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Nat Geo Tells the Rest of the Thanksgiving Story in Native Tongue
November 22, 2015  | By David Hinckley
 

You might not think you need a four-hour National Geographic miniseries, Saints & Strangers, to understand the first Thanksgiving.
 
A bunch of really religious British dudes in grey and white costumes chilled with a bunch of Native Americans over a turkey dinner in 1621.
 
What more is there to know? All we’ve really done since then is add a football game, right?
 
Well, maybe not.
 
“Thanksgiving is a story everybody thinks they know,” says Seth Fisher, co-writer of the series that runs Sunday and Monday nights at 9 ET. “But what they know probably isn’t the whole truth.
 
“It was a much more complex situation than most people realize, especially when you bring in the Native American viewpoint.”
 
A critical part of the Saints & Strangers mission was doing just that, says Teri Weinberg, one of the executive producers.
 
“It was very important to us to get the Native American perspective,” she says, “because that’s the part of the story that rarely gets told.”
 
The Native American tribes are portrayed sympathetically, though not idealized. They jockey for political and physical power among themselves, and there are significant initial disagreements as to how serious a threat the arriving colonists pose.
 
Still, it’s the developing relationship between the English and the natives that paints much of the larger story.
 
To underscore the divide between the native tribes and the arriving British, Saints & Strangers has the Native American characters speak almost all their dialogue in the tribal language of the time. Subtitles are added for contemporary viewers not fluent in the Wampanoag tongue.
 
Weinberg also says all the Native American characters are played by actors with Native American blood. (Raoul Trujillo left, Tatanka Means, right, top photo.)
 
Grant Scharbo, another executive producer, says Saints & Strangers doesn’t suggest that all the information in the traditional Thanksgiving story is wrong, just that it leaves out much of the most compelling drama.
 
“This is a survival story,” he says. “Half the colonists died the first winter – and there were only 102 to begin with. It’s astonishing the colony was even able to continue.”
 
What’s also not widely remembered, Scharbo says, is that half the original colonists weren’t even Pilgrims as we define them today: religious fundamentalists who left England to escape the Church of England and worship under their own strictures.
 
Those fundamentalists were the group that originally planned the voyage, led by the charismatic William Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser, in a role quite different from Pete on Mad Men, above, with Anna Camp of Pitch Perfect.).
 
But they had no luck finding someone wealthy enough to underwrite a purely spiritual expedition. So half the spaces on their boat, the famous Mayflower, were given to adventurists whose mission was to find valuable goods like beaver pelts and ship them back to England. That way, the people who paid for the voyage would eventually achieve their real goal, which was making money.  
 
“There were many conflicts between the Pilgrims and the ‘strangers’ inside the community,” says Fisher. “That’s the real appeal of this story – very real people forced to make very real decisions that literally determined life or death. We have the luxury today of seeing how one small exchange could still have a profound effect a hundred years later.”
 
Eventually, Saints & Strangers notes, the Bradford-led Pilgrims and the “strangers” – who were almost all religious believers themselves, just not as fundamentalist – realized that if they didn’t find common ground, work together and live with their differences, they would probably all die.
 
“That was the world they came to,” says Scharbo. “They had a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.”
 
Weinberg says the series can stand up to rigid historical scrutiny. But having executive-produced Nat Geo’s Killing Jesus, Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy, she admits that not every viewer will like every aspect.
 
“Someone will always have an issue,” she says. “Someone will always find fault somewhere. And that’s okay. We want to create a dialogue, and in the end we think we’re offering a more truthful take on a great human story.”

 
 
 
 
 
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