For most of the 20th century, theatre, movies and television portrayed Indigenous nations and people in a manner that often perpetuated negative stereotypes. Indigenous actors from Canada were among those who fought the stereotypes and whose talents are continuing to contribute to Canadian and Indigenous cultures.
1. Dan George (born 24 July 1899, died 23 September 1981; Tsleil-Waututh)
For the first 60 years of his life, Dan George held a number of jobs and from 1951 to 1963 he was chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. His acting career began with roles in Canadian theatre and Canadian and American television series. In 1970, he became the first Indigenous actor to be nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor in the hit movie Little Big Man. He appeared in other successful movies, including Harry and Tonto (1974) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). George brought intelligence, dignity and humour to his roles, thereby inviting viewers to reconsider past portrayals of Indigenous peoples.
2. Jennifer Podemski (born 1 January 1974; Anishinaabe)
Jennifer Podemski grew up in Toronto and began acting in her teens. Her talent was evident in CBC Television’s The Diviners, which led to a starring role in Dance Me Outside. At age 25, she and a partner created Big Soul Productions, the first Indigenous-owned production company in Canada. In 2005, she founded Redcloud Studios. The two companies have enjoyed many successful ventures, including the award-winning series Moccasin Flats. Meanwhile, Podemski continues to act in a number of Canadian and American projects, including Empire of Dirt, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 and for which she was nominated for awards as an actor and producer.
3. Gordon Tootoosis (born 25 October 1941, died 5 July 2011; Cree)
Gordon Tootoosis was a residential school survivor. He toured Canada and Europe as a powwow dancer and began his acting career in the Canadian television series Stoney Plain. His first movie role was in the 1974 feature Alien Thunder. A number of radio, theatre, television and movie roles followed, including the international hits Black Robe (1991) and Legends of the Fall (1994). Tootoosis demonstrated an impressive acting range, including in a recurring role as a villain in the long-running television series North of 60. Tootoosis co-founded the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company in 1999, which, upon his death, was renamed the Gordon Tootoosis Nīkānīwin Theatre Company.
4. Devery Jacobs (born 8 August 1993; Mohawk)
Growing up in Kahnawà:ke, Devery Jacobs used a home video camera to make short movies. Her love of film was fully realized in 2013, when she received a Canadian Screen Award nomination for her role in the movie Rhymes for Young Ghouls. She went on to write, direct and act in films and TV series such as Mohawk Girls, Cold and South of the Moon. While an accomplished maker of independent films, such as Rae and High Steel, she continues to earn praise as an actor in American and Canadian projects such as The Order, Cardinal and Reservation Dogs.
5. Tantoo Cardinal (born 20 July 1950; Cree and Métis)
Tantoo Cardinal was raised in poverty by her grandmother and saw her sister taken in the Sixties Scoop and her brother murdered. She began acting as a child, later appeared in a number of Canadian films and, in 1986, moved to Los Angeles to pursue a movie career. Her breakout role was as Black Shawl in the enormously successful Dances with Wolves (1990). The movie recognized the dignity, spirituality and agency of Indigenous people. Cardinal appeared in many more movies and television series and won many awards for her acting while earning respect for her social advocacy. In 1999, she co-founded the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company.
6. Kaniehtiio Horn (born 8 November 1986; Mohawk)
Kaniehtiio Horn grew up in Kahnawà:ke, near Montreal. She graduated from Dawson College's Professional Theatre Program in 2005 and won acclaim in a number of roles in television programs that included Letterkenny, The Man in the High Castle, Hemlock Grove and Diggstown. She also appeared in movies such as On the Road, Death Wish and The Hummingbird Project. Horn was nominated for Gemini Awards in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and in 2010 won an ACTRA Award for her performance in the movie The Trotsky. Horn has also won acclaim for her podcast, Coffee with My Ma, that delves into Indigenous political engagement through stories about her activist mother.
7. Graham Greene (born 22 June 1952; Oneida)
Graham Greene was raised in Hamilton, Ontario and worked at a number of jobs before attending theatre school and then appearing in Canadian and English stage productions. In 1983, he landed his first movie role in Running Brave. More than 100 American and Canadian television, film and theatre roles followed. He achieved international renown for his nuanced portrayal of Kicking Bird in the hit movie Dances with Wolves (1990), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor. Greene has garnered international respect for his stunning range of roles, playing everything from intense drama and light comedy to Shakespeare.
8. Wilma Pelly (born 5 March 1937, died 28 December 2020; Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nation)
A residential school survivor, Wilma Pelly was recovering from having injured her hand in a factory accident when she replied to an ad to act in a 1990 samurai film. The small role began a remarkable 25-year career in theatre, film and television. Her defining role was in the long-running CBC drama North of 60. Her inhabiting the role of the soft-spoken and wise Elsie Tsa Che reflected the importance of family, women and elders in Indigenous communities. Among her other roles was a 1995 miniseries called Children of the Dust, with Sidney Poitier, and a 2005 miniseries, Into the West, produced by Steven Spielberg.
9. Georgina Lightning (born 1964; Cree)
Georgina Lightning was born in Alberta and in 1990 moved to Los Angeles to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She appeared in many Canadian, American and British movies and television series. She and her business partner formed Tribal Alliance Productions to create more films with positive Indigenous themes, including Older Than America (2008), for which Lightning became the first Indigenous woman from Canada to win the White House Project’s Enhancing Perceptions in Culture Award for Emerging Artists. Lightning went on to write, produce, direct and act in a number of projects, including the innovative CBC Television series Trickster.
10. Adam Beach (born 11 November 1972; Saulteaux/Plains Ojibwe)
Adam Beach is one of the most successful Indigenous actors in Canada. After co-starring in Bruce McDonald’s Dance Me Outside (1994) and the American indie hit Smoke Signals (1998), he gave acclaimed lead performances in John Woo’s Windtalkers (2002), Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and the HBO TV movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007). He also starred in such Canadian TV series as The Rez (1996–97), Moose TV (2007) and Arctic Air (2012–14). He is a motivational speaker and an outspoken advocate for Indigenous peoples’ rights. In 2012, he founded the Adam Beach Film Institute, a film school in Winnipeg for Indigenous Youth.