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Acclaimed Cree Actor Gordon Tootoosis Passes

Cree actor Gordon Tootoosis, a veteran of film, television and stage, died at age 69 of pneumonia on Tuesday July 5, 2011.
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First Nations and Canadians in politics and the arts are mourning the acclaimed Cree actor Gordon Tootoosis, who died on July 5. Relatives told Canadian media that the 69-year-old actor succumbed to pneumonia at St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon.

From his niece, the actress Ashley Callingbull, to Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and beyond, condolences and remembrances poured in after he died.

Calling him a “Cree and Canadian cultural icon,” Atleo said in a statement that Tootoosis was “truly extraordinary,” having used his experience as a residential schools survivor to help youth and young offenders as a social worker as well as serving his community as chief and becoming an actor known for a myriad of film, television and stage roles.

“He imbued every role he took on with humanity and complexity. He made a difference to those who knew him personally as well as those who knew him only through his performances,” Atleo said.

Born on the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan, Tootoosis was taken from his 13-sibling family as a child and sent to one of the country’s infamous residential schools, where he was cut off from his culture, language and support system, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. His father was aboriginal activist John Tootoosis, a co-founder of the AFN and the founder of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). Tootoosis was descended from Yellow Mud Blanket, a brother of the legendary Plains Cree leader Poundmaker.

Tootoosis went into social work after those traumatic school years, the encyclopedia said, specializing in helping children and young offenders.

“His interest in his own cultural traditions led him to become an accomplished native dancer and rodeo roper, and he toured with the Plains InterTribal Dance Troupe in the 1960s and 1970s throughout Canada, Europe and South America,” the encyclopedia’s biography says.

Tootoosis's first acting role was as the Almighty Voice in 1972's Alien Thunder, co-starring Chief Dan George and Donald Sutherland. Over the next 35 years he appeared in more than 40 films, as well as television series and onstage. The encyclopedia said he “is particularly remembered as Albert Golo in the CBC-TV series North of 60, and as the title character Big Bear in the mini-series Big Bear.”

In 2004 he was awarded membership in the Order of Canada, which “recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation,” the order’s website says. Tootoosis was recognized as “an inspirational role model for aboriginal youth,” the site said about the actor.

He was not the only of his family members to act. Callingbull mourned her actor uncle on and fondly remembered working with him on the APTN hit series Blackstone.

"My uncle Gordon Tootoosis was a wonderful man. Very respected and an amazing actor. Soar with the eagles now uncle. Rip," tweeted Callingbull, who appeared with him last year. He played Cecil Delaronde, a recurring character. Callingbull, who was second runner-up as Miss Universe Canada 2010, plays Sheila Delaronde on the series.

"Ever since I was young I told my uncle Gordon I wanted to work with him on film. I'm honored I acted with him in Blackstone last summer," she said on after Tootoosis's death became public, punctuating both entries with a sad-face symbol.

Tootoosis's other roles included Legends of the Fall (1996) and the television series Northern Exposure, among others. He received accolades onstage as well, with rave reviews for his lead performance in the play Gordon Winter. Tootoosis was also a founding board member of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company.

“He was always one to promote and encourage First Nations people to pursue their dreams,” Atleo said in the AFN statement. “He was a role model to so many of us and always exemplified kindness and class. A proud Cree Elder and devoted family man, he still lived in his home community of Poundmaker. Gordon will be remembered as a strong, commanding presence both onstage and off. Our thoughts and prayers are with all of those who loved and cherished Gordon Tootoosis."