by Jack Nilan            EMail :

Saints & Strangers (2015)

Jack   A+

IMDB    7.5

Tribe(s) : Wampanoag, Narragansett

Language : English, Wampanoag (Algonquin dialect actually used)



   This two part mini-series by the Discovery Channel tries to show the "real" story behind Thanksgiving. Of the 102 Pilgrims 41 were Separatists who called themselves Saints, while the others they called Strangers.

On November 9, 1620, they sighted land, which was present-day Cape Cod. After several days of trying to sail south in to heavy winds to the intended land in north Virginia, the Pilgrims set anchor in Provincetown.

The Saints and the Strangers make a new agreement, the Mayflower Compact, because they are landing on new lands. On Monday, November 27, an exploring expedition landed on Cape Cod. They discovered an empty native village, now known as Corn Hill in Truro where they dug up corn and also desecrated burial sites.

The Wampanoag fired arrows at the thieving Pilgrims and the Pilgrims fired their guns at them. The Wampanoag meet and discuss how the Pilgrims stole their corn and desecrated their graves. The Pilgrims go on another expedition and find a place to settle.

The Pilgrims wandered down the coast and decided to settle in a land they called Plymouth. The Pilgrims begin building some common houses. The local tribes met. The tribes represented were the Wampanoag, the Narragansett. the Massachusett, the Manomet and the Nauset. The leaders discuss how the English have stolen their corn and in the past how they have kidnapped their people and spread diseases. Many of the tribes, including the Wampanoag, are weak now because of these diseases. Canonicus, the leader of the Narragansett, proposes a plan. For protection against the English, he asks for allegiance from each tribe. The tribes already pay tribute, but will now have to pay more. Massasoit, who heads the Wampanoag, decides not to join. A few days later the Narragansett attack.

Squanto, a Patuxet, who has been a captive of the English and has been to England, is called by Massasoit. When Squanto returned from England his tribe had been wiped out by sickness. Massasoit asks Squanto to find out what the English want.

A few days later the Narragansett attack and try to force Massasoit to join and pay more tribute. Massasoit decides to explore an alliance with the English. They don't trust Squanto so they send for a Monhegan named Samoset who speaks English because the English fished there. Samoset went to the English and spoke on behalf of the Massasoit. He told the English that their taking the corn was not good and then he left

Samoset went back to Massasoit and reported on the English. He said they looked weak and hungry. Massasoit decides to attack the English. Squanto tries to talk Massasoit in to making an alliance with the English. He says They can use them to hold off the Narragansett. With Squanto’s help, the Wampanoag sign a peace treaty with the pilgrims in the summer of 1621. In return for protection against the Narragansett, the Wampanoag teach the pilgrims how to use the soil.

Squanto shows the Pilgrims how to grow squash, corn and beans together. he also shows them how to use fish as fertilizer. He also shows them how to catch eels.

The Nausett take a boy from the Pilgrim village to get even with them for taking their corn. The Pilgrims go to get him back. The Pilgrims make a treaty with the Nausett and they return the boy. Plymouth Plantation develops and some of the Wampanoag live with them.

Squanto and Massasoit's son go to the Massachusett to get them to open up trade with the English, but are taken prisoner. The English then attack and get Squanto back. Miles Standish warns the Massachusetts about their power. Soon the other tribes are coming with tribute; even the Narragansett. But Squanto twists the words and offends the Narragansetts.

The pilgrims and the Wampanoag teach each other, and then sit down to a great dinner. Now the Wampanoag are getting tribute from other tribes. The Narragansett, who are strong because they were untouched by the plague, declare war on the English.

An Indian comes and tells the English that Massasoit has joined with the Narragansett, and they will attack. Squanto said they must attack first. The English don't know who is lying. They send one of the Wampanoag back to find out the truth. Massasoit then comes for Squanto's head.

Aother ship then turns up, and Bradford wants to keep Squanto. He thinks he is valuable as an emissary to the Indians, but Massasoit wants him too. Massasoit tells the English they are now alone. The men from the other ship steal food before they leave, so Bradford goes to ask Massosoit for some food that is owed them. On the trip Squanto gets the fever and soon dies.

The pilgrims are slowly dying off from disease and there are signs the Indians may attack them. Massasoit becomes ill and the pilgrim doctor goes out and treats him and Massosoit gets better. Massosoit tells the English that the Narragansetts and some other tribes are going to attack them. Miles Standish leads a group out to see it is true. They invite them to dinner and then attack them. They cut off the head of the leader and bring it back. Again the Wampanoag get tribute from the other tribes.

Then there was to be a grand thanksgiving for their second year, but Bradford thinks on their recent violent attack. Above the singing and dancing the next day we see the head of the vanquished chief.

