be an understatement to say Cardinal has come a long way from her roots. She was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta, the eldest of three children, and raised in the rural town of Anzac. She says it was a small community in the bush yet she felt a sense of strength in the way she was raised, which also included teaching herself to act.
Some of her many notable film roles include the Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves, Legends of the Fall, Black Robe, Smoke Signals, Wind River, Where the Rivers Flow North and the lead role in Falls Around Her.
In that 2018 film, she plays Mary Birchbark, an internationally known singer who retreats to a cabin in the bush to get away from an abusive manager. The movie was written for her by Indigenous filmmaker Darlene Naponse and shot in the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation territory near Sudbury, Ontario.
A number of Cardinal's on-screen roles have required her to speak an assortment of Native languages, including Cree, Apache, Paiute, Cherokee, Ojibwe and Gwich'in.
Currently appearing in the hit ABC television series Stumptown, Cardinal's numerous television credits include roles in Outlander, Westworld, Longmire, Godless, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, North of 60, Moccasin Flats, Blackstone and Mohawk Girls.
"In any character I've been asked to play, there's always been a bigger story," Cardinal says. "Her life was always bigger than what was allowed to be told."
It's a battle she has never tired of fighting, and she says she adopted activism and acting nearly at the same time. Recently, she's been inspired by the breakthroughs of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"I have detested the way our people are being treated," she says. "I could feel it in my bones that we would get to a time and place where we could tell the truth. I always try to do the best job. I am working with every opportunity to bring some integrity, and I have really trusted my ancestors to take me to the next place."
Going back further in her own history, Cardinal says she was also moved by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the historic march in Selma and the desegregation of lunch counters in the South.
"That was powerful, learning about the civil rights movement and learning the powerful strength of these people," she says. "I have been realizing that if we Indigenous people - and we do -have our own demonstrations, our allies can come in. There's a forward motion, but I would hope our communities are standing in alliance with BLM the same as we were on the freedom trains when Black people were escaping slavery. You don't hear much about that."
The global coronavirus pandemic has also given her much to ponder. "The entire planet is going through a change that no one expected. Scientists are getting surprised, there's all kind of phenomena not being recognized," she says.
In Stumptown, she plays Sue Lynn Blackbird, opposite Cobie Smulders and Jake Johnson. "It's been very exciting to have an Indigenous character as part of the regular cast. [Showrunner] Greg Rucka had a lot to do with that. He has respect for her life," Cardinal says of her role. "This is a time we can find allies, and then it's the work of showing how much we can contribute. I'm trying to bring as much as I can to the table."
Promoting accurate images of Indigenous characters is never far from her mind. "I try to work with the creators we have. I know the influences I've had in productions I've been involved in, but how do we get our films into the mainstream? That is such a coveted place," Cardinal says.
"With the racism that exists, it's difficult to get money. It's difficult to get into rooms where you can get a decent budget. How we're going to get decent images is to support our filmmakers, writers - and support our theater."