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Actress, environmental activist Tantoo Cardinal talks tar sands in Red Lake

Tantoo Cardinal, an award-winning actress and Metis environmental activist, talks with a reporter Tuesday, March 13, in Bemidji before speaking at Red Lake's Seven Clans Casino. Cardinal grew up in the tar sands region of Alberta, Canada, and addressed the dangers of oil pipelines in her talk. Cardinal is best known for her roles in "Dancing with Wolves" and "Legends of the Fall." Jordan Shearer / Forum News Service

BEMIDJI, Minn.—Before Tantoo Cardinal left her childhood home near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, to attend high school, she spent her time taking in the nature around her.

"I could walk in the bush behind my grandmother and know that there's a whole world out there that's connected to sound and the wind and energy," Cardinal said Tuesday, March 13. "That's where I learned how to act, is from walking behind my grandmother."

But when Cardinal attended high school away from her hometown, everything changed. In 1962, construction started on the first road to connect Fort McMurray to the rest of Alberta's highway system, and starting in 1967, multiple oil sands plants opened there.

When Cardinal returned to Fort McMurray, she said, it was "a different world." Fish, ducks and moose were no longer edible, and the water was no longer drinkable.

"When I went back to my community, it was flooded with people from all over the world with this crazy fire in their eyes that had dollar signs," Cardinal said. "The lake that I learned how to swim in, you couldn't swim in it anymore because the people from Fort McMurray would come out there, and they would party around it and throw their beer bottles right in the water."

Cardinal, who visited Red Lake and Bemidji on Tuesday, went on to become an award-winning actress. She's played roles in movies and on TV, including "Dances with Wolves," "Legends of the Fall," "Smoke Signals" and "Spirit Bay" and currently can be seen in the Netflix series "Godless."

But bearing witness to the changes brought about by the mining of heavy crude oil also drove Cardinal to become an activist.

"It did drive me crazy, and I'm convinced that there are a lot of people that are crazy in our communities," she said. "Because the way I look at it is that if I wasn't crazy, I wouldn't be normal. You have to be crazy about something like that."

Though she has spoken out against tar sands extraction since the 1970s, Cardinal said people are just now beginning to take the issue seriously. She was invited to speak in Red Lake on Tuesday by band member Marty Cobenais, who thought she could add perspective to some of the tribal council's recent discussions regarding pipelines.

Cobenais referenced the council's January decision to back out of a deal to sell land to the Canadian energy company Enbridge. In a 5-3 vote, the tribal council rescinded a 2015 resolution that accepted $18.5 million in exchange for a parcel of land about 16 miles south of the reservation.

The land is home to Enbridge-owned oil pipelines installed by Lakehead Pipeline Co., Inc., before the reservation realized it owned the land.

"I think it's important ..., with Red Lake's decisions lately as far as with the agreement to rescind, that is to then also educate the people and get them more informed as to what is actually going through those pipelines," Cobenais said.

Cardinal also attended Tuesday's Red Lake Tribal Council meeting. After the meeting, Cardinal said she shared her story as a reminder to the council that their decisions affect her people, as well as theirs.

"I feel like we're making some progress," Cardinal said. "Now there's so many people that understand, we are killing ourselves and we're not leaving anything for the children, for the future generations."

Cardinal was scheduled to speak Tuesday night at Seven Clans Casino in an event sponsored by the Indigenous Environmental Network. Local musicians Annie Humphrey and Thomas X also were scheduled to perform.

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or

(218) 333-9796