The Red Road is a fictional TV drama, premiering tonight on Sundance TV, that tells the story of a Native American tribe on the New York-New Jersey border and its uneasy relationship with the nearby town of Walpole, New Jersey. In recent weeks, the show has sparked a lot of buzz among potential viewers and in Indian country, for at least two reasons: It’s a show about the lives Native Americans set in the contemporary era (rather than a historical one), and its star, Jason Momoa, most famous for Game of Thrones, is suddenly one of those Actors You Need to Know. Here’s a guide that will give you some useful background on the story and a crash course in Momoa 101.
1. Before there was The Red Road, there was Road to Paloma.
Momoa says that a film he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in called Road to Paloma was what landed him the role as Philip Kopus in The Red Road. Road to Paloma was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival around the time that Sundance TV was looking to cast The Red Road. And the channel’s brain trust didn’t just find their potential star in Road to Paloma; they also found a key supporting actor in Lisa Bonet (yes, that Lisa Bonet), who plays Momoa’s love interest in Road to Paloma and the tribe’s lawyer in The Red Road.
2. The series’ plotline bears some resemblance to a real-life incident.
According to NJ.com, there are parallels between what we’ll see in The Red Road and an incident in 2006 when Emil Mann, Ramapough, was killed by a park ranger near Mahwah, New Jersey. The saga drew the attention of the New Yorker magazine, which published a lengthy story about it in 2010.
3. Not all Indian tribes are created equal.
The Ramapough Mountain Indians, also known as the Ramapough Lenape Indian Nation, also known as the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, live in and around the Ramapo mountains of northern New Jersey, near the New York state border. But in certain legal ways, the group is in limbo: It has been recognized by New Jersey as an Indian nation since 1980, but its quest for federal recognition, begun in 1978, has come to naught. The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued its final rejection of the group’s perition in 1995, a decision that survived appeals to the BIA, in 1997, and in federal court, in 2001. The Ramapough are not unique — there are dozens of tribes and groups around the country who have secured state recognition but have tried — and failed — to make the grade on the federal level. Each tribe has its own tale to tell — to get a sense of the complex situation, visit the State Recognized Tribes in the United States page at Wikipedia.
4. Momoa and Bonet have more than chemistry; they also have kids.
Jason Momoa and Lisa Bonet have been married since 2007, which could have worked against them during casting for The Red Road. “[Sundance was] like, ‘We don’t normally like husbands and wives working together,'” Bonet told Zap2it.com, “but they really enjoyed our chemistries so it was super flattering too.” In 2007, Bonet gave birth to Lola Iolani Momoa, a daughter, and in 2008 the couple welcomed son (take a deep breath) Nakoa-Wolf Manakauapo Namakaeha Momoa. On the message board of Momoa’s official site, the actor’s mother explained the meaning of the boy’s name: “Nakoa (warrior)… Mana (strength/spirit) Kaua (rain) po (dark)… The [first] name was always going to be Nakoa-Wolf.”
5. Jason Momoa isn’t just a pretty face — but yes, he’s a pretty face.
When he landed his part as the hunky Jason Ioane on Baywatch, a part that lasted from 1999-2001, Momoa was a successful model in Hawaii, where he was named Model of the Year in 1999. According to a Teen magazine article reposted at mostbeautifulman.com, Momoa the model also “participated in the prestigious ‘Governor’s Fashion Show,’ and walked the runway for Louis Vuitton [in] Hawaii. He also hosted the 1999 ‘Miss Teen Hawaii USA’ contest.”
6. New Jersey Indians are the new Sopranos.
Don’t take that literally — the Ramapough Lenape tribe that lives within commuting distance of New York City isn’t an organized crime syndicate. But with The Red Road coming on the heels of 2013’s Out of the Furnace (and to a lesser extent the 2011 HBO documentary Mann v. Ford), the eclectic state of New Jersey is once again in the spotlight for gritty drama about a little-understood subculture. (And we’re not even going to mention Jersey Shore or Real Housewives here.)
7. There really is a Red Road.
You’ll find the real Red Road not in the state of New Jersey or New York, but in the state of mind of Native Americans trying to keep on the straight and narrow. The concept — or at least the metaphor — may have originated from Black Elk Speaks, a book written by John G. Neihardt, a non-Native, who said it was based on his interviews with the Lakota medicine man Black Elk. That’s a troublesome origin, as Black Elk Speaks has been criticized as inauthentic. But the concept of staying true to Indian principles as a way to live and heal (from illnesses as well as addictions) is an appealing one to many Natives regardless of how the term came about.
8. Jason Momoa isn’t just a pretty face — he’s a pretty, disfigured face.
Momoa’s good looks might well have been ruined as the result of a violent 2008 incident at the Bird Cafe in Los Angeles. Patron Dominic Bando got into an argument with Momoa and ended up smashing a beer glass into the actor’s face. Momoa required 140 stitches and reconstructive surgery (you can still see scars, notably in his eyebrows) to repair his shattered visage; Bando later pleaded no contest to assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to five years in state prison.
9. Momoa is super Hawaiian, practically Iowan, and also a little bit American Indian.
His Native Hawaiian heritage, from his father Joseph Momoa, is usually what’s cited to establish Jason Momoa’s indigenous bona fides. But in an interview at Red Road‘s premiere, he revealed that there’s some Native blood on his mother’s side as well — specifically, Pawnee. Though born in Honolulu, Momoa left Hawaii with his mother when he was six months old, and grew up in Norwalk, Iowa. Still, he spent summers in Hawaii with his father, and two of his uncles — Brian and Rusty Keaulana — had careers as competitive surfers and are well known in the Aloha State’s surfing culture.
10. You don’t have to wait.
The Red Road premieres tonight at 9 PM on Sundance TV — but if you’re impatient you can watch the first episode in its entirety now at Sundance.tv.