• Notes From The Frontier

Jamestown & Frontier Dramas with Native actor Kalani Queypo

Although Native American actor, Kalani Queypo is only in his early 30s, he has already built an amazing acting career in Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award winning films and television series. He is part of a new generation of Native actors who continue to champion authenticity of native American depictions in cinema. It is a never-ending struggle toward truth instead of trite romance, full technicolor instead of white-washed stereotypes, grit instead of glamor. But, says Quaeypo, he is seeing progress.





























Quaypo, a Blackfoot and Hawaiian actor, who grew up in Hawaii and lost his father at age nine, always dreamed of being an actor. He’s a founding member of SAG-AFTRA’s National Native American Committee and serves on the Advisory Council for Native Voices Theater at the Autry in Los Angeles. And he’s advocated often for strong roles for Native American actors. His credits include: (1) JAMESTOWN, the current PBS series by the makers of Downton Abbey; (2) SLOW WEST (2015), a critically-acclaimed independent film; (3) SAINTS & STRANGERS (2015), a National Geographic two-part mini-series about the Pilgrims at Plymouth colony; (4) THE NEW WORLD (2005), an Oscar-nominated Terrence Malik film about Jamestown in 1607; and (5) INTO THE WEST (2005) Steven Spielberg’s Emmy Award-winning TV series.


JAMESTOWN is a PBS series now in it third year on public television, produced by the same folks of the blockbuster historical series, Downton Abbey. The series covers America’s earliest frontier life at Jamestown with gritty attention to detail and robust depictions of the Pamunkey Native American culture of that era and white colonist life. Jamestown shows the the knife’s edge survival of the colonists and their interactions with the Pamunkey. Queypo and other native actors speak their lines in Pamunkey, with English subtitles, which adds a powerful element of authenticity. The native language hadn’t been spoken for nearly 100 years, so copious research and the use of language scholars were utilized for accuracy. The Pamunkey were the largest tribe of the Algonquian Confederacy of 30 tribes, of which Powhatan was the chieftain. Pocahontas was his daughter Kalani Queypo plays Chacrow, the son of Chief Opechancanough (the brother of Powhatan) and the main translator between white settlers and his father chieftain.


The 2015 independent film, SLOW WEST, won the Sundance Festival Grand Jury Award and other accolades. Queypo plays a Native American young man who works on a white homestead and is the love interest of the homesteader’s daughter, Rose. Slow West is a gritty, quirky film that has a sardonic flavor similar to the Coen brothers. The scenery and cinematography are spectacular and a counterpoint to the brutality and eccentricity of the characters. But it captures what must have surely been the surreal experience of disparate cultures and ethnicities (not to mention outlaws and naïve settlers) encountering each other in a wild frontier.


SAINTS & STRANGERS is a two-part 2015 television movie produced by the National Geographic Channel about the Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ first year in American at Plymouth Colony in 1621. The movie featured Native actors speaking Western Abenaki. Although the film was criticized for some historical liberties, Quaypo, who portrays Squanto, along with other actors Raul Max Trujillo and Tatanka Means praised the producers for casting native actors and remaining true to much of the Abenaki culture.


In an interview with “Indian Country,” Queypo said that “the amount of the Western Abenaki language that was used in this film is tremendous... The director made a personal phone call to each one of us about the language and whether or not we were up to learning it ... I had learned, to varying degrees, at least a dozen different Native languages throughout my career, and that I couldn’t see doing this any other way.... Language adds colors and nuances that otherwise would be lost if we were speaking English. The language informs our perspective and the way that we move, the way that we relate to each other. The key to finding my voice, as Squanto, was in the language. Jesse Bowman Bruchac was one of the best language specialists that I have ever worked with. He is dedicated to preserving the Western Abenaki language.... The history of the portrayals of Native people in cinema is terrible...But more and more, native filmmakers are coming up and telling their stories. Even non-native filmmakers are rising to the challenge and making efforts to explore Native characters and storylines with truth and integrity. That is progress.”


THE NEW WORLD is a spectacular 2005 atmospheric film by award-winning director Terrence Malick, known for his other frontier masterpieces, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). The New World was nominated for an Academy Award for cinematography and is chock full of big-name actors (Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale) and many big-name native actors, including Wes Studi, Michael Greyeyes, August Shellenberg, Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. as well as Kalani Queypo, and many others. The pace may be slow and too languorous for many film viewers, but the cinematographic commune with nature and the building tension of Pocahontas’s impossible struggle caught between two worlds will affect you.


INTO THE WEST (2005) is Steven Spielberg’s Emmy Award-winning TV series that follows two families, one white and one Native American, as their lives intermingle in the western frontier from 1825 to 1890.The series features many native actors, including Graham Greene, Irene Bedard, Russell Means, Michaels Spears, Raoul Max Trujillo, and others. Queypo plays White Bird. In 2006, the series was nominated for 16 Emmy Award and won two for Outstanding Music Composition and Sound Mixing, as well as many other awards.


All five productions mentioned above can be viewed on Amazon Prime. Slow West and Saints & Strangers can also be viewed on Netflix.

PHOTOS: (1) Scenes from the PBS series, JAMESTOWN, now in its third season. Attention to detail of the Pamunkey Indian attire, culture and language have been lauded in the series. The Native actors all speak the Pamunkey dialect and English subtitles are used. (2) Queypo plays Chacrow, the son of chieftain. (3) Raoul Max Trujillo plays Chief Opechancanough, the brother of Powhatan. (4-5) SAINTS & STRANGERS is a 2015 two-part television movie produced by the National Geographic Channel about the Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ first year in American at Plymouth Colony in 1621. Quaypo plays Squanto. (6) INTO THE WEST is Steven Spielberg’s Emmy Award-winning 1992 TV series that follows two families, one white and one Native American, as their lives intermingle in the western frontier from 1825 to 1890. (7) Native actors Michael Spears and Zahn McClarnon appear in Into the West. (8-10) THE NEW WORLD is a spectacular, although romanticized 2005 atmospheric film by award-winning director Terrence Malick, known for his other frontier masterpieces, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). The New World won an Academy Award for cinematography and it’s chock full of big-name actors (Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale) and many big-name native actors, including Wes Studi, Michael Greyeyes, August Shellenberg, Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, as well as Kalani Queypo. (11-13) SLOW WEST is a 2015 independent film starring Michael Fassbender that won the Sundance Festival Grand Jury Award and other accolades. Queypo plays a Native American young man who works on a white homestead and is the love interest of the homesteader’s daughter.


See related posts:

- Jamestown's Dark Secrets

- The True Story of Pocahontas


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER Posted August 7, 2019

  • Notes From the Frontier