In ‘Spirit Rangers,’ Elders Playing Elders
Two Native American acting legends, Wes Studi and Tantoo Cardinal, have shared a dozen film sets since 1990, beginning with “Dances with Wolves,” but never the same scene. It took “Spirit Rangers,” a children’s Netflix show overflowing with Indigenous talent, to pair the two onscreen at the same time, albeit in animated form.
The preschool series, which premiered on Indigenous Peoples Day, Oct. 10, features Studi as the Sun and Cardinal as the Moon. (They appear together in an episode about an eclipse.)
“Spirit Rangers” has an all-Native American writers’ room, led by the first-time showrunner Karissa Valencia, who is half-Chumash and half-Mexican, and is executive produced by Chris Nee, the creator of “Doc McStuffins.”
Each episode opens in a fictional California national park, where the Skycedar family live with their three children, Kodi, Summer and Eddie, voiced by the newcomers Wacinyeya Iwasaka Yracheta, Isis Celilo Rogers and Talon Proc Alford, respectively.
The Skycedar kids have the secret ability to tap into the spirit world, where they transform via their spinning beaded medallions into a bear, a hawk and a turtle, and story lines introduce them to animals from all over the world. Grounding the series as the sibling elders Sun and Moon, Studi and Cardinal voice “the spirits that are watching over the park,” Valencia said.
“How beautiful is that?” she said, explaining that the actors are “also our elders in the community, and the people who have created the path for people like us to keep coming.”
Studi, who is Cherokee and based in Santa Fe, has played mostly dramatic roles over his 30-year career in films like “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Avatar” and “Heat.” Cardinal, who is Métis-Cree and based in Los Angeles, has appeared in more than 120 film and television series, including “Wind River,” “Legends of the Fall” and “Westworld,” over her 48-year career.
In addition to “Spirit Rangers,” Cardinal can also be heard in Netflix’s new animated series “Oni: Thunder God’s Tale” and the film “Wendell & Wild.” She will also be in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Studi stars in “A Love Song,” currently making the film festival rounds, and also appears in FX’s “Reservation Dogs” series as the eccentric artist Bucky.
In a joint video interview, Studi and Cardinal discussed the inroads Indigenous people are making in Hollywood and what “Spirit Rangers” means to them. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What did it feel like to come onboard this all-Native American series?
TANTOO CARDINAL I’ve been doing this work for so long, and it was always toward that place where we were writing our own stories. It’s very exciting working on a show where you don’t have to be nervous about the interpretation. So much of the work is trying to undo those misconceptions that have been put in people’s heads. It’s fun to see the creators having all this space to work, to go into their culture and their worldview and bring that forward.
WES STUDI It was an opportunity not to be missed — you’ve got to be a part of it. There’s another one I know of that comes out of Alaska, “Molly of Denali,” but this one is closer to home. It turned out to be a whole lot of fun.
CARDINAL There’s not a worry of wardrobe or hair or things being in place before you roll. You just go in there naked if you want, just creatively speaking [laughs].
STUDI You go ahead, Tantoo. I’m not going to do that [laughs].
“Spirit Rangers” joins shows like Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls” in having largely Indigenous creators, crew and cast. People who work on those series have talked about the importance of Natives breaking into film and TV and bringing others up with them. Is this spirit something you’ve observed in your careers?
CARDINAL Always, always, always, from the first time I walked on a set, I said, “This belongs to us.” We come from the world of stories, and after genocide and colonialism got ahold of us, that’s all we had left. We had to wear somebody else’s clothes, but we still have those stories.[It took] so much effort, prayers and hopes to what we now have the great fortune of being a part of, and we can keep developing it and making it more honest and real.
STUDI For the years that I’ve been involved in the industry, the thought has always been there, that we have to work toward telling our own stories. These steps that have occurred in the past year seem to indicate that a lot of young people took that message seriously and learned to do the things needed to put together a real professional commercial production.
We [used to think], Do we have enough people who would come to watch us? Our young Indian people in the business now are thinking on a larger level, and that’s great. While guys like Charlie Hill wrote for “Roseanne,” we knew of very few writers back in the day. But now we have many others who are practicing their creative chops.
I see this as an expansion of that cycle that we had been in for so long: Every 20 to 25 years, Natives are popular. Everybody wanted to watch a Western. This may be different simply because of so much activity on our parts. I just wish I was starting out now instead of 40 years ago. But everyone needs an old guy.
What was it like working together again, albeit in separate sound booths?
STUDI Tantoo and I, work-wise, have gone back to 30-some odd years, back to “Dances With Wolves.” That’s when we were first in a film together — or not together, but you know what I mean.
CARDINAL I just love that guy. He’s a wonderful performer. I’d love an opportunity to do some film with him. I don’t think we’ve ever even been in the same scene.
How is it possible that you’ve never been in the same scene?
CARDINAL Well, you’re a writer [laughs].
STUDI It’s in your court.
It does seem like more opportunities are coming your way: Tantoo with these voice roles and Wes in romantic parts and comedy. Do you think new windows are opening for you?
CARDINAL I wonder that myself. I’ve done voice-overs for decades, but it’s always in documentaries, as a narrator. Now it’s like this tap opened up, and it’s very new that I get to do character in voice. Oh, my gosh, the stories that are being brought forward now — like Oni is Japanese American and the stories are universal and yet belong to us as Indigenous people.
STUDI The work of an actor is to constantly look for work; we go on vacation whenever we sign the contract. I really enjoyed the comic pieces that I’ve done, but I continue to look for whatever else. It took me 40 years to get a screen kiss [in “A Love Song”]. That’s something off the bucket list. It was an opportunity to branch out a bit, playing that kind of character without guns or flying arrows.
What is the value of shows like “Spirit Rangers”?
STUDI You know, they did have cartoons when I was a kid [laughs]. In my day, if you ever saw a Native it was an extreme caricature and it always produced an uncomfortable feeling. That’s supposed to be me? With “Spirit Rangers,” we have these adorable little characters that are funny. We can probably identify relatives who are somewhat like these kids so I envision a positive impact for our kids.
CARDINAL The big takeaway in my heart is that it allows a place for magic. It’s an Indigenous world and it’s a wonderful place of imagination. My granddaughters don’t have to go and paste themselves on somebody else. [They can say], “That’s me, and it belongs to me.”
STUDI The other day I got an unexpected call from my daughter, who has two kids, six and four, and they were watching it. They recognized my voice and said, “Let’s go see Grandpa.” That was a thrill for me.