Neither nobles nor savages

In the five-part series 'We Shall Remain,' WGBH aims to put Native Americans at the center of the American experience article page player in wide format.
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / March 29, 2009
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SALEM - On a steamy day last summer, the reproduction Colonial cottages at Salem's Pioneer Village buzzed with modern-day activity: cameras and boom mikes and makeup artists, real chickens, and a deer made of foam. Actors playing Pilgrims, bearing the heat beneath thick woolen coats, milled about a table set with berries and nuts. Native Americans in traditional garb lounged near a rental truck, waiting to be called into action.

Their task: to re-create the first Thanksgiving for "American Experience," the public-television history series produced by WGBH. But this retelling - part of the upcoming series "We Shall Remain" - would be different from other Thanksgiving stories. It would be told from the point of view of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader who made the risky choice to forge an alliance with the British colonists of Plymouth.

And it would end with a pointed question about whether Massasoit might have regretted his decision, since the trust he built with the colonists wouldn't last to the next generation. Among the props on the set was a model of a human head: Massasoit's son, King Philip, which the colonists would later impale on a stick.

The Wampanoags' arc, from hope to despair, makes up the first episode of "We Shall Remain," an ambitious five-part series that premieres on PBS on April 13. Less a historical survey than a set of portraits, it aims to tell Native American history from the Native Americans' perspective - and focuses on individual leaders, tragic and heroic, who affected the course of history.

When it comes to Native Americans on film, that sense of depth is rare, said Chris Eyre, the Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker who directed two of the "We Shall Remain" episodes, including the Thanksgiving story, and codirected a third with documentary filmmaker Ric Burns.

Eyre, who gained fame as director of the acclaimed 1998 film "Smoke Signals," said he developed his own sense of Native American identity - along with a simmering sense of anger - when he took a college course on director John Ford, whose iconic Westerns seared a less-than-flattering image of Indians into the public consciousness.

"I still think the portrayal of Indians in the mass media is in the Stone Age," Eyre said. "Hopefully what's changing here is that we're starting to portray ourselves as three-dimensional characters. We don't want to be nobles and we don't want to be savages."

Indeed, soon after producers started researching the project, they realized that the tribes were "very active players in their own history," said Mark Samels, the executive producer of "American Experience." So while the overarching story of Native Americans is bleak - a string of broken promises and dark, unhappy endings - they're also quintessentially American stories of stubbornness and survival.

The documentaries intersperse analysis from Native Americans and academics with dramatic reenactments. (There is also a website and an outreach effort that includes a project called "ReelNative," which encouraged novice Native American filmmakers to tell their own stories.) They also share a sense of expansiveness, offering shots of a pristine landscape, untouched by modern development: a continent of possibility, before history took its course - the product of careful camerawork, eagle-eyed editing, and a wee bit of CGI to eliminate an errant building here or there.

A major challenge for producers, at the start, was winnowing down the potential tales, said Sharon Grimberg, the series' executive producer. She and her colleagues wanted to begin with a first-contact story and end in the late 20th century, she said, to dispel the myth that Native American history is locked in the past. They looked for characters who represented different ways Native Americans have tried to control their fates.

Massasoit's story, told in the film "After the Mayflower," imagines the possibility of cooperation. Other episodes focus on Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader who pursued the then-radical idea of a pan-Indian alliance, and the Ridges, a family of wealthy and assimilated Cherokees who tried to protect their ancestral land through the American legal system - and even won their case in the US Supreme Court.

Another episode centers on Geronimo, whose resistance movement - and eventual celebrity - left him a controversial figure among his fellow Chiricahua Apaches. And the final installment, filled with archival media footage, tells the story of the 1973 occupation of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation by members of the American Indian Movement resistance group, which helped spark a modern movement to resist assimilation and reclaim Native American identity.

Choosing those five sagas means many others aren't told: Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Pocahontas, among others, are never mentioned in the series. Grimberg has already fielded complaints from tribes who wonder why their stories were left out.

"The way to tell history is to tell stories," she said. And these characters "were people who had ingenuity and imagination and they fought back. Tecumseh belongs to all of us. He is an American hero."

Of course, even some of the tribes whose stories were told raised early doubts about the series and the wisdom of participating. Cassius Spears, 45, a Rhode Island native from the Narragansett tribe, said that when a call went out for extras in "After the Mayflower," young people in his large extended family wanted to take part. But some of his older relatives were skeptical.

"We're used to seeing one mistake after another when they try to show or represent native communities," Spears said. "It's just like no one actually took the time to get involved in the details."

Spears started out as an extra for the film, alongside his son, but took on a larger role after he started critiquing the details on the set. On the Salem shoot, he adjusted the size of the native's feather pieces, and clarified how Massasoit would have shaken the pilgrims' hands, grasping their wrists, not their palms.

Nipmuc tribe member David White, 36, a Brimfield resident and electrician by trade, was the episode's language adviser, reviewing the scripts for both dialect and meaning. (In real life, White does his part to keep the Nipmuc language alive, teaching it to small groups of Native Americans in their homes, and sharing Nipmuc culture with schools and Cub Scout troops.)

In a scene in which a gravely ill Massasoit gets a visit from Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow, White asked producers to cut a line in which Massasoit said "My friend, I'll never see you again." Native Americans don't see death as an end, White said, but as part of a life cycle.

As they put together the series, producers strove to use living examples of Native American culture. Many of the actors and extras wore their own traditional garb: White's cousin Troy Phillips, a builder from Lenox who played the English-speaking tribesman Squanto, arrived on the "After the Mayflower" set with his own loincloth, headdress, and earrings.

And for "Trail of Tears," the series' third episode, a group of Cherokee elders returned to their ancestral homeland to appear in reenactment scenes. They found camaraderie with veteran actor Wes Studi, who played Cherokee leader Major Ridge - and had grown up speaking Cherokee, though he had never had a chance to speak the language on film.

"I would sometimes walk over to Wes and say, 'What are you guys talking about?' " said Eyre, who directed the episode. 'And Wes would look at me strangely and say, 'Don't you wish you knew?' I would laugh and I'd walk away and then I would call 'Action.' There's no substitute for essence, for true essence."

Eyre said the series has taught him more about Native American history than he learned growing up in Oregon; he had heard the name Wampanoag, for instance, but didn't know the tribe's full story. And he said he hopes the series prompts viewers to rethink characters like Ridge, who had been vilified by his fellow Cherokees for signing away his tribe's homeland in a treaty and moving from Georgia to Oklahoma.

Given the complex political situation Ridge faced - and the fate of his fellow Cherokees who refused to move - viewers might watch the "Trail of Tears" film and wonder if he made the right decision, after all, Eyre said.

The fact that the series poses those questions "is the thing I'm more proud about," Eyre said. "It's not romanticizing the wars that native people fought and looking at their buckskins and feathers. It's about the complications of the characters and the decisions they had to make, and that's what defines a hero."

A half-hour screening of "After the Mayflower" will be held at 6:30 p.m. on April 9 at the WGBH theater, with a panel discussion featuring Cassius Spears, David White, Sharon Grimberg, and Mark Samels. The event is free but reservations are required. Sign up at

Joanna Weiss can be reached at For more on TV, go to