A really good movie with great scenes of native villages and lifestyle. Native actors and native language. Very well done all around.

In an interview with the producers we find out from the producers:
"We've gone to great lengths to ensure as much authenticity as possible, bringing on consultants from the Smithsonian, professors and linguistic experts all to represent the world of the first Pilgrim settlement more accurately than has ever been done on film to date," she says, surveying actors milling about the Pilgrim village set in the shadow of Simonsberg mountain.

It turned out to be a learning experience for all involved. Tomahawks were replaced by wooden war clubs. Dome-shaped wetus took the place of teepees. Language master Jesse Bowman Bruchac arrived to teach the Native American actors an Algonquin tongue that fewer than two dozen people in the world retain.

Few welcomed the effort more than Saints' core cast of Native American actors, including Raoul Trujillo as noble Pokanoket chief Massasoit, Tatanka Means as Massasoit's right-hand man, the warrior Hobbamock, and Kalani Queypo as bilingual Squanto, a former slave of English explorers and the sole survivor of his disease-ravaged village who is conflicted in his loyalties.

"What I love about this show is that the Native characters are not one-dimensional," says Means, son of late activist/actor Russell Means and an avid motivational speaker himself. "There's a lot of garbage shows out there made about Native American people, and people that have an idea of us but have never visited a reservation or read a book about our history. They over-romanticize us or make us look like cave men. This is not one of those shows."

"Because I have a whole background in dance before becoming an actor [as do Means and Queypo], I relied on what I call 'blood memory' to help flesh out my character," says Trujillo, who would soon ready the cast for an upcoming "friendship dance" scene. "You can only know your historical context to a certain degree and it's usually written by Europeans. That's going to be from a different worldview. So I have to rely on this blood memory as I call it to bring a Native sensibility to the character. You don't want to romanticize a character like Massasoit. You just have to piece it together as an actor - what would I do as a strategist, as a war general, as a peacemaker, as somebody who is culturally interested and invested in preserving my people?"

But what if you are caught hopelessly in the middle? Queypo says he relished the chance to flesh out Squanto's dilemma. "Squanto was the most well-versed person in both cultures - I am that bridge - and yet he's a man who's alone," he explains. "I really relate to that, to the idea of straddling two worlds. As a Native person, I straddle the modern world and then where I come from. It's really the idea of mattering. The idea of making a difference."

"Who's to say that the American Indians aren't the Saints and the settlers aren't the Strangers?" says Matthews, smiling across a restaurant table at cast members who represent each. "Who's to say the adventurers are not the Saints and the Pilgrims aren't the Strangers? You can interpret our title in many different ways depending on how you look at it and culturally who you are. It is one of the main points that we are trying to make: The founding of this country was not based on a simple choice of aligning with the British. It was about what is the right decision to make to survive."

Nat Geo terminated the contract with the Wampanoag when they asked for authority to review the script prior to filming to ensure it was historically and culturally accurate and that any offensive material had been removed. When Nat Geo refused to forfeit authority, the Wampanoag declined to participate.

How 'Saints & Strangers' Got It Wrong: A Wampanoag Primer

The opening scene of the National Geographic Channel’s new Thanksgiving film, "Saints & Strangers," shows pilgrims looting food from a Native village, digging up burlap bags of buried corn to help sustain them over the long winter.

The scene is set on Cape Cod in December 1620. Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Gov. William Bradford, narrates.

"They called us pilgrims, but today we are thieves," he says in a monologue that introduces the 102 passengers from the Mayflower in two distinct groups. The strangers, Kartheiser says, are merchants seeking fortune. The saints "came for God, to build a new life, to worship as we pleased free, from persecution."

The pilgrims, starved and desperate, arrived in the new world guided by the Lord, Kartheiser said. "But there were some things God neglected to mention."

Less than 60 seconds into the film, a band of whooping Natives descends on the pilgrims and the two groups exchange fire-bullets from one side and arrows from the other. The scene exhibits many of what the four Wampanoag tribal communities are calling "cultural, historical and linguistic inaccuracies" in the film.

"It's completely irresponsible telling of history," said Linda Coombs, director of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Cultural Center. "This is one of the most well-documented parts of history, but it is distorted for the purposes of sensationalism."

The two-night movie event, which aired on the National Geographic Channel this week, was billed as the "real true story of the Mayflower passengers, the founding of Plymouth and their relationship with the Native Americans." It has garnered praise for its Native cast members and dialogue that was translated into Western Abenaki, a dialect similar to what the pilgrims encountered when they arrived in America.

