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 the second of three articles, we hear from Tatanka Means.
What was the experience like overall?
Means: It was a great experience. Once in a lifetime.
How did it feel to speak a Native language for a major production in the light of how Native actors were once not respected?
Means: The amount of dialogue the Native characters have was such a big part of the story. In past productions rather than committing to the language and having that historical integrity, movie productions instead chose to have the Native characters speak broken english. National Geographic and our producers did not hesitate at all and believed in their actors and our language coach to bring it.
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?
Means: This story has never been told on screen before. It is a hard story to tell. It is a sensitive subject matter and time in our history. I don’t think any film based on our history will ever be as perfect as we would like unless tribal nations write and produce it ourselves. I believe the world deserves to know more of the truth of what really happened. This movie is exposing some of those truths in a more gritty and less fabricated way than ever before on screen.
How was it working with each other on the same production when Native roles are usually so limited in the film industry?
Means: It was really the best time I’ve ever had on a film, working with these major talents made work fun and upped our level of skill. The language united us and brought us together all the time even on our days off. It’s a good feeling to have other Indians around when you are so far from home and for so long.
Were there any interesting moments on the set?
Means: All of the pilgrim actors and crew started speaking the language with us. Greetings and even small sentences. They were really infatuated with it just as we were with learning about their own local languages. A lot of the locals were trilingual, including the white people!
There have been a lot of positive comments on social media – how does it feel to represent on such a large scale?
Means: It feels great to receive such positive feedback. Any big project a Native actor signs onto, Indian Country is watching and waiting to praise or criticize. Which is good. We should be held accountable for what we take on. Our responsibility is much more than that of a white actor who can portray a range of characters more freely without the critical repercussions. Our characters in this were based on actual people so the responsibility to bring them to life and play them in a way that would be viewed by our people as honest and true is a lot. I am proud of the work we as actors provided to our characters. I hope others will understand our positions and level of commitment we invested in the work.
Any advice for Native actors wanting to succeed?
Means: Don’t give up. Keep going and if you want something bad enough for the right reasons the universe will help get you there. Take quality roles that feature us in a positive light. Challenge yourself to help create more truthful roles and characters.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Means: My inspiration and intention after wrapping this movie was to commit myself and my daughter to learning more of our own languages as much as possible. I hope through this movie people will hear the beauty and complexities in our own indigenous languages. They are poetic and flow more beautiful than the english language. I hope schools will continue to incorporate our languages more into the classrooms for our young people to learn. They should be proud not ashamed to speak. Let’s encourage one another, support our people and lift each other up in advocating for language preservation.