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Reveals Factual History Of The Wampanoag; Review of Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story Of The Mayflower

by Alma Gordon-Smith, White Sky, tribal historian - Chappaquiddick Wampanoag Tribe

Samoset talks with pilgrims

     In addition to providing an enlightening picture of the Pilgrims who made their way to the Americas, this documentary begins to unveil the true documented history of the Wampanoag Confederation and provides the viewer with a glimpse of the character and spirit of its people. It is a respectable introduction to the world of the Wampanoag of the 1600s, the diplomacy of its leader, the Grand Sachem, Massasoit (first known as Ousamequin or "Yellow Feather"), and it awakens uninformed viewers to the existence of modern Wampanoag communities.

     The lives of the Separatists, later known as the Pilgrims, are brought to life. A comprehensive picture of their history, and how they came to their decision to immigrate to the Americas, is clearly and thoughtfully presented. They face persecution in England, and later endure adversity in the Netherlands. They make the decision to leave the Netherlands, where they are allowed to freely practice their religion, to traverse to the New World with the naive belief that this move will make their lives easier and eliminate unwanted outside influences on their children. They believe that the will of God will protect them because their motive for going to the world is noble and they have a plan to propagate the gospel to the American Natives, who they consider to be 'savages'. All American Natives were referred to as 'savages' by the Pilgrims; they were either unaware or disinterested in the fact that Native People of the Americas had complex and varied cultures and spoke different languages.           

Image of Natives from Desperate Crossing

     It is well worth watching this documentary to hear the Wampanoag point of view from well respected keepers of the Wampanoag culture. They help the viewers understand that we, the people of the Wampanoag Nation, were, and still are, an actual living, intellectual people, with an ancient and highly sophisticated society. For far too long, the Wampanoag have been hidden behind the legend of Thanksgiving. This documentary provides re-enactments of actual meetings that the Pilgrims had with the Wampanoag such as the meeting with Massasoit and the encounter with Samoset, a Wabanaki Sachem who spoke English. Samoset is thought to have been called upon by Massasoit to serve as a diplomat to pave the way for a relationship between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims' relationship with Tisquantum, more commonly known as Squanto, is also portrayed. Squanto was one of the last citizens of Patuxet, the place the Pilgrims inhabit and call Plimoth. Linda Coombs, Wampanoag Indigenