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.
Courtesy National Geographic Channel
This replica of the Mayflower is seen on location in South Africa during shooting of “Saints & Strangers.”
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 Wôpanâak 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 Wôpanâak 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.”