Saints & Strangers executive producers Gina Matthews and Grant Scharbo had a quagmire on their hands. Setting out to create the most authentic retelling of the Thanksgiving story ever committed to film — on a blistering schedule — the pair also knew they didn’t want to risk stereotypes for the sake of time. Especially when it came to honoring their Native American characters.
“It was a big debate up until two weeks before the actors were starting whether we would do it in an authentic language, or whether they would end up speaking English. Because you could do the traditional thing,” Matthews recalls. With director Paul Edwards awaiting Matthews’ decision and a first dialect coach falling through last minute, a National Geographic Channel researcher suggested linguistics expert Jesse Bowman Bruchac to tackle the seemingly impossible task.
“Paul got on the phone and spoke to the American Indian actors and every single one said, ‘We want to do it. We have an opportunity and we will learn it!’” Matthews smiles.
And learn it they did. Bruchac armed his charges with written translations, MP3 files of their lines and constant access to their easygoing teacher. “We’d think about these people and how they had to learn the language to survive,” says Tatanka Means, who plays Pokanoket war chief Hobbamock. “Jesse’s done a great job and I’m really thankful for his patience. We’d wake him up and go, ‘How do you pronounce this?’”
“I grew up in a family where everybody was involved in our family history that dates back to this period,” says Bruchac, 43, whose father, Joseph, penned the well-received Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving. “I saw the language being lost, and my father struggling to gain fluency because his own grandfather and mother didn’t want to speak it. So at a young age I started seeking out people who were more fluent than him. When I was a kid, there were a hundred or so speakers; there are maybe 12 that I know now. As soon as I was at that level, in my early 20s, I started teaching and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Bruchac says Saints’ Pokanoket language is a sophisticated blend of Eastern and Western Abenaki dialects. “The idea is the relationship, how we describe everything,” he explains. “Anger, for example. ‘Moos’ means strange. ‘Mooskwalda hilah’ means anger. So the concept there is ‘moos’ — strange. ‘Mooskwalda,’ which is ‘in the mind.’ ‘Hilah’ is ‘it becomes.’ So to be angry literally comes from your mind becoming estranged from proper thought. Very descriptive.”
For the actors, believably walking their newly acquired talk was key. “The most important work comes in once you’ve memorized the Native language,” says the multilingual Raoul Trujillo, who plays Pokanoket leader Massasoit. “Then you bring all the syntax into it, which is really the work. That’s why it comes across like I know what I’m saying, because I actually know what I’m saying!”
“I don’t want to just go out there and get it close enough,” adds Means, who plans to invest further in his own Navajo, Omaha and Oglala Lakota dialects and share them with his toddler daughter. “I want to pronounce each word so that the speakers who are fluent will know and will be able to understand. And not only for them. There are young white kids, black kids, Native kids — everyone — learning from this. I’m proud to be part of it.”
The two-night event Saints & Strangers premieres Sunday, Nov. 22 and Monday, Nov. 23 at 9/8CT on National Geographic Channel. Check back here and in the November issue of Channel Guide Magazine for more on Saints & Strangers.