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Playing Poundmaker

by Dave Yanko

"We all know the story of the man who sat beside the trail, and then the trail grew over, and he could never find his way again. We can never forget what has happened, but we cannot go back. Nor can we just sit beside the trail. Our old way of life is gone, but that does not mean we should just sit back and become imitation white men."

- Plains Cree Chief Poundmaker

"Poundmaker!", the casting director declared, fixing a wide-eyed stare at a surprised Tyrone Tootoosis and offering him her hand.

Tootoosis, a Plains Cree Indian actor who lives in Saskatoon, recalls he shook hands with the visitor from Montreal, politely introduced himself and reminded her he had come to see her at this crowded Saskatoon office to audition for the role of Man Who Speaks Our Language, a character in the television film Big Bear.

"Poundmaker!'," she proclaimed once more, ignoring Tootoosis' words, perhaps taken by his resemblance to the tall, 19th Century chief. She invited him to join her for coffee and asked whether he knew anything about Poundmaker (Pitikwahanapiwiyin), whose controversial imprisonment after the 1885 North West Rebellion/Resistance came during his rise as an influential political leader trying to unite Plains Indians into an effective lobby.

Tyrone Tootoosis as Poundmaker in Big Bear

Tootoosis wound up with the role of Poundmaker for the 1998 movie about Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa), who was the younger chief's mentor. And since then he's played Poundmaker two more times, including in a forthcoming mini-series focusing on several great chiefs, including Poundmaker.

Tootoosis seems to be following in the footsteps of his uncle Gordon, a popular actor whose credits include Hollywood movies such as Legends of the Fall, with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, as well the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's North of 60.

Uncle: Gordon Tootoosis

That Tyrone has become a shoe-in for the role of Poundmaker seems right, for far more reasons than his height.

He's a direct descendant of Yellow Mud Blanket, Poundmaker's brother. He's also an amateur historian with a particular interest in Poundmaker's life (1842-1886) and his role in the rebellion. He's also the keeper of a collection of several hundred oral-history tapes from Indian elders.

"My father always said kinship is important," says Tootoosis, adding his late father Wilfred was an oral historian. "He said 'if you wish to be a Cree, you will know your grandfathers'."

Tootoosis’ paternal grandfather was John B. Tootoosis (1899-1989), a member of the Poundmaker band and grandson of Yellow Mud Blanket. Anyone wishing to find out what became of Poundmaker’s efforts to organize Plains Indians would do well to cast a glance at John’s life.

In the 1930s, he travelled the backroads of Western Canada as secretary and organizer of the League of Indians of Western Canada. His work, paid for by donations received as he travelled from reserve to reserve, brought threats from religious and political powers of the day.

John was instrumental in the establishment in 1936 of the Union of Saskatchewan Indians (USI), precursor to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) and he was the first president of both organizations. Later, during his 19-year stint as a Saskatchewan Indian Nations senator, he was heavily involved in the successful fight to entrench treaty rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Tyrone's maternal grandfather was Jacob Louis (1905-1984), a much-respected chief and long-serving councillor of the Samson Indian Nation of Hobbema, Alberta. Louis helped found the Indian Association of Alberta.

Tyrone cannot be accused of sitting too long beside the trail, either.

Where grandfathers John and Jacob worked to help Plains Indians gain a political toehold in modern Canadian society, you might say Tyrone is trying to help his people steer clear of any temptation to become "imitation white men". As chairman of the First Nations Coalition for Accountability, he is well known to provincial media as a fearless critic of Indian politicians thought to be abusing their power.

"I grew up in a political climate; our house was adjacent to my grandfather's," he says. "It was second nature to think this way."

Preservation of his culture and language is paramount to Tyrone. He has been a Pow Wow Dancer for many years. He has performed internationally, as well as for the Queen and Prince Phillip during one of their visits to Canada, and he is troupe leader of The Great Plains Dance Troupe. In addition to his acting career, he's a writer, a researcher and a speaker on Plains Cree culture, tradition and history. Especially Poundmaker's.

"I believe history has blindsided Poundmaker by not respecting the fact (the Plains Cree) had a two-tiered system of government," he says. Poundmaker was the peace chief, not the war chief, and he was not involved in any military decisions or collusion with Metis rebels, he explained.

"I think this movie about chiefs will clear up a lot of those things."

With Tyrone's on-screen role as Poundmaker infused by his off-screen role as historical researcher for the Poundmaker section of the mini-series, you can bet on that.

The four-part mini-series Chiefs is tentatively scheduled to air on the History Channel in spring, 2002.

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