Gov. William Bradford starts the voice-over of Part One of “Saints & Strangers” on the National Geographic Channel by saying, “We are called Pilgrims… called by God to build a new life in a new world, free to worship God as we please, free from persecution.” He ends Part Two by saying, “They call us pilgrims… but are we saints, strangers or savages,” as he contemplates the actions and alliances they are forced to make to survive.
“Free from persecution” is the line from which we all pause and reflect now, knowing full well the history that followed. But from the beginning, what we know comes biased accounts written from one side and the oral tradition that survives, even if the tribe no longer exists. Every modern script that seeks to tell these stories must deal with the unknowns, the self-serving accounts, whatever needs compel them to be “authentic” and the overarching mythology of America’s beginnings that cloud everything.
Characters are based on historical persons, some may be composites, but each speech delivered at key scenes draws on statements, beliefs and misconceptions of that time, with some revisionist commentary. One person spouts hateful invectives, the lies and accusations of ignorance, but in a coming scene offers a different perspective after dealing with other human beings, who were strangers that became friends. At the beginning and the end, the god-fearing pilgrims who think God has guided and willed them, still must deal with the reality of entering into contracts with men who are not so god-fearing and who are in it for the “commercial venture,” the trade and the money. And to also deal, as honest as they are willing to be, with strangers who appear as savages yet become friends and allies, even saviors. The pilgrims driven by desperation make mistakes that they must account for later. Stealing corn, well that’s a big mistake in America, as is desecrating graves.
Squanto (Tisquantum) is the character that all this history is heaped upon, taught in history books as the token (and the touchstone) Indian who helps the Pilgrims survive the harsh winter, after half of the 102 die. Squanto’s character reveals truths, untruths, flaws and hidden agendas. He becomes the go-between and go-to agent for all exchange and translation, a position that provides power or duplicity. He shows the pilgrims the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash; he is in the middle of the first and subsequent “agreements,” the first of such treaty encounters in which either side thinks they understand, but then it all becomes open to interpretation.
God is always there with Bradford and the Pilgrims, but God’s will must also take into account the necessary alliances that come with the trade, exchange, commerce, power, weakness and strength. Massasoit and the Pokanoket (Wampanoag) must deal from a lesser position as disease has wiped out Squanto’s tribe (the Patuxet) and weakened the Pokanoket, who must now pay tribute to the Narragansett. This is the alliance at the heart of the story, and the movie shows how Squanto, who both sides must trust, deals with the shifting alliances.
The story does get to the first “Giving of Thanks” and it is hard to decipher how this reconciles with other updated or revisionist accounts. This movie seeks to tell the tale of the shifting and uneasy alliances that are the beginning of mythological America. There are alliances made and broken, betrayals made under the duress of survival, and heads are taken as warnings that portend the future story, but this tale only deals with the very beginnings of how two weakened groups, the pilgrims and the Natives are forced to come together, try to understand each other and somehow co-exist.
There’s a line by Capt. Miles Standish, “Violence conjures respect if done properly.” We see it enacted by both Natives and pilgrims, who spread the blame and guilt, the Narragansett and Massachusett are painted as the “bad” Indians. There is a plea for unity against the English and “King James” that goes unmet, the future acceptance of Christianity by characters, the trophy head used as warning. The bloody history we know as Natives and Americans does not inflict itself upon this narrative until a thousand Puritans land at the Massachusetts Bay Colony eventually leading to King Phillip’s War (Metacom, son of Massasoit), which is briefly mentioned as an afterthought at the end.
There seems to be gaps in the timeline, a story can get bogged down with inconvenient facts and detours. Sonny Skyhawk said the Wampanoag were not consulted. The Algonquin dialect sounds good and represents a language spoken at the time. Natives should know enough to fill in the gaps and so it should be Americans tuning in who need to hear a truer story. View “Saints & Strangers” with “We Shall Remain,” Episode 1, “After the Mayflower” for a fuller narrative.
Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.