This week the National Geographic Channel presented a two-night movie event entitled Saints and Strangers, billed as the true story of the Mayflower passengers – their founding of Plymouth and their relationship with Native Americans.
The two-part movie aired November 22 and 23.
Saints and Strangers has garnered huge praise for having the Native cast members speak in Western Abenaki. The three lead native actors were Raul Trujillo as Massasoit, the leader of the Pokanoket tribe; Tatanka Means as Hobbamock, one of Massasoit’s men and Kalani Queypo, who portrayed Squanto.
Though the film has received some criticism for liberties with history, in a conversation with ICTMN via email, Trujillo, Means and Queypo all said their roles were a significant step forward in the casting of Native actors in film and that making Saints and Strangers was a bold move in a positive direction.
In this first of a series of three articles, we hear from Kalani Queypo, who portrayed Squanto.
What was the experience like overall?
Queypo: The experience was incredible, truly one of the most satisfying projects in my career. The native characters were humanized and written as complex characters who were not just a mere device utilized to push the main storyline. Rather, we were part of the ensemble that was driving the storyline.
How awesome was it to travel to South Africa for the shoot? Bump into any indigenous folks?
Queypo: South Africa, wow. It seems to be a world away. Their indigenous people’s history is recent, and the divide between classes in Africa is unmistakable, and often times heartbreaking. The struggles were all around and I got to spend a lot of time having some enlightening conversations with our drivers, especially, when we had locations that were nearly an hour away from where we were staying. They were just as curious about the indigenous experience in America and we would share a lot of stories.
How did it feel to speak a Native language for a major production in the light of how Native actors are often not respected?
Queypo: The language was sublime. The amount of the Western Abenaki language that was used in this film is tremendous. That was a risk, using subtitles and trusting that audiences can handle the use of subtitles and still follow along with the story.
The director made a personal phone call to each one of us about the language and whether or not we were up to learning it in a short amount of time with a fast paced shooting schedule. We all said yes. I told Paul that I had learned, to varying degrees, at least a dozen different Native languages throughout my career, and that I couldn’t see doing this any other way.
Language adds colors and nuances that otherwise would be lost if we were speaking English. The language informs our perspective and the way that we move, the way that we relate to each other. The key to finding my voice, as Squanto, was in the language. Jesse Bowman Bruchac was one of the best language specialists that I have ever worked with. He is dedicated to preserving the Western Abenaki language. He was with us the entire filming process and had this amazing ability to customize our lessons individually to the way we learned language. We all had different approaches and we all responded to different styles of teachings. Jesse and I shared a love for music and worked rhythms and sounds into my lessons that worked brilliantly for me.
There has been some criticisms of the film, but what do you think people are neglecting to notice in the face of making progress for Native actors?
Queypo: The history of the portrayals of Native people in cinema is terrible, there have been gross misrepresentations, often times romanticized and fictionalized caricatures, that have been perpetuated and accepted as truth by the mass public. But more and more, native filmmakers are coming up and telling their stories. Even non-native filmmakers are rising to the challenge and making efforts to explore Native characters and storylines with truth and integrity. That is progress.
Having strong Native actors who are bringing rich portrayals to their roles is progress. Seeing more Native language being utilized in film is progress. Progress is always happening. It may seem like it is never enough, but portrayals of Native people in film have advanced.
How was it working with each other on the same production when Native roles are usually so limited in the film industry?
Queypo: It was great to work with such amazing Native talent. Raoul Trujillo has been a long time mentor for me and we have worked together MANY times. I’ve worked with Tatanka Means and I’ve even worked with his dad, Russell Means, multiple times. On this film, we all got to work closely for two months, and it was intense. We all agreed that we had to work harder than all the other actors playing pilgrims, because we had an entire language to learn, and, also, we had the responsibility of representing our people, in a good way.
What made this special was that our characters were written so richly with purpose and agendas and fears and all the many colors that are often simply missing from Native characters in film. This was an opportunity for us to be a part of something impactful and something that our families could be proud of.
There have been a lot of positive comments on social media – how does it feel to represent on such a large scale?
Queypo: The positive feedback has been tremendous. I am overwhelmed by the way so many people are moved by the performances, both Native and non-native alike. This is a story about the beginning of the colonization of North America, there’s a lot history there that is complicated and messy and even ugly. But this is our history. One of the most gratifying things is to hear from so many people in social media who, after watching Saints & Strangers, were inspired to find out more about the time period. They were compelled to research more about Squanto and Massasoit and the language. They were ignited to learn more. That is powerful.
Any advice for Native actors wanting to succeed?
Queypo: Acting is a commitment. Do it because you love it. Do it, not because you can “see yourself” acting in the near future… do it because you can’t see yourself doing anything else.