Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

March 7, 2014

Rage in the Desert: Tantoo Cardinal on Finding Voice

Tantoo Cardinal courtesy photo

Live from the Agua Caliente Native American Film Fest

First Nations Voices in the Cahuilla Desert Tonight

For the 50,000 children who never came home

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News Exclusive
March 6, 2014

Tantoo Cardinal in Palm Springs
Photo Brenda Norrell
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- "Rage" is not a word that most filmmakers and film festivals are comfortable with. Tantoo Cardinal was not afraid to use the word "rage" tonight. The Agua Caliente Native American Film Festival was not afraid to present a feature film tonight that centered on rage.

Rage is what Tantoo Cardinal felt as a young person in high school. Everywhere she looked, she saw Native people being abused and exploited. That rage fueled her drive, fueled her to find an outlet for that rage. In that quest, she found her voice in acting.

Rage is the message that flows through Moose River Crossing, the feature film tonight at the Agua Caliente Native American Film Festival. It is the rage of young girls and boys in Indian residential schools being raped by principals and priests. It is the rage against the tiny crosses that mark the graves of the 50,000 Indian children in Canada who never came home from residential boarding schools. It is the rage against the flashbacks of the abuse that take hold of peoples lives and come back like rivers, like floods. It is the rage of scars from leather straps on the back, the rage of looking and seeing those now drowning in addictions, alcohol addiction and sex addiction.

When the drama of First Nations voices and films came to the Cahuilla Desert tonight, there were no fairy tale endings in the cinema tonight.

In Moose River Crossing, by Cree filmmaker Shirley Cheechoo, there is a clarifying voice at the conclusion: The victims of residential school abuse must come together, tell their stories, and share their stories.

There is also this pointed conclusion: Speak the truth, speak one's own truth from Spirit, and this is where the power comes.

Tonight, the voices of the far north came to one of the hottest places in North America, the southern California desert.

Tonight's short films at the Agua Caliente Native American Film Festival featured some of the first films for First Nations that turned the industry around, Tantoo Cardinal told a large crowd tonight that appreciated both the humor and sorrow woven into those early films.

Three short films featured festival honoree Tantoo Cardinal, Indigenous actress from northern Alberta, Canada, who spoke of her early days, of both searching and acting. All three films are compelling, weaving complicated issues, and revealing the wide range of Tantoo Cardinal's acting and her own strength.

Blood River
When Tantoo Cardinal was asked what called out to her from those early films, she said it was the filmmakers themselves. Tantoo said Shelley Niro is an amazing artist, and Kent Monkman, Cree, has an incredible sense of humor. Shelley Niro directed Honey Moccasin and Kent Monkman directed Blood River.

In Blood River, Tantoo portrays a white adoptive mother, sporting a blonde wig.

"I think it is hilarious that I'm playing a white woman. It was a laugh," said Tantoo, pointing out that this was a turning of the tables on the whites who were always playing Indians in films.

Blood River, with its humor, also conveys the struggle of an adopted Native child searching for her mother, and the trauma for Indian children growing up in foster homes.

Memory directed by Cedar Sherbet, Kumeyaay, shown tonight, reveals an elderly alcoholic aunt, portrayed by Tantoo, returning for the memorial of a child who has drowned.

The issues of survival -- and the complex issues of family, forgiveness and rebuilding lives -- in the films are set against one underlying reality that Tantoo Cardinal described tonight.

Tantoo said that through their ancestry, Native people knew the truth. "We have known it was about the land."

Whether it is in the United States or Canada, the situation is the same. "It is the same animal," Cardinal said.

"Every government has tried to get rid of treaties, remove us, thin us out."

Now, people are coming together in the fight to protect the water, she said.

"Water is fundamental. If we don't have water, we don't have life," said Tantoo describing the threat of fracking to the water.

As for the rage that fueled her, she said being raised by elderly led her to avoid violence of any kind in the protest movements of the '70s.

As for the exploitation and abuse of Native people all around her, she said she barely made it out of high school, she felt so much rage and was so passionate.

"I heard a voice that each of us has been given a gift." It was then that she began her search, persevering in her quest to discover her own gift. In 1977, she turned down the first role offered because of the dialogue. When they agreed to change it, it was no better. Eventually, they removed all the dialogue.

"I was so happy," she said.

In the films that followed through the years, she portrayed a wide range of characters, including the owner of the Inukshuk Cafe in the off-beat and unpredictable Honey Moccasin, directed by Shelley Niro, and shown tonight.

"The reason I got into acting was to develop a voice."

The voice is not just her own, but an ever-evolving voice for Native people. It is this voice that sounded through the Cahuilla Desert tonight.

The Festival

The Agua Caliente Native American Film Festival is presenting important new Native feature films this week, including Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope, Dine' language with English subtitles, and Maina starring Tantoo Cardinal joined by an incredible cast of Native artists. A lecture by Chiricahua Apache Nancy Marie Mithlo, PhD, opened the festival on Tuesday night. Mithlo's talk was "Can You Hear Me? Silence as an Indigenous Representational Strategy in Film."

Richard M. Milanovich, the late chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, was a lover of film and each year attended the Native Film Fest. The Richard M. Milanovich Award for Distinguished Contributions to Indigenous Film establishes in his honor those who have distinguished themselves in Indigenous film.

The 2014 Award will be presented to Tantoo Cardinal on Saturday evening, March 8, during the 8 pm screening.

Indigenous films continue on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Camelot Theaters, beginning at 5 pm each day.

Film schedule

Article copyright Brenda Norrell. Please share the link. 
To publish in full contact:


Unknown said...

A very awesome and inspired young young actress . Can inspire many along the path . I Luv <3 her ways .

Unknown said...

Congratulations and heartfelt gratitude to Tantoo Cardinal for winning the 2014 Richard M. Melanovick award for Distinquished Contributions to Indigenous Film, and for using her incredible "gift of voice" to share her truth and to help protect the land, the water and the air that all living beings need to survive. Thanks also to Brenda Norrell for a beautifully written article. In solidarity & love - FOREVER Idle NO More!!!