Big Bear

Institute History

  • 1999 Sundance Film Festival


Big Bear is an epic Cree story of the legendary chief who held out against the signing of Treaty Six in western Canada in the late 1800s. Big Bear’s (Gordon Tootoosis) story is a tragic and honorable one; refusing to sign a treaty that will take away the freedom and land of his people, he holds out until starvation, death, and division among his followers force him to sign in 1882.
Poor conditions and indifference on the part of the Canadian government cause unrest and misery within Big Bear’s band. Although Big Bear maintains his peaceful stance, his warriors turn away, including his own son, Little Bad Man (Lorne Cardinal), and war chief Wandering Spirit (Michael Greyeyes). Their revolt and ultimate actions send Big Bear to jail for treason, where he falls ill and is released to die. Riveting performances by a strong cast, including Tantoo Cardinal as Big Bear’s companion, Running
Second, and Gail Maurice as Nowakich, bring depth and authenticity to the legend of this historic visionary.
Gil Cardinal’s keen filmmaking relates the story in an integral and compelling way. The story’s ironic twist is brought home when articulate, English-speaking Cree tolerate gibberish-spouting colonizers using translators who only speak broken English. This shift in worldview challenges the historical representation of Native people in cinema. Big Bear is an important contribution to First Nations filmmaking.

Gil Cardinal, Director
The miniseries Big Bear is Gil Cardinal’s first full-length drama. Prior to Big Bear, his experience was gained by directing television episodes, most notably CBC’s North of 60. Cardinal has worked extensively in documentary film, principally with the National Film Board of Canada and the CBC, making films that cover a wide range of Native-oriented and public-affairs subjects. He is perhaps best known for Foster Child, a cinema vérité account of his search for his natural family.

— Heather Rae

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