Tantoo Cardinal was born the youngest of four children to Julia Cardinal, a woman of Cree and Métis descent, and a Caucasian father who left when Cardinal was six weeks old. Her grandmother became the children’s caregiver when Cardinal was six months old. Cardinal’s mother lived in poverty until she died at a young age. Cardinal experienced further family tragedies when her sister was taken during the Sixties Scoop and her brother was murdered at the age of 24.
Cardinal was raised in the hamlet of Anzac, Alberta. The lack of electricity inspired her to use her imagination while playing in the bush. Her grandmother nicknamed her “Tantoo” after the insect repellent they used while picking blueberries together. She taught Cardinal the Cree language, the traditional ways of their culture and the difficulties she would face growing up Métis in Canada. Cardinal has said that it was walking behind her grandmother where she first learned to act.
Tantoo Cardinal gave her first performance in Grade 7 with the title role in Anzac’s Christmas concert play The Wise Old Man. She left Anzac at age 15 and attended Bonnie Doon High School in Edmonton on a bursary. Upon moving to Edmonton, Cardinal frequently encountered racist taunts and discovered the negative stereotypes of Indigenous people that contrasted sharply with the people and communities she knew. This experience inspired her to pursue acting and create positive representations of Indigenous communities. She joined a Native Youth Group to help create support networks for Indigenous families.
Cardinal’s early acting work included a mix of radio, theatre and industrial films. The introduction of Canadian content regulations in the early 1970s created a new (but still modest) demand for Indigenous actors in Canadian stories. Cardinal landed her first professional role in a 1971 CBC docudrama about Catholic missionary Father Albert Lacombe. She was discovered while petitioning for the construction of more schools on Alberta reserves.
She starred in her first feature film, the romantic historical drama Marie-Anne (1978), filmed in Edmonton. Anthony Hall of Cinema Canada cited her “dynamic performance” as one of the film’s few highlights. After small roles in the action movie Death Hunt (1981) and the sports drama Running Brave (1983), Cardinal had a breakthrough playing Rosanne Ladouceur in Anne Wheeler’s Loyalties (1986). The film drew positive reviews for its accurate portrayal of Indigenous life and for Cardinal’s powerful performance. Cardinal was nominated for a Genie Award for best actress and received the best actress award from the Alberta Motion Picture Industry, the American Indian Film Festival and several international film festivals. She moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and followed with performances in the films Candy Mountain (1987) and War Party (1988) and the TV movies Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987) and Divided Loyalties (1990).
Dances With Wolves (1990)
Cardinal gained international recognition playing Black Shawl in the Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves (1990), opposite Kevin Costner and Graham Greene. The story of Civil War soldier John Dunbar and his friendship with a Sioux band, Dances With Wolves attempted to offer a corrective to the negative portrayals of Indigenous characters throughout Hollywood’s history, featuring the Lakota language and Indigenous actors in the ensemble. Cardinal impressed Costner and casting director Elizabeth Leustig by translating her role into Cree for the audition and by conveying the experience she brought to the role. As Leustig told Entertainment Weekly in 1991, “There’s a certain hardship in her face that’s very appealing. You can tell that her life has not been an easy one.”
Dances With Wolves was a blockbuster and one of the defining films of the 1990s. It grossed more than $424 million worldwide and won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film was widely praised for giving Indigenous actors dynamic, multidimensional speaking parts, although it still received some criticism for recounting history from a settler perspective. The film has remained a source of pride for Cardinal. “I think the power of Dances With Wolves is that it brought some positive images forward that we were really, really needing and that was extremely important,” she told First Nations Drum in 2002. “For some it touched a place of spirit and belief and it made people feel good.”
Cardinal followed Dances with Wolves with the acclaimed Black Robe (1991), based on the novel by Brian Moore and directed by Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy). The film dramatized the story of a Jesuit priest on a mission to convert the Huron to Catholicism. Black Robe was generally praised for its sense of authenticity and sensitive depiction of Indigenous characters but was criticized for its brutality. Cardinal twice declined the film, the story of which drew upon church records and a colonial gaze. She and costar August Schellenberg suggested script changes and improvised on set to improve the representation of Indigenous characters. Black Robe won six Genie Awards, including Best Picture, and was a box office success.
