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.”
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.”