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Cree performer portrayed complicated historical characters in conflict with non-native society

After nearly a decade of trying to "kill the Indian" in him, the teachers at Gordon Tootoosis's residential school finally expelled him, according to his daughter Alanna. Her father's transgression: singing powwow with some other students in a music room that Tootoosis and his pals thought was soundproofed. It wasn't. The teachers were outraged when they heard the traditional chanting and singing because it meant that they had failed to transform the kids into docile, English-speaking Roman Catholics. So, they sent him packing before he could finish his senior year of high school.

The lack of a diploma never hindered Gordon Tootoosis, the Cree actor and political activist who died of pneumonia on July 5 at age 69. He followed in the traditional footsteps of his Cree ancestors Chief Poundmaker, Yellow Mud Blanket and his own father, John Tootoosis, respected elders who resisted white domination and tried to negotiate better conditions for their people. As an actor, he played Almighty Voice, Big Bear and David Ahenakew, complicated historical characters in conflict with non-native society.

"I've known Gordon for about 40 years," said Tantoo Cardinal, the accomplished actress who played opposite him in a number of projects including the TV series Big Bear and the film Legends of the Fall. "Every time I saw him or met up with him, it was a nourishing thing," she said, explaining that they "cared about the same things." To her he was a "dear, dear friend," from a family she equated with "royalty" because "they maintained the traditions and the culture and kept it alive" during what she calls "the blackout," the long, long time when "our ways" were outlawed and people had to perform their ceremonies in secrecy because the church and the government "were trying to wipe us out." She will miss "his big heart, his sense of humour, his wisdom, his knowledge, his love of people and of the work that we do."

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A natural and talented dancer and powwow announcer, Tootoosis toured throughout Canada Europe and South America with the Plains InterTribal Dance Troupe in the 1960s and 1970s. He made his film debut as Almighty Voice in Alien Thunder, which starred Donald Sutherland and Chief Dan George, and went on to perform in dozens of other projects. He had a long run as the bad guy Albert Golo on the CBC TV series North of 60 – so much so that he sometimes complained that he had trouble convincing people he was Gordon the actor, not Albert the character.

More than six feet tall with a strong, square face, piercing eyes, a gravelly voice, and, in recent years, a long braid of steel grey hair stretching halfway down his back, Tootoosis was a commanding presence on stage and screen. Despite his cinematic allure, Tootoosis never went "Hollywood," preferring to live on the Poundmaker Reserve where he was born and raised, and let the producers and directors come to him. "They know where to find me," he liked to joke, referring to his farm near Cutknife, Sask.

Tootoosis "was the outstanding native actor in the country, as far as I am concerned, and a wonderful human being," said author Rudy Wiebe. He had met John Tootoosis when he was researching his novel The Temptations of Big Bear, and still reveres the confidence and trust that the older man placed in him as a white person writing about a native icon. "Gordon became the man he was because of the man his father was," Wiebe said. They met when the actor was cast as Chief Crowfoot in Far As the Eye Can See, Wiebe's "recent-history" play, which was directed by Paul Thompson at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto in the mid-1970s. Wiebe said, "he could dominate a stage just by walking on it and looking around."

The two men worked together again when Tootoosis agreed to play Big Bear in the four-hour TV mini-series based on Wiebe's novel in the late 1990s. "When he agreed to play Big Bear, the money became available," said Wiebe. "Gil Cardinal, the director, was the power behind it, but it was Gordon's coming in that really pushed [the project] over the top."

Wiebe remembers laughingly telling Tootoosis that he "was too big and too beautiful a man" to play Big Bear, who was short with a face badly scarred by smallpox. Joking aside, Wiebe believes Tootoosis was "the best native actor who could have played Big Bear," not just because of his presence, but because he had an intuitive sense of how to deliver a "very Cree and very spiritual" performance. "He had a very clear idea of what could be shown in the film and what couldn't," remembers Wiebe, "a sense of what was good and respectful to his faith and beliefs." For example, Tootoosis refused to allow certain ceremonies, including the Thirst Dance (the Cree version of a rain dance) to be filmed because it would be sacrilegious.

He wanted to play characters that were real and complex rather than recreating stereotypical native roles from the old black-and-white cowboys and Indians films, said his long time agent Mary Jane MacCallum. "He was very proud and he wasn't going to play something that he didn't believe in."