This replica of the Mayflower is seen on location in South Africa during shooting of "Saints & Strangers." (Courtesy National Geographic Channel)

But descendants of the Wampanoag, the indigenous people who participated in that first Thanksgiving feast and entered into a peace treaty with the colonists in 1621, are poking holes in the film. The criticism covers everything from language and regalia mistakes to historical and cultural inaccuracies, but it also raises broader questions about creative liberties, cultural distinctions and who gets to interpret history.

By criticizing National Geographic, the Wampanoag communities are taking on a global organization that prides itself on “integrity, accuracy and excellence.” In a statement responding to the criticism, Christopher Albert, senior vice president of communications and talent worldwide for Nat Geo, defended the film.

"National Geographic Channel is very proud of 'Saints & Strangers' and the great lengths our producers went to portray the time period as accurately as possible," he said, adding that Nat Geo hopes the film becomes "traditional holiday viewing as the universal message of survival and acceptance truly stands the test of time."

Nat Geo worked with Native consultants and hired a language coach who helped actors master their lines in Western Abenaki. The cast included some big-name Native actors and meticulous design of costume, hair and makeup.

Problems with the film do not stem from the quantity of Native interactions, Coombs said, but rather the substance of those interactions. Coombs read the first two hours of the script and agreed to act as a consultant for Nat Geo, in conjunction with the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project, a program that began in 1993 to bring back the Wampanoag language after it had been dormant for more than a century.

"I was appalled at what I was reading," Coombs said of the script. "Some of the stuff that was in the story, they were just making it up."

Nat Geo also courted Jessie Little Doe Baird, cofounder of the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project and vice chair of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Baird, a 2010 MacArthur Genius Fellow, also voiced concern about a script she called “culturally incompetent.”

"It was really stereotypical and prejudiced," she said. "It’s one of the worst scripts I’ve ever seen. I told them it was terrible, but it didn’t need to be."

Baird and Coombs were poised to offer translations, dialogue coaching and cultural expertise for the production. Among their concerns were invented or dramatized scenes, distorted cultural references and stereotypical portrayals of Natives.

"When we talk about relationships, especially cross-cultural and race relations, it really is important to get things right," Baird said. "When you dramatize a set of events, it's one thing. But to change the facts is dangerous because people watching it take it as fact."

For example, Baird pointed to the film's opening sequence. While it is true that pilgrims looted Native villages for food, the beginning of the film masks the fact that when colonists landed at Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod (before they arrived at present-day Plymouth), their first occupation was robbing graves.

The narrative returns later to the same looting scene, during which it becomes clear that the colonists are raiding graves, but they also discover a skull with blond hair, suggesting that the Natives had killed earlier settlers and taken trophies.

At another point in the film, the Wampanoag deliver to colonists the bloodied clothes of a child who had been lost, intimating that they had killed the boy because pilgrims had stolen their corn. That is grossly untrue, Coombs said.

"That's an outright lie," she said. "The Wampanoag took care of the lost child. When they returned him, he was happy and healthy and probably bedecked with beads. There's nothing in history about knocking the kid on the head and bringing the bloody shirt to the colonists."

But Baird and Coombs never got a chance to correct the script. Nat Geo terminated the contract when the Wampanoag asked for authority to review the script prior to filming to ensure it was historically and culturally accurate and that any offensive material had been removed. When Nat Geo refused to forfeit authority, the Wampanoag declined to participate.

"Nat Geo said it has a policy of not allowing the subjects of a film to have any say in the script," Baird said. "We said we have a policy of not letting anyone say whatever they want about us and using our language to say it. We have a right to look at the script and determine that we're not using the language to denigrate ourselves."

After severing its relationship with the Wampanoag, Nat Geo found a different consultant and language coach who translated the script into Western Abenaki, a sister language to Wampanoag. An estimated 30 percent of the 180-minute film is in Western Abenaki, and actors spent hours learning it.

In his statement, Albert said the production company had "always been clear that language we had our Native American actors speak was a cousin language to the dialogue of the time." Nat Geo has "received unanimous praise for this effort," he said.

But straying from the Wampanoag language proved to be Nat Geo's biggest film gaffe, Coombs said.

"Abenaki is not Wampanoag," she said. "This is the stereotype of the interchangeable Indian. If you can’t find an Indian who does what you want, keep going until you find one who will. It doesn't matter. Indians are generic."

Although Western Abenaki and Wampanoag are in the same Algonquian language family, they are separated by grammatical and morphological differences, Baird said. Western Abenaki is an "L" language while Wampanoag is an "N" language.

"To say that Abenaki is Wampanog is like saying Portuguese is Spanish," she said. "Using the same language family like this is saying one Indian isn't any different than another Indian. One language isn't any different than another. It marginalizes an entire people."