LOS ANGELES – Even though she had significant roles in films like “Dances With Wolves” and “Legends of the Fall,” Tantoo Cardinal never felt the tide was changing for Native American or First Nations actors until she made “Falls Around Her” in 2018.
“It was the first time I played the lead in a feature film, so it’s taken a long time,” the Canadian native says.
Now, as one of the key players in “Stumptown,” the 69-year-old is seeing even more doors open. As Sue Lynn Blackbird, the head of a tribal casino and respected elder in her community, she’s able to show other sides of native people, tell new stories about their lives.
“We’re kind of an enigma, you know,” she says of Native Americans. “Some people are kind of surprised that we’re still alive. I was kind of astounded, actually, to get the script and to see this character. When I met Greg Rucka, the writer, I said, ‘Whoa. Whoa. What happened? How come you wrote this character?’ He grew up around Portland and he knows my people. He knows women like Sue Lynn Blackbird.”
In the first half of the season, Sue Lynn is a key player in the life of Dex Parios, a military veteran struggling with PTSD. Because Dex has experience with investigations, Sue Lynn hires her to find her granddaughter and, later, to get at the heart of drug dealing on the reservation.
Like Cardinal, Sue Lynn is strong-willed.
“I’ve had to be defiant in my life,” the actress says. “That’s the only way I can make the changes that I can.”
Early on, the Alberta resident questioned the motives of producers and reminded them “stories build the next step. So many things were misinterpreted, misunderstood, misaligned and those things had to be straightened out,” she says.
She went into acting because “I’m connected to my ancestors.” One role led to another; one story gave way to another.
“In Canada, they’re friendlier to the arts,” the woman of Metis and Cree descent says. “There was funding and, thanks to Papa Trudeau, the father of our present prime minister, there was the Canadian content ruling, which said a certain amount of content in radio, television and films, had to be Canadian-related. That’s how our indigenous world was able to build in this industry.”
Pierre Trudeau, she says, believed “the strength of a society depends on the arts.” As a result, broadcasters and filmmakers had access to government funding.
“Canada is much more educated (about diversity) than this country is,” she says of the United States. “This country is still busy trying to smother who we are. In Canada, that part is over.”
That career-altering film, “Falls Around Her,” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 and featured Cardinal as a First Nations musician who returns to her home community to recharge, and reevaluate her life, only to find that fame isn’t easy to leave behind. She won raves for her work and garnered attention from producers.
Now, it’s a matter of capitalizing on that attention and telling more indigenous stories.
“There are more characters like that – ones with more depth,” Cardinal says. Thanks to writers and directors like Darlene Naponse, “we’re creating our own stories.
“Who knows where it will lead?” Cardinal says with a smile. “It’s taken a very long time, but we’re getting there.”