In 1994, Cardinal performed in three films, including Edward Zwick’s Oscar-winning historical epic Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. In Silent Tongue, written and directed by Sam Shepard, she played the title role. For her part as Bangor, the strong-willed companion of a logging baron in Where the Rivers Flow North, Cardinal received the best actress award at the American Indian Film Festival. Reflecting on Cardinal’s career in 2015, Tony Wong wrote in the Toronto Star, “she is at her finest when she plays a woman named Bangor with the kind of blunt, raw and outspoken humanity that shreds the meek, sexualized and ultimately Disneyfied image of the Indian female as Pocahontas.” Cardinal has called Bangor her favourite character. “She was from a world of women that nobody writes about or sees, and she was a combination of many women I had known with a survivalist kind of background.”
Cardinal appeared as Turtle Mother in Tecumseh: The Last Warrior (1995) and played a major role alongside Adam Beach in Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals (1998), which independent film distributor Miramax positioned as “the first feature film written, directed, and produced by Native Americans.” Smoke Signals was a hit on the festival circuit and won numerous honours, including both the Filmmakers’ Trophy and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Later Film Career
Cardinal reunited with Loyalities director Anne Wheeler for a supporting role in Edge of Madness (2002). She played Auntie Apple in Georgina Lightning’s film about residential schools, Older Than America (2008). According to Cardinal, the film shows not only the suffering but also the healing process.
Cardinal has appeared in several low-budget films by Vancouver-based independent filmmaker Carl Bessai, including Unnatural & Accidental (2006), about the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Mothers & Daughters (2008) and Father & Sons (2010). Cardinal played Tekahera in Michel Poulette’s Maïna (2013), which dramatizes the first encounters between the Inuit and Innu prior to settler contact. The film received six Canadian Screen Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture; Cardinal also won Best Supporting Actress at the American Indian Film Festival for her performance.
Cardinal’s later film credits include the Vancouver-shot drama Down Here (2014), the sci-fi thriller ARQ (2016) and the American thriller Wind River (2017), which tackled the subject of missing and murdered Indigenous women, albeit through the eyes of two white American protagonists.
In 2018, Cardinal appeared in five films. She had a small role in the Netflix thriller Hold the Dark and supporting performances in the Nunavut-shot drama The Grizzlies, Don McKellar’s adaptation of Joseph Boyden’s novel Through Black Spruce, and Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Michelle Derosier’s Angelique’s Isle. She won Best Supporting Actress at the American Indian Film Festival for the latter. Cardinal finally received her first starring role and top billing with Falls Around Her, directed by Anishinaabe filmmaker Darlene Naponse, playing a singer named Mary who returns home to the reserve and reflects upon her career. “It’s like a breath of the universe, or something like that, that I was finally able to be a part of a story where I could be No. 1 on the call sheet,” Cardinal told the Toronto Star. “The importance of that is that you’re driving the story. I’ve had 48 years of standing by while the story goes on, in a sense.”
Cardinal has enjoyed recurring and guest roles in several Canadian television series, including Annie in Spirit Bay (1982–87), Renee in Street Legal (1987–94) and Franoise in By Way of the Stars (1992–93). She had a recurring role in CBS’s popular frontier drama Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993–95) and had several guest appearances on the popular CBC series North of 60 (1993–97), which centred on the experiences of Indigenous characters in a fictional northern town. She won a 1996 Gemini Award for her performance.
In the CBC miniseries Big Bear (1999), based on the novel by Ruby Wiebe, she played Running Second, the wife of Cree chief Big Bear, who resisted signing Treaty 6 with the Canadian government. The role was especially important to Cardinal because her great-grandfather was a member of Big Bear’s band. In the television movie Luna: Spirit of the Whale (2007), she appeared with Adam Beach and Graham Greene, and she was in the TV movies Indian Summer: The Oka Crisis (2006) and The Englishman's Boy (2008). She played Betty Merasty in 22 episodes of the popular APTN series Moccasin Flats (2003-06), appeared as Carol in Shattered (2010), with Callum Keith Rennie and Molly Parker, and played a medicine woman in Longmire (2015–17). She appeared in 18 episodes of Blackstone (2012–15), which drew praise for its frank and realistic portrayal of Indigenous experiences, and six episodes of the APTN sitcom Mohawk Girls (2010–17) about the love lives of young Mohawk women on the rez. She also had guest roles on the HBO shows Penny Dreadful (2016), Westworld (2018), Outlander (2018) and Allan Hawco’s Frontier (2016–17), as well as a supporting role in the Netflix Western Godless (2017).
