Indigenous Success Stories

Media and Reconciliation (84-86)

‘You’ve got to crash a door and fail and get back up’: Canada’s most recognizable Indigenous actor finally gets her due

December 2, 2023

Tantoo Cardinal learned to do a lot with comparatively little in an almost five-decade career. Now she’s receiving the acclaim she deserves, including induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

By Luke Savage Special to the Star

“It’s like I stepped onto this shelf or level,” says actor Tantoo Cardinal, “and I’m looking at a whole new horizon … recognizing where I’ve come from, recognizing the journey and so many of the people that were involved.”R.J. Johnston Toronto Star

This story contains spoilers for “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

The Toronto Star: Shortly before the halfway point of Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Tantoo Cardinal’s Lizzie Q dies in the company of her two surviving daughters, Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and Reta (JaNae Collins).

Lizzie’s eyes close then open again as she looks upon three unnamed figures in the afterlife. They are initially stoic in their expressions, but the scene quickly dissolves into joy; even as her daughters weep beside her body, Lizzie and her hosts exchange smiles so warm and incandescent that they seem to transcend the earthly grief felt by the living.

Lizzie’s death scene, much like the film’s ending, thus achieves something quite remarkable: an unusual coexistence of bottomless sadness and quiet triumph — the latter ultimately enduring even in the face of existential tragedy and rapacious evil.

Based on a 2017 book of the same title by David Grann, “Killers of the Flower Moon” tells the true story of the Osage murders in 1920s Oklahoma, which saw the killing of at least 60 members of the Osage Nation by white settlers hoping to pilfer a share of the tribe’s oil wealth.

Many of the victims were women, married to non-Osage men who sometimes murdered their own wives, in-laws and children in order to inherit lucrative headrights. As Lizzie, Cardinal rarely speaks but carries herself with understated power in every one of her scenes.

Among other things, it’s a performance that requires her to do an awful lot with comparatively little: giving her character dimension and depth mostly through poignant looks and subtle body language rather than verbalized emotion. 

It’s also the kind of performance that Cardinal, 73, has excelled at over her roughly five-decade career as an actor. As the critic Brian D. Johnson once observed, she possesses an astonishing ability to enlarge “even the most compact roles with (sidelong glances) of gravitas and flashes of sardonic wit.”

This quality, in fact, is evident even in conversation. As the two of us speak about her life and career, even Cardinal’s pauses feel imbued with weight and meaning. 

Tantoo Cardinal in 1987. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s — despite recurring roles on TV shows like “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “North of 60” — Cardinal often had less screen time to work with in movies, but she invariably made the most of it. Jeff Goode Toronto Star file photo

It’s a skill that the actor has likely honed, in part, out of necessity. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s — despite recurring roles on TV shows like the Western drama “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and CBC’s “North of 60” — Cardinal often had less screen time to work with in movies, but she invariably made the most of it. (“My characters had no arcs,” as she once put it. “There were only moments.”)

One Hollywood figure who recognized Cardinal’s onscreen potency was Kevin Costner, who reportedly cast her in his Oscar-winning 1990 film “Dances With Wolves” before anyone else. The role of Black Shawl in “Dances” opened the door to other films alongside major stars, notably Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins in 1994’s “Legends of the Fall.” 

This weekend, Cardinal will be added to Canada’s Walk of Fame at a special induction ceremony to mark its 25th anniversary. The honour coincides with a singular moment in her career.

Firmly established as one of North America’s best-known Indigenous actors, her prolific work ethic and versatility onscreen are, albeit belatedly, now receiving the acclaim and attention they so clearly deserve. In recent years she’s had major parts in several films, notably starring in her first ever leading role as Mary Birchbark in Anishinaabe director Darlene Naponse’s 2018 movie “Falls Around Her.” She’ll soon be seen in the Disney-produced miniseries “Echo.” 

At this feted point in her career, Cardinal is introspective in her outlook. “It’s like I stepped onto this shelf or level,” she said, “and I’m looking at a whole new horizon … recognizing where I’ve come from, recognizing the journey and so many of the people that were involved.”

In recent years, Tantoo Cardinal has had major parts in several films, notably her first ever leading role as Mary Birchbark in Anishinaabe director Darlene Naponse’s 2018 movie “Falls Around Her.” Amanda Matlovich

Cardinal’s journey has been a long and challenging one. Of Cree and Métis heritage, she was born in oil-rich Fort McMurray, Alberta, in 1950 and grew up in nearby Anzac where she was raised by her grandmother and mother’s stepfather.

“It’s very, very difficult coming in,” she said of acting, “in the Indigenous skin and the Indigenous experience, and as a woman.

“I had to keep my focus and try to do the best I could with whatever it was that I had. That’s how I could keep moving forward and maintain whatever sanity I had to work with.” 

Cardinal’s forward momentum seems to have been sustained by a mixture of patience, persistence and doggedness in the face of the obstacles confronting her.

“Sometimes sanity’s not the best thing,” she continued. “You’ve got to crash a door, and fail and get up … The obstruction of colonialism and genocide and this human thing that has difficulty accepting change … those are all barriers that make you crazy.”

The effects of the Canadian state’s policies toward Indigenous Peoples surrounded her from birth, and she shares a moment from childhood in which her grandmother led her through the dark without a flashlight to visit a group of healers in the woods. She adds, however, that “the outlawing of Indigenous languages and ways does not begin to describe what that experience actually is in your breath, in your mind, in your heart.

“The resilience of my people,” she said, “has always made me so proud. It has always given me strength: the incredible resilience that we have, and the power to love after all that … Genocide tries to destroy love and did a really good job, but the places that it wasn’t successful … Oh! That love is so powerful. And that’s what has brought us back to where we are today. That’s what brought back our rights to our language and our rights to our ceremonies and our rights to be who we are. And we still have to fight for it.”

Across the long arc of her career, there have certainly been changes: both in how the culture industry approaches Indigenous stories and also in Canada’s willingness to at least acknowledge the legacy of colonialism. The first of these is palpable in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” for which Cardinal — alongside Gladstone and non-Indigenous actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro — was expected to learn Osage, a task she took on in close collaboration with members of the community and from a perspective of deep solidarity.

“I understand what it feels like to lose your language,” she said, describing the tremendous responsibility she felt in wielding the words and ideas of an endangered language. 

As for the future, Cardinal is unsure of exactly what comes next, but she feels animated by the possibilities, among them the prospect of producing for the first time. For now, she joked, “I’m just trying to eat my breakfast and live a good life so that I can stay around as best I can and watch out for the buses.”

Toward the end of our conversation, when I asked how she views the significant political and cultural shifts that have taken place since she began acting a half-century ago, Cardinal sounded optimistic about the power of a film like Scorsese’s to spark conversation and perhaps educate. She’s glad that someone of his stature took it up.

“It’s a horrific story,” she said. “But that’s the truth. And the truth is beautiful.”

By Luke Savage Special to the Star