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Tantoo Cardinal

Tantoo Cardinal, a Métis-Cree actress, stars in "Falls Around Her."

Indigenous actors and film writers are, finally, coming into their own, actor Tantoo Cardinal said during a stop in Missoula for the third annual Indigenous Film Festival, which celebrated Indigenous female film making.

Sponsored by the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center, the festival wrapped up this weekend  and featured the premier of "Falls Around Her,'' Tantoo's latest movie.

The feature film was written, directed, and produced by Darlene Naponse, an Ojibway filmmaker from Canada. It stars Cardinal, a Métis and possibly the most recognizable Indigenous actor of our time, with starring roles in films including Dances With Wolves (1990), Black Robe (1991), Smoke Signals (1998), and Wind River (2017).

While here for the Missoula premier of the film, Cardinal had a conversation with festival co-organizer Ivan MacDonald and then answered questions from the audience for another hour. It was a spirited and moving discussion.

Cardinal, who just returned from supporting the film at a festival in Panama, also sat down with the Missoulian to talk about of the movie and her work.

“The Panama festival very inspiring,” Cardinal said. “There were so many filmmakers I didn’t know, or had only heard of — especially from South America — doing so many beautiful things. I was a great experience.”

Cardinal has had her share of “beautiful things.” She has crafted a stellar career that spans more than four decades. She has performed in more than 100 roles in Canada and the United States in film, theater and television. Her efforts have earned her numerous awards; notably, she was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 2009 and holds honorary doctorates from four universities. She is a founding member of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company.

And yet, for all the work and acclaim, “Falls Around Her” earns her one particular distinction that had previously eluded her.

"It's a lead role, as opposed to a principal role,” Cardinal said. “I've had other principal roles, but this is my first lead.”

Top of the poster billing. A character the film’s entire focus is turned to. Important, yes, but with a career as long and illustrious as hers has been, why has it taken so long for Cardinal to earn such a role?

"Our society was not ready for it,” Cardinal said without hesitation. “It has seemed to me that throughout my career, I was only allowed roles that society was prepared to allow me to have.

"In the early years, our [Native] writers, our creators, were not there [working in the industry] yet. So I had all these years working with non-Indigenous storytellers. Their stories are not my stories, and they're not about me. So that has been a huge difficulty, to find the projects where I could be cast as something other than an ‘Indian-coming-out-of-a-tepee’ sort of thing.”

Things may be slowly changing. There are more and more Indigenous actors and filmmakers taking on larger roles and projects. Cardinal credits productions like the television series “Longmire,” for example, from the series of novels written by Wyoming’s Craig Johnson, that regularly focuses on Indigenous stories and characters.

“I was happy to see Longmire,” she says. “It kind of brings us back to life in the minds of the Americans. (For many people) it’s been well understood that we (Indians) belong in the past, that we don't exist anymore, that we've been dealt with. It’s like that in Canada as well, but we are here, and we are strong!”

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“Falls Around Her” is the story of Mary Birchbark, an internationally known singer/songwriter from the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation Reserve in northern Ontario, Canada, on the shores of Whitefish Lake.

The film opens with Birchbark taking the stage to perform a show, then, in mid-performance, exiting out a side door and walking away. She returns to her home, an old cabin on the shore of the lake. It is early spring, but still wintery. We see her stacking wood, walking through the snow, observing the natural world. We get long, lingering shots of the frozen lake, snow falling on pines. Mary peels slabs of birchbark from the tree whose name she bears, then uses it to start a fire in her woodstove. The visual experience of the film is sublime, almost meditative.

“Falls Around Her” focuses on female characters, and how they relate and interact with each other in their community. Many of the themes are subtle, but they are there. We see poverty, abuse and neglect, but Naponse doesn’t beat us over the head with them. The authenticity of these interactions, of what the camera shows us of the community, are key to the film.

The film’s distinction of being Indigenous-made, with Indigenous actors portraying tough, Indigenous women telling a real story of Indigenous life, was a highlight for Cardinal.

“It was like medicine,” she says, describing the experience. “To look around and see all these Indigenous faces, laughing and working together, was medicine.”

Cardinal says reaction to the film has been positive. It has picked up theater screens in Canada, and she hopes that spreads to the States as well. It is a beautiful experience, and a thoughtful one. “Falls Around Us” has an audience, a big one. Here’s hoping it finds it.

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