Kalani Queypo (‘Saints and Strangers’) shines Emmy spotlight on Native Americans

Kalani Queypo portrayed tribe leader Squanto in the National Geographic limited series “Saints & Strangers,” which told the story of the founding of America and aired to great acclaim last fall. This two-parter depicted the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620 and the struggles of the Pilgrims with the Native Americans during their first year in the new world culminating with the first celebration of Thanksgiving.

The actor, best-known for starring in Terrence Malick‘s “The New World,” earned rave reviews for his portrayal of this complex character. Maureen Ryan (Variety) noted, “Queypo paints an effective portrait of a man who has lost his entire tribe and must walk a complicated and lonely path” while Neil Genzlinger (New York Times) observed, “the most striking figures are among the Indians … and at the center of it all is Kalani Queypo as Squanto.”

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Were he to reap an Emmy bid for his well-received performance, Queypo would be only the third Native American performer to contend at TV’s top honors in its 68-year history. The first was Benjamin Bratt, whose mother is of Quechua descent; he was a Drama Supporting Actor nominee in 1999 for “Law & Order.” The second was August Schellenberg, whose mother was of Mohawk descent; he was a Movie/Mini Supporting Actor nominee for “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” in 2007.

Queypo, whose mother is of Blackfeet descent, is a founding member of SAG-AFTRA’s National Native American Committee and sits on the advisory council at the Autry Museum of the American West. He appeared at a panel there on June 17, moderated by Julianna Serrano, that was focused on the under-representation of Native Americans on television. Also speaking were screenwriter Jason Gavin (“Friday Night Lights”), actress Delanna Studi, casting director Renee Haynes and “Saints and Strangers” executive producer Teri Weinberg.

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The actor characterized this “as an absolute dream role for me. Squanto had been captured and enslaved. He’d been across that ocean, and came back to find his entire peoples decimated. Incredible. So, the interesting thing is that he was across the ocean, he was learning their ways, their customs, their language.”

Queypo spoke in detail about the process by which he learned to speak the language used in “Saints and Strangers” prefacing his remarks thus: “When I walk into rooms and meet with casting directors or producers, they assume that I speak all 500 languages and it’s just called Indian. No, that’s one of the fine intricacies – learning a language – think about what that means. If I asked you to learn Mandarin Chinese, and you’ve never taken a class or anything like that, and I said you’ve got a week before we shoot your first scene, imagine how that would make you feel. However, I will tell you that it was a huge opportunity.”

Nat Geo Emmy submissions: ‘Saints and Strangers’

As he went on to explain, “Speaking the language is important. There are fine nuances and colors that we would otherwise miss had I been speaking in English. You see sophistication, you see the humanity of these Native people. We don’t see that historically in Hollywood films and television projects. These are people that are negotiating, these are people who have agendas, these are people who are savvy, these are people who are trying to figure things out.”

Asked for his reaction were he to be nominated for an Emmy, Queypo reflects, “I think about all of the people who have come before me. I’ve been on their shoulders. And I think of all the Native kids watching the Emmys. It makes it within reach for them, makes it a possibility, gives them permission to dream because if they see somebody that looks like them.”

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