On stage, in 1982 Cardinal was in Jessica, the adaptation of Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, presented at Saskatoon’s 25th Street Theatre. She starred in Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre production of All My Relations, by Floyd Favel, for which she received the Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award as Best Actress in 1990. She also produced and appeared in a production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues (2005) performed, directed and produced entirely by Indigenous artists.
In 2008, she starred alongside her son Clifford in Kenneth T. Williams’s Three Little Birds and played Regan in the National Arts Centre’s 2012 production of King Lear, which featured an all-Indigenous cast. The Globe and Mail’s J. Kelly Nestruck called her Shakespearean debut “fantastically natural,” writing, “Cardinal’s Regan is earthy and casual in her cruelty.” She played a homeless Cree woman who confronts an Anglican bishop in search of reconciliation and revenge in Drew Hayden Taylor’s 2013 play God and the Indian and starred in Tarragon Theatre’s 2018 rock ‘n’ roll rendition of Hamlet.
Tantoo Cardinal is a founding member of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company, established in 1999. The company was renamed the Gordon Tootoosis Nikaniwin Theatre in 2015 following the death of its cofounder and Cardinal’s longtime collaborator, Gordon Tootoosis. In 2006, Cardinal was added to the Dreamspeakers Walk of Honour during the 11th annual Dreamspeakers Film Festival in Edmonton.
Cardinal’s legacy is a combination of acting and advocacy. Her career broke down barriers for Indigenous actors, and she has used the power of positive representation to challenge negative images and stereotypes. Cardinal has used her craft to honour the history of Indigenous people in Canada. “I always felt that as an actor we have to have the courage to go into the territory of hard experiences and tell the truth of what’s happened to us as human beings,” Cardinal said in 2010. “That’s where you find understanding. You don’t come through generations and generations of genocide and holocaust to be wimps, to be portrayed as monotoned and one-sided characters.”
Cardinal is also an outspoken environmentalist. She drew upon her experience seeing the changes to Fort McMurray to advocate against the Alberta oil sands and the contamination of water for resource extraction. In 2011, she was arrested with fellow actor and activist Margot Kidder while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House.
Cardinal met her first husband, Fred Martin, while boarding at his family’s home during her high school years in Edmonton. They were married from 1968 to 1978 and had a son, Cheyenne, prior to their divorce. She had her second son, Clifford, with actor Beaver Richards. From 1988 to 2000, Cardinal was married to actor John Lawlor, with whom she had a daughter, Riel.
Cardinal has been recognized by many festivals and organizations for her acting and advocacy. She was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2009 and holds honorary doctorates from four universities. In 2017, she received the Earle Grey Award from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, and in 2018, she became the first actor to win the Clyde Gilmour Technicolor Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association. That same year, Cardinal was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (US).
- Earle Grey Award, Canadian Screen Awards (2017)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Guest Role in a Dramatic Series (North of 60) (1992, awarded 1996)
- Best Actress (Loyalties), American Indian Film Festival (1986)
- Best Performance/Actress (Loyalties), Alberta Motion Picture Industry Association (1987)
- Best Actress (All My Relations), Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award (1990)
- Sir Peter Ustinov Comedy Award, Banff World Media Festival (1995)
- National Aboriginal Achievement Award (1998)
- Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Film (The Education of Little Tree), First Americans in the Arts Awards (1998)
- Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a TV Movie/Special (Navigating the Heart), First Americans in the Arts Awards (2000)
- Sun Hill Award for Excellence in Native American Filmmaking, Harvard Film Archive (2006)
- Artistic Merit Award, Women in Film and Television Vancouver (2008)
- Best Supporting Performance by a Female – Dramatic Series (Blackstone – “Forgiveness”), Leo Awards (2012)
- Best Supporting Actress (Maïna), American Indian Film Festival (2013)
- ACTRA Award of Excellence (2015)
- August Schellenberg Award of Excellence, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival (2015)
- Best Supporting Actress (Angelique’s Isle), American Indian Film Festival (2018)
- Birks Diamond Women in Film Award (2018)
- Technicolor Clyde Gilmour Award, Toronto Film Critics Association (2018)
- University of Rochester (1993)
- St. Lawrence University (2000)
- University of Calgary (2005)
- University of Fraser Valley (2010)