The tall, lanky, Tantoo Cardinal is a metis, the term in Canada applying to those of mixed Native American and European descent. Raised among the Cree, she turned her political activism into an acting career that has included roles as the knowing wife of the Medicine Man in "Dances With Wolves" (1990), the poignant childless companion of Rip Torn in "Where the Rivers Flow North" (1993) and the mother of Brad Pitt's wife in "Legends of the Fall" (1994).
Being involved with the Amer-Indian activism of the 1970's Tantoo felt acting would be a way to reach people and send her message of "truth" to the world. Along with Russell Means, Graham Greene and others she has accomplished a part of her "mission." She began with public speaking and lecturing on the Native-American condition which gave her confidence. Cardinal was a leader of a youth group petitioning to get the Canadian government to build more schools on Indian reservations in the province of Alberta when she was cast in a small role in a 1971 Canadian docudrama on the life of Albert Lacombe, a 19th century Roman Catholic missionary.
Though uncomfortable with having to portray Lacombe as a savior, Cardinal made the most of her part and, bitten with the acting bug, began performing in films, TV, on stage, and even in industrial films. By 1986, when she moved to the US to pursue a career in Hollywood, she was nationally known in Canada. Strong parts in feature films followed.
Having auditioned for Kevin Costner by translating the dialogue into her native Cree, she landed the role of Black Shawl, the knowing wife of medicine man Kicking Bird in "Dances With Wolves". In 1991, she was cast by director Bruce Beresford in "Black Robe", which earned her critical acclaim for her death scene, complete with an arrow in her neck. Cardinal went on to portray Bangor, the companion to Vermont logger Rip Torn in "Where the Rivers Flow North", making a strong impression in a scene in which she laments not having children, and in Sam Shepard's "Silent Tongue" (1993), she had the title role as the ghost of a raped and murdered woman who haunts her husband. As the decade wound to a close, Cardinal portrayed the title character's wise grandmother in "The Education of Little Tree" (1997) and had a featured role in the popular Sundance premiere "Smoke Signals" (1998).
Cardinal has also worked extensively on TV, often in PBS dramas or films on historical First American figures and stories. She broke into network TV with "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge" (CBS, 1987), and followed with the PBS "Wonderworks" special "Places Not Our Own" (billed as Tantoo Martin-Cardinal), as one of the metis women trying to cope with the difficulties of the Depression. Cardinal also appeared in "Tecumseh: The Last Warrior" (TNT, 1995) and was featured in "Grand Avenue" (HBO, 1996). She made the first of her recurring appearances on the CBS drama series "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" in 1993, cast as Snow Bird, the stalwart Cheyenne friend of frontier physician Jane Seymour. In 2000, Cardinal played a relative of twin sisters separated at birth and reunited as adults in the heartwarming "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production "The Lost Child".
Tantoo has garnered many acting awards for her work. Already with two children of her own: Cheyenne and Clifford, she married John Lawlor in 1988 and they have a child, Riel. She continues as an Amer-Indian activist and has done much for the Native-American community throughout her life. Recently she accepted the Sun Hill Award for Excellence in Native American Filmmaking at the Harvard Film Archive. The award is given in honor of a director, actor, producer, or writer who has made a significant contribution to the legacy of Native American film.
NATIVE SPIRIT AND THE SUNDANCE WAY...
Native Spirit is narrated by Tantoo Cardinal (Dances with Wolves), who takes the viewer back to the days of Red Cloud when "Our old men talked to spirits and made good medicine. Our young men herded the horses and made love to the girls. In this way our grandfathers lived and were happy."
In the second documentary, The Sun Dance Way, Gordon Tootoosis (Legends of the Fall) brings to life the voice of Thomas Yellowtail as he describes the mysterious and ancient Sun Dance ceremony. For more information on the cast and characters, the content of the documentaries, and to see video clips, visit the web site of the DVD program. Educators should go to the version for classroom use when purchasing the program.