As of this post, the episode is available on YouTube. I highly recommend it!
We Shall Remain Ep. 1: "After the Mayflower"
We Shall Remain is a historical documentary television series about American Indians. It begins first contact with Europeans, until today. It was produced as part of the long running and critically-acclaimed PBS historical series American Experience. The purpose of the series, in the producers' words, is to show "how Native peoples valiantly resisted expulsion from their lands and fought the extinction of their culture".
The first episode, "After the Mayflower" tells the story of the Wampanoag, an Algonquian-speaking people. The Wampanoag were at the forefront of the difficult relationship between the English and the American Indian peoples: the United States holiday of Thanksgiving has written their alliance with the Pilgrims at Plymouth.
The series tells the story from the perspective of two generations of Wampanaug leadership, and how it would coem to shape the future of American history. It begins with sachem Massanoit, who chose to enter into an alliance with the small group of English separatists who landed in what would become Plymouth Bay Colony, allowing them to survive. It ends with Massanoit's son Metacom, known as Philip. Philip became sachem after this father's death. He would become famous for leading a confederacy of tribes against the English in what would later be called King Philip's War.
The episode examines the motivations for these key figures, as well for Wampanaug in general. It depicts them as decision makers trying to help their people survive amidst deadly disease, invasions, economic upheaval, and political betrayal.
Although the stated intent of the series is to help people to see the struggle of the native people of the Americas, the episode accomplishes more than that. It helps the viewer understand early American history from the perspective of the native people. It helps people understand a much talked-about, but often not very deeply understood period.
The episode assumes a vague familiarity with the history of the English colonization of North America and very basic geography. The main subject of the episode takes place in present-day Massachussetts. The episode makes use of maps to illustrate events and key movements of people. Some general background information might help the viewer better appreciate the series, it is not critical for understand what is going on. Most Americans who hav had some history even at the elementary school level will be able to benefit from the episode.
Because it tells the story of English colonization from the Wampanoag perspective, "After the Mayflower" immediately invites the viewer to empathize with the concerns of the tribe and its leaders. It immediately removes misunderstanding that North America was mostly empty before the Europeans. The story begins with the Wampanaug sachem Massanoit trying to find a way forward after sickness killed nine out of every ten of his people. The Pilgrims appear as outsiders. The Wampanaug are cautious, because of the reputation of Europeans as brutal and ruthless. But the Pilgrims who take up residence in the abandoned village of Patuxet include women and children, many of whom die before the end of the first winter. Still, some in the Wampanaug tribal council think they should wipe out the newcomers before they have a chance to do more harm. But seeing the women and children there, Massanoit decides to let newcomers live. As they make contact, he sees an alliance as a way to protect against the threat of rival tribes.
The common narrative of the Thanksgiving holiday centers around the Pilgrims. This religious sect saw Massanoit and the Wampanaug as having been sent by God to further their (the Pilgrims') mission. "After the Mayflower" depicts Massanoit not as a tool, but as leader facing difficult choices and an uncertain future. It begins with the Wampanaug more powerful than the English settlers, who were at the mercy of the environment and people of this foreign land. By doing this, the episode overturns the usual narrative and invites the viewer to see history through the eyes of the people who lived it--without any set path.
The episode looks at several aspects of the Wampanaug culture, and that American Indians in general, affected the relationship with the English. It discusses how the English misunderstood wampum, which were beads made from clam and other shells. The Wampanaug and all tribes of the Eastern Woodlands region respected it and used it as a ceremonial amulet. The English, meanwhile, assumed wampum was merely a type of currency. Without any respect for its cultural significance, they bypassed the usual relationships between coastal and inland tribes, and manufactured wampum to trade for resources like animal furs. This was one factor that led to decisions by Massanoit and other leaders to sell off their land.
Perhaps most of all, the episode teaches us the Indian way of thinking about relationships, and how its mismatch with the English way of doing things shaped relations and conflict between the two groups. When Massanoit entered into the treaty with the settlers at Plymouth, he not only saw it as a pact between equals, but a joining of their peoples. This was the Indian understanding: an alliance meant that their peoples would become as one, and help each other. Massanoit himself was not an ruler, like a Royal Governor or King James, but a leader whose people had picked through consensus, and whom the whole tribe respected. In contrast, the English, particularly the religious sect of the Pilgrims, were wary of living in too much close contact with the Wampanaug or any other Indians. As more English arrived, this concept of the Indians of outsiders that they needed to change and control grew among them.
Although the history of the United States usually follows the English perspective, I expect many viewers to see the English ways of the period as comparatively barbaric: from their penchant for hierarchy and dominance, desire to control outsiders, to their use of punishments like dismemberment, and their use of human heads as war trophies. I think modern viewers will relate more to the consensus-finding, compromise-seeking approaches of Massanoit, who better represents the ideals of leadership in modern democracy and a respect for a common humanity. Even his son, Philip, who took up arms against the English, only did so as a last resort, in response to injustice, broken promises, and political maneuvering to completely destroy the Wampanaug and related peoples.
The personal focus on Massanoit, Philip, and other key figures from the period make this film unique. While the two Wampanaug leaders play the biggest roles in this ultimately sad story, the episode makes a point to show their relationships with the English. Massanoit became close friends with the second-in-command at Plymouth, Edward Winslow. Winslow took it upon himself to be the ambassador to the Wampanaug. When Massanoit seemed to be deathly ill, Winslow came to be there with the sachem. The episode depicts a scene where Winslow embraces a severely ill Massanoit, and helps him to drink and eat. After he recovers, the show has Massanoit say to Winslow, "I will never forget your kindness."
The show takes care to illustrate all the figures in its story as complex people, with their own desires, hopes, and apprehensions. It avoids simplistically characterizing entire groups as simply good or bad--at the very least, it invites the viewer to think about the political, social, and personal motivations that shaped their actions.
The show uses a mixture of narration, historical pictures, commentary by historians, experts, and current day tribal people to present its information. But maybe the most important aspect of the show was using actors to depict the historical figures. This helps to engage the viewer with the historical story and the experiences of the people they are learning about.
This focus on the experience of the Wampanaug has the potential to change viewers' way of looking at history beyond this period. People watching the show get to see just how much promise the alliance between the Wampanaug and the Pilgrims at Plymouth seemed to hold for relationships between the Indians the English in general. The close friendship and respect between Edward Winslow and Massanoit underscores this. Knowing only about their strong bond, that the sons of these two would become fierce enemies seems shocking and surprising. But history, as people around the world live it, really often is that shocking. Even if we look back and analyze the factors, the people who lived through those events had no real way of knowing just how the story would turn out.
The story of Thanksgiving is important to the American national narrative. It depicts the American ideal of mutual help and cooperation of free peoples of different backgrounds. Although much of Thanksgiving is myth, "After the Mayflower" shows us that much of it was true. For a period, the Wampanaug and the religious Pilgrims at Plymouth cooperated and lived together, some forming close friendships. The Wampanaug, in particular, taught the Pilgrims all about how to survive in their land. Under Massanoit's leadership, they included the the English newcomers as part of a united people. But here is where the clear myth of Thanksgiving ends. Most Americans recognize the name of the Mayflower, the ship that brought the group of English religious separatists across the Atlantic Ocean.
Not so many are aware of how closely this event was tied to another event in early American history--the uprising known as King Philip's War. Metacom, or Philip, was the son of the same sachem Massanoit who entered into a treaty with the survivors of the Mayflower. The show shows us the "second" Thanksgiving the settlers at Plymouth celebrated: Philip's defeat, death, and dismemberment at the hands of English forces. The English at Plymouth displayed Philip's severed head on a pole for two decades.
"After the Mayflower" gives us a look into how Massanoit, Philip, and others must have really experienced this important episode in out history. It is a valuable educational tool that invites us into the perspective of native peoples trying to their best in a world of calamity from disease and invasion. The use of actors portraying the key figures adds a special immersive element to the story. This show reminds us how these experiences of native people are a part of our national historical heritage.