Belonging to a long tradition of native leaders, Tootoosis served his community as a chief and his people as an activist with the National Indian Brotherhood and as a vice-president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), a group his father had helped form half a century ago. His art and his heritage came together when, appalled by the lack of artistic opportunities for aboriginal performers, he and Tantoo Cardinal became founding members of the board of directors of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company.

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A deeply spiritual person, he began every board meeting of the SNTC with a prayer and encouraged other members to "pray in our own way and to think about the company and to express ourselves in our own way," a grieving general manager Alan Long told the StarPhoenix earlier this week. "Why did someone so important to us have to be taken away so soon?" he asked rhetorically. "His passion was his culture and how that could be expressed in an aboriginal theatre company."

In his last major role, Tootoosis returned to the stage to play the controversial Ahenakew in Gordon Winter by Kenneth T. Williams. (Ahenakew, who died in 2010, was the disgraced former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations who was stripped of his Order of Canada after twice being tried and acquitted of fomenting hatred over allegedly anti-Semitic comments.) The play debuted at the Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon in October, 2010, and was reprised at Prairie Scene in Ottawa and Gatineau this spring. Tootoosis was nervous about going back on the stage after an absence of more than a dozen years, but he took on the role because he wanted to prove that even in his late 60s, he could still create a character and hold a live audience. The effort more than paid off. "Tootoosis is superb as Winter," Patrick Langton exulted in The Ottawa Citizen. "He gives us a richly textured character who is by turns indomitable, snarling and bitterly isolated in his anger and personal unhappiness."

Gordon Tootoosis was born on the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan on Oct. 25, 1941. He was one of 13 children of native elder John Tootoosis and his wife, Louise Angus. His father, a great nephew of Chief Poundmaker, the leader of several Indian bands during the Riel Rebellion in 1885, was an important first nations chief.

As a young man, John Tootoosis was forced to carry a government issued permit to leave the reserve, an edict reminiscent of the pass laws during the apartheid era in South Africa. A non-violent activist and lobbyist, he was often arrested for violating those restrictive measures, but he never gave up the struggle to combine forces with other bands to negotiate concessions and rights for his people. In 1959, he was elected the founding president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.

Meanwhile, his children were forced by government regulation to abandon their traditional life on the land and attend a Roman Catholic boarding school near Saskatoon. There was nothing subtle about the residential school system, which prevailed in Canada for more than a century until the last one closed in the 1990s. Its purpose was to assimilate, often forcibly, first nations children by separating them from their families, their traditional cultures and languages and inculcating them with European religious practices and languages. The Tootoosis children were singled out for especially harsh treatment because of their father's political activities.

In summer breaks, Gordon's parents made sure he learned to speak Cree fluently and to perform the sacred songs, the drumming and the dances that his ancestors had passed down for generations – everything that the residential school was trying to squash. Of course, there were some advantages to the residential school: he learned to speak and write English fluently and how to deal with white people. But his real power and strength was in the traditional life that he learned at home from his parents.

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Nevertheless, Gordon Tootoosis emerged with his own scars and often found solace in the bottom of a bottle. He finally gave up drink in the early 1980s. Besides his parents, he had the strength of his wife, Irene Seseequasis, who attended the same residential school, and has been described as "a pillar." They married in 1965 when he was 24, and moved to Whitehorse, where they used their own experience to counsel other damaged kids and young offenders from the residential school system.

Together, they raised three daughters and two adopted sons. When their daughter Glynis died of cancer in the late 1990s, a year after her husband had committed suicide, they began raising her four children. "It's a dual role, grandparent and parent," he said, describing the combination with a laugh as a "tricky, difficult situation," because he had four other grandchildren as well. "When they're all there, I can't treat one different than the other," he told the Calgary Herald in 2002. "And they play on that. They're always one step ahead of me."

In recent years, he had heart disease and underwent a quadruple bypass. Generally though, his health was good despite some respiratory problems. He developed pneumonia and was taken to hospital in North Battleford and transferred to St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon, where he died at age 69, surrounded by family.

Gordon Tootoosis leaves his wife, Irene, four children, several grandchildren and his extended family.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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