National Geographic Channels/David Bloomer
Kalani Queypo as Squanto, Raoul Trujillo as Massasoit and Tatanka Means as Hobbamock in National Geographic Channel’s "Saints & Strangers."

“It Was a Gift” Native Actor Raoul Trujillo on NatGeo’s Saints & Strangers

Vincent Schilling

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 Raoul 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 third of a series of three articles, we hear from Raoul Trujillo who portrayed Massasoit, the leader of the Pokanoket tribe.

What was the experience like overall?

Trujillo: It was one of the most rewarding experiences in my 37 years of being in productions. The integrity of detail to language and working with great human beings made it rich.

How was it to travel to South Africa?

Trujillo: I’ve been working in SA since 1997, once every year for last four years. Always a treat and one I never take for granted. Live interacting with the indigenous folks, usually drivers to get a first hand version of their history with Europeans and their own movement to self empowerment. But like all indigenous peoples…, it’s still a long journey ahead.

How did it feel to speak a Native language for a major production in the light of how Native actors were once not respected?

Trujillo: This is something like my 15th language in film. My current project is Cree now.. . Another mouthful. Lol!

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?

Trujillo: One thing for sure is that the powers that be and critics alike realize we do twice the work as an actor who just speaks English. It would be like asking an English speaking actor to speak Russian or Chinese.

That doesn’t happen often got them but when it does, they realize what’s expected of us. I think there’s an assumption that because you’re native, you can speak any native language. Like its some special gene we possess. That task in itself is a technical skill and should be recognised. Personally I love it and it helps inform my character greatly.

How was it working with each other on the same production when Native roles are usually so limited in the film industry?

Trujillo: It was a gift working with so many actors that I actually know in “real” life and have had history with. It helped in our on screen relationships I believe. But again after so many years, the tribe just gets bigger and one day you wake up and you’re the elder. Lol! Scary that!

Were there any antics on the set?

Trujillo: Always! Where there’s Indians, there’s fire! Lots of joking around and laughter. Crew loved it every time we showed up. We bring a lightness to the heaviness of long working/waking hours.

There have been a lot of positive comments on social media – how does it feel to represent on such a large scale?

Trujillo: It’s very powerful and something that makes you feel proud to represent culture and language of other people’s but also to bring a humanity and multi dimensionality to historic real human beings as iconic as they are to us now.

How hard have you worked to get where you are now?

Trujillo: I’ve worked my ass off… One reason why I have so little of one left…but seriously, it’s the only thing I knew how to do. Work! Dream! Manifest!

Any advice for Native actors wanting to succeed?

Trujillo: Don’t ever give up in the face of adversity. Do your best and never take anything for granted.

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