By Bernelda Wheeler
Eagle Feather News - February 2000 - pg.11
The whole town had come to the train station to say good-bye to her. For sure, her neighbors, the McKenzie family was there along with dozens of other Anzac People. She had grown up in that little town. These were her people and she was theirs. A song was running through her mind..."Please Mr. Custer, I don't want to go..." They had come to wish her well, to let her know they cared for her. Prospects of life in a city were exciting but she didn't want to leave -- didn't want to go to such a big place. It was scary... "White man waitin' out there, waitin' to take my hair...". Edmonton -- a world away from Anzac. The journey is a bittersweet memory, childhood was behind her and she didn't know what to expect of highschool in Edmonton.
Tantoo Cardinal was fifteen. There had been no plans for highschool, no money. Her mom (grandma) had no way to access the resources required. But Tantoo had a teacher who believed in her. Mr. Walter found the money, a bursary from the Northland school division. Her way was paid, she had someplace to live and she was registered for highschool. Mr. Walter had made all the arrangements to launch someone from Anzac towards a good education. Life in highschool meant learning. Mainstream meant learning about racism and bigotry. The looks and attitudes, comments and conversations, newspapers and encounters told her something that would never leave: Aboriginal People were often seen through eyes of racists and bigots as socially unacceptable, irresponsible, welfare bums, lazy, drunks, and not too bright. Tantoo got angry. With every episode she got more angry -- at times enraged. The prejudice was against people like the folks back in Anzac. Those people were nothing like what she was hearing. They were good people -- kind and generous and they looked after their own. Lazy? No. They worked hard, dammit!!! "They weren't dumb either", she says, "Some of those people could speak three and four languages -- they were smart and strong."
Tantoo was being protective of her people but how do you protect? Frustration and a feeling of helplessness joined the rage and anger. Education in the big city spanned a wide berth. Graduation came and she'd made it by a slim margin. Had it not been for those folks back in Anzac, Tantoo Cardinal may have been a dropout but their support carried her through along with the colossal amount of help from the Mennonite church. After graduation, Tantoo married. All these years later, she says of Fred Martin, "He's one of the finest human beings that you'll every meet anywhere." But these things and thoughts were happening with Tantoo -- she was on a quest and it took her miles and years and detours out of the way of a home life with Fred. This city, that city, these folks, those over there -- social issues, fighting for justice; fighting injustice. Eventually Tantoo decided "...don't make people suffer for what's not right with me..." The marriage ended; Fred went on alone and raised their son, Cheyenne.
Then, a voice from no place and everyplace told her that everyone had been given a gift; what was her gift? She had to find it...Friendship Centres, conferences, membership in the youth movement; volunteer work gave her opportunities to meet and listen to people. Things were happening among Aboriginal People, how could she be a part of that...what could she contribute; she who had always felt alone...no reserve, no status card...no Metis community and always feeling of being poor sticking to her like a burr. Running...running...running...from what? Where to? An opportunity came, to act. Harry Daniels recommended her to the producers of a film. Tantoo got a part. Her wardrobe included a 150 year old dress that Vicky Crowchild had loaned the production. Waiting for her scene to come up one day Tantoo fell asleep on the grass, she was wearing the old white doeskin dress. She awoke with an idea, a revelation. "This is what I can do," she thought. It made sense -- through acting she could contribute. Our stories had to be told. More could be achieved: education, entertainment, role modelling and authenticating portrayals of Aboriginal People. None of it required a status card or membership on a reserve or Metis community. Soon Tantoo was on her way to a new life....to be continued in March.
Tantoo Cardinal -- Part II
By Bernelda Wheeler
Eagle Feather News - March 2000 - pg.15
Although Tantoo Cardinal's work began to veer towards media and communication, the moving and searching continued. She'd sleep at this friend's place and that one's -- there were parties and drinking. The ever-growing anger dogged her life but was denied by everyone including Tantoo. Broke and in debt with no place to live, Tantoo reluctantly took a job with Syncrude but there were questions - could she trust that she could pick up and make a life out of all these pieces and beginnings? Did she want to work for the project that had destroyed Anzac and scattered the townspeople? More chaos and confusion until she met some friends who were in media and show business. Tantoo had been on an escalator going up when she saw some friends she knew in the business. By the time she got to the top she had decided that she would not work for Syncrude - maybe she could make a career out of acting.
Show business is not stable but Tantoo hung in. Films, television, stage, and radio studios became familiar. She traveled the continent. Through it all there were stolen moments when she could escape into solitude and grasp the lifeline of influence from her family; Tantoo would remember the strength, the soul of kindness and the sense of justice and fairness that lived in the grandmother who had raised her: the brother who went back to the bush for visits - he would chop wood for the old ones and learn from them. He hobo'd around the country with his duffel bag and guitar. Tantoo's natural mother lived on the street and because of an old injury that affected the way she walked she was known as Step and a Half. Tantoo thought about this woman often. And there were always those Anzac people, now scattered all over. These were her still points in the many times of chaos.
Work for Tantoo included acting in many feature films, among them "Loyalties", "Dances With Wolves", and "Black Robe".
By now Tantoo has been recognized and honored with dozens of prizes and awards for her work. Her favorite character was Bangor of "Where the Rivers Flow North", written and directed by Jay Craven. Although she hesitates to identify favorite co-stars, Tantoo talks about the professionalism and knowledge of people like Anthony Hopkins, Augie Schellenberg, and Tina Keeper; people she describes as creative, and who "go for the moment." So far, the production she likes the best is "Big Bear".
In mid-career now, there were three more members of the family. Clifford was born in the mid-eighties; she had married again and Riel came along in the late eighties. Life was chaotic. The family lived in Los Angeles, Calgary - back to Los Angeles and finally to the wooded green mountains of Vermont.
As time went on Tantoo found herself in such an ugly place in her life that she had to stop and search. Something was missing. There was healing to do. Why the running, confusion and rage? She had to go to that place within herself that knows the pain and pleasure of our being.
There she found the devils and reaffirmed her values. She hadn't wanted to go there, it was too painful. Part of the running and anger had been to avoid going to that place within. It was hard but now she knows what she has to work with strength and determination, a great capacity to live and support others and if she is to be successful, she has to be in charge of herself. There is lots to life that Tantoo Cardinal still wants: a good life for Clifford and Riel; to ensure that they have the space and freedom to be themselves in their endeavors and interests and to be more closer in touch with them. There are dreams to follow in her chosen profession.
It's like cleaning up after a parade, Tantoo says of the space she is presently in. "The KKK have gone through, Custer has gone through, racism, sexism, confusion, power and control issues, manipulators and life-snuffing forces." Hard times were a part of the parade but good times too. Now there's cleaning up. "All the gumwrappers, stale popcorn, sticky dirt and all manner of stuff that we don't need."
Tantoo Cardinal looks forward to the future - it's going to be interesting and she's just about ready to start new things. Just about. This time she feels well prepared.
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