Voices: Telling the true story of Thanksgiving
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — It’s a familiar story. Europeans in search of new economic or spiritual opportunities sail across the sea and arrive on a new continent. They are welcomed by the indigenous population, which they decimate or enslave as they take claim to the fertile new land.
That is the story of both North America and South Africa in the 17th century. So there is a special significance to the choice of this locale for the filming of Saints & Strangers, the two-part movie about the real Thanksgiving story airing on Nov. 22 and 23 on the National Geographic Channel.
Though nearly 8,000 miles from Plymouth Rock, where English pilgrims aboard the Mayflower landed in 1620, Cape Town shares many historical parallels with the Massachusetts colony. In the 1650s, Dutch sailors en route from Europe to India used Cape Town as a rest stop for their long voyage as they sailed around the cape of southern Africa.
In the New World, the Native Americans were nearly wiped out, either because they were killed by the new arrivals or died from diseases brought by the Europeans. Here, native Africans were killed or enslaved. It would be more than 300 years before the country would see majority rule.
The historical similarities are not the reason Saints & Strangers was filmed here. Rather, it’s because the film crew was able to use a ship here as a replica of the Mayflower. And it was not too difficult to transform a vineyard outside Cape Town into 17th century New England — with the help of a few trees, bushes, good old American cornstalks and some special effects.
Yet, as we watched the actors recreate life in the Plymouth Colony, we could not help but feel the emotional impact of a universal story of exploration, exploitation and culture clashes.
Saints & Strangers is not the sanitized version of the first Thanksgiving — pilgrims and Native Americans living in peace and friendship — that many of us learned as schoolchildren. It is a complex story about two cultures that at times cooperated with one another, and at other times fought deadly battles.
The movie focuses on two groups aboard the Mayflower: the “saints,” who were religious separatists seeking to build a new social order based on their beliefs, and the “strangers,” who traveled in search of adventure and financial reward.
The power of the movie is not just its faithful retelling of the story down to every historical detail, but its refusal to provide a one-sided European account of events. The story of the Pokanoket tribe gets equal time. The actors who play Native Americans even speak in a Native dialect, Western Abenaki, a nearly extinct language that required a coach for them to get the accent just right.
“The Native characters are not just one-dimensional. They are multi-faceted,” says actor Tatanka Means, who plays Hobbamock, one of the elite Pokanoket warriors. “My character has a wife and child. He has other stuff going on in his life. He is not just a bad ass.”
Means, the son of Indian actor and activist Russell Means, grew up on a Navajo reservation and is also part Lakota. “A movie like this has never been made before,” he notes. “A lot of what really happened has been pushed under the rug in other movies or distorted in history books. This will make Native kids proud of their heritage. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Adds Kalani Queypo, who plays Squanto, probably the best known of the Natives: “Doing this movie was an opportunity to be part of a Native storyline that is multi-dimensional, about sophisticated people with feelings, and an opportunity for me to be part of a story that has not only integrity and truth, but also humanity.”
Saints & Strangers also features strong female characters. “The women who survived the voyage and life in the colony must have had a strong presence. They weren’t all submissive and obedient,” says actress Natascha McElhone, who plays Elizabeth Hopkins, wife of Stephen Hopkins, one of the leaders of the “strangers.”
“This story is not the imperialist version told just by men,” McElhone adds.
Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the Plymouth Colony’s moral leader, William Bradford, admits he did not know much about the story of the pilgrims and Thanksgiving before taking on the role. “I read the script and said, ‘Wow, this is all true?'” says Kartheiser, who played Pete Campbell on the hit show Mad Men. “Thanksgiving for many Native Americans represents genocide. This is an opportunity to give the other side of the story. I believe this will start a conversation about the meaning of Thanksgiving.”
Yes, it will. Thanksgiving is about feasts and football. But it also is about our history and heritage, good and bad. Saints & Strangers is sure to provide a large heaping of food for thought about our past — and what is says about the present.
As William Bradford himself said: “All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.” Let’s hope we have the courage to really take to heart the lessons of that first Thanksgiving.
Ullmann is USA TODAY’s managing editor for special editions. Albert is National Geographic Channel’s senior vice president for communications and talent relations.