MISSOULA — Mary Birchbark is tired of performing. In the first five minutes of the film “Falls Around Her,” Mary, played by Indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal (Metis), enchants a packed venue with song before leaving the stage and her career without notice or explanation.
Set in the lush winter woodlands of Canada, the film follows Mary’s next chapter of life and return to her home on the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation reserve. The singer finds solace in an isolated lakeside cabin as she takes on the challenges of reconnecting with herself, her people, and her land.
All seems well as Mary settles into her new life until a mysterious presence begins taunting her home. Armed with tobacco, prayer, and a baseball bat, Mary discerns through suspects. She must bravely face her past in order to move forward with her future.
Onscreen aunty of Indian Country Tantoo Cardinal graced the stage of the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center’s third annual Indigenous Film Festival last month for a Montana’s premiere screening of “Falls Around Her.” Known for her role as Victor’s mom Arlene in “Smoke Signals,” and Black Shawl in “Dances With Wolves,” Cardinal was featured in a panel discussion on the film and her 40-year career. Watch the trailer below.
In her first starring role, Cardinal serves major grown-woman goals as she breaks Hollywood stigmas. She said it took 10-years to start filming the project because film companies couldn’t see her starring as the lead character at 68-years old. “The film’s director Darlene had the vision of me playing this role and she fought for that to happen,” she said. “There’s stigmas in Hollywood with the roles women should play. This film kind of broke those barriers.”
The film also broke barriers being directed by Indigenous filmmaker Darlene Naponse (Anishinaabe). Cardinal said she’s seen a shift in the film industry with more Indigenous people taking on all aspects of filmmaking. “This movie is powerful because it is an Indigenous story being told by Indigenous people,” she said. “It’s important that we tell our own stories because who can do that better than us?”
The character of Mary is complex. Aside from being an artist, she is also an activist. In the film, she stands alongside protestors protecting Indigenous lands from oil corporations in wake of local water contamination. Cardinal said the scenes mirror the current political climate. “There is this awakening happening throughout the world right now and Indigenous people are leading in protection of the earth,” she said. “It’s important that we keep our hope for the future because that’s where our strength and resiliency has always been.”
With deep red lips, furs, and a black wide brim hat, Cardinal’s fashion in the film is notably iconic. Unlike typical roles for mature Indigenous women, her character displays a modern independence and the film even touches on her sex life. Cardinal said those aspects challenged her as an actress. “I said: ‘Gol, Darlene, do we have to include these scenes?’” she said jokingly. “Sexuality in film for Native people has often been associated with trauma and this kind of showed a healthier perspective on that.”
Mary returns to her home after a long career in the spotlight. Cardinal said she has had a similar experience since taking on learning her Native Cree language. “Boarding Schools had a major impact on Indigenous cultures and languages in Canada,” she said. “My grandmother wouldn’t speak her language or teach that to me and that is something that I’ve taken on now through apps and different materials. I think it’s important that we all reconnect with who we are. How can we go through life never knowing who we are?”
The Indigenous Film Festival aims to highlight positive messages about identity, cultural connections, and resiliency of Native American people. The event included a meal using traditional ingredients and featured the artwork of Native American artists.