Saints & Strangers Chips Away at the Thanksgiving Myth
Saints & Strangers, a two-night miniseries from National Geographic that premieres on Sunday, attempts to shed a light on some of the misconceptions around the story of Thanksgiving.
History books often overlook some of the less than noble actions taken by the Pilgrims after they settled in Plymouth, and Native American voices are usually excluded all together. This series is a step forward in dispelling some of the myths behind the holiday.
That said, Saints & Strangers does have its faults. It could have dug deeper into many of the Pilgrims’ nefarious actions against the Native Americans, which brought war and slavery in the ensuing years. The series also should have explored the role diseases played in decimating populations across the continent thanks to encounters with the Spanish, Dutch, and British.
But despite the shortcomings, Saints & Strangers is leaps and bounds better than past depictions of Thanksgiving, mostly because of its honest treatment of the indigenous peoples’ role in early American history. Actor Kalani Queypo, who plays the famous Squanto, praises this aspect of the series and hopes viewers will be inspired to learn more about the holiday’s real history.
“I think that part of Native history was embarrassing to our government, so the stories that were told most of the time in American history, you don’t learn about these things because it’s something that we’re not proud of,” Queypo says. “I think that presenting it in a dignified way like this will have to challenge people to rethink who they think Native American people are.”
Queypo also praises Saints & Strangers for how it depicts Squanto and his history as a slave.
The famed liaison between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans learned to speak English after being captured by the British as a boy in 1605. He was later sold again into slavery in Spain before he escaped and found his way back across the ocean to Massachusetts.
“It’s not taught how he was captured and sold into slavery not once, but twice,” Queypo says. “There’s a lot of history involved with slavery and the trafficking of humans, the idea that Squanto would simply be captured because, ‘I think that back in England they’d like to see some real Indians, so let’s bring back these guys.'”
Beyond giving Native Americans better on screen treatment, the series also takes a more critical eye towards the passengers who sailed aboard the Mayflower.
Yes, some were the pious, God-fearing travelers who are portrayed in school plays around the country. However, many were also just ordinary people looking for a fresh start, while others were extremely cruel, with no sympathy whatsoever for the indigenous people.
One of these unsavory passengers was Myles Standish, a military officer known for his sometimes brutal tactics against certain tribes. Actor Michael Jibson, who plays Standish in the series, says that his character was willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure the survival of the colony.
“From Standish’s point of view, it’s black and white,” Jibson says. “It’s, ‘This is what we need to do to succeed. We need to get rid of him, we need to go in there, we need to take control, massacre, whatever.’ And that’s what happened with Standish. ‘Give me the order and I’m there, I’ll do it.'”
As the world grapples with the Syrian refugee crisis, retelling the story of Thanksgiving, warts and all, couldn’t be more important.
Ironically, the violent behavior that Donald Trump and Governor Charlie Baker fear from Syrian refugees was not too different from the actions of many of the early settlers. They killed, raped, stole, and enslaved Native Americans in order to take the land for themselves.
But even in the face of so much despair on both sides, for a brief moment in time, the Native Americans and Pilgrims were able to break bread and actually have peace. They celebrated with each other despite their differences, offering a glimpse of hope for a divided world.
“The story that we’re telling is so relevant. It’s ongoing,” Jibson says. “The refugees and everything that’s happening in the world at the moment—it’s the same thing. It’s about people finding a new world and a better life.”
Saints & Strangers premieres at Sunday, November 22, at 9 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.