Award-winning film and television actor Zahn McClarnon, Hunkpapa Lakota, is one of Indian Country’s hardest-working actors. Over the past 20 years, McClarnon has played roles as diverse as a tribal police chief in Longmire and a crime family enforcer in Fargo.
Soon, McClarnon’s fans can see him in a new role: Comanche leader Toshaway in the upcoming AMC series The Son. The first episode airs April 8. The series, based on the book of the same name by Philipp Meyer, presents a grand sweep of Texas history through the eyes of Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan), who was born on the same day Texas became a state, and Toshaway, the Comanche man who captures the young Eli, and later becomes like a father to the boy.
“I’m looking forward to people seeing it. Toshaway is a little different from roles I’ve done in the past,” says McClarnon, 50. “I’m at the age now where I’m playing more patriarchal characters.”
He gives kudos to AMC and producers of The Son for their determination to ensure that the Native characters were portrayed accurately. “The network and the producers were 100 percent behind making these characters human,” he says.
“They changed dialogue for us, they listened to us and took suggestions from the Native community members on the shoot, and they wanted to do everything properly,” says McClarnon. Respectful cultural efforts included bringing in advisors such as Juanita Pahdopony from the Comanche Nation, and hiring 30 Comanche tribal member extras and riders from tribal communities with strong horse traditions -- such as the Blackfeet Nation -- to Austin, where the episodes were shot.
That attention to cultural and historical accuracy also means that all peoples will be portrayed as they really were, without sugarcoating or stereotyping. “It’s about the beginnings of Texas, the land grabs,” Zahn McClarnon says. “The Son doesn’t take sides at all; everybody was brutal [during that time period]. The Comanches were protecting their land, the Mexicans were protecting their land and the whites were trying to take the land. The show doesn’t pull any punches.”
If the first episode is any indication, viewers should be prepared for an often gut-wrenching look at the interactions between the three peoples who inhabited – or coveted – the rich lands of South Texas, and the lengths the protagonist, Eli, is willing to go to ensure his family empire grows.
“Toshaway is a leader, one of the warrior leaders of his tribe,” says Zahn McClarnon. “He sees what’s going on around him, the influx of Europeans coming to his land and he’s worried for his people and his territory, which happens to be Texas.” The Comanches, known as the “Lords of the Plains,” at one point took in other people to become part of the tribe, whether willingly or not, to strengthen their bloodlines, Zahn McClarnon says.
One Comanche raid sweeps up young Eli, propelling him on an epic journey spanning nearly 100 years. The first season swings between 1849, when Toshaway first encounters the young boy, to 1915, when now-prosperous cattleman Eli reaches for even greater riches at the dawn of Texas’ oil era.
There may be more Toshaway to come. “The first season only covers about a quarter of the book,” Zahn McClarnon says. “You will see Toshaway in about nine out of 10 episodes.”
What’s next for Zahn McClarnon? He will begin filming the sixth, and final, season of Longmire March 20. And he continues to expand his range as an actor: “I’m still taking acting classes, and I will for the rest of my life, I enjoy the process,” he says.
“I love to work, it’s my whole life, being creative and creating characters. That’s all I want to do – for now – and for as long as people will keep hiring me.”