Walking the talk — how Saints & Strangers’ native American cast learned to speak Abenaki

Saints-Strangers-tantanka-means-jesse-bowman-bruchac Lori Acken
Tantanka Means and Jesse Bowman Bruchac. Photo courtesy of Jesse Bowman Bruchac

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.

MORE Saints & Strangers: Think you know the Thanksgiving story? We’re on set as NGC tells the real tale.

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National Geographic Channel’s two-night movie event “Saints & Strangers,” premiering Nov. 22-23, 9/8c.

(photo credit: National Geographic Channels/David Bloomer)

“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?’”

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Tantanka Means and Jesse Bowman Bruchac. Photo courtesy of Jesse Bowman Bruchac

“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!”

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Kalani Queypo (Squanto), Raoul Trujillo (Massasoit) and Tatanka Means (Hobbamock) in National Geographic Channel’s “Saints & Strangers,”
(photo credit: National Geographic Channels/David Bloomer)

“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.

2 Comments

  1. I want to thank Jesse, National Geographic, and everyone who has allowed the Abenaki language to be used and heard. The Bruchac’s are a very important link to the preservation of the language. I hope that this movie will inspire other companies to use the Abenaki Language. It is also nice to see that the native perspective will also be shown in the film. There is still a lot of ignorance and hate out their toward Native people. Thank you and keep up the great work!

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About Lori Acken 1195 Articles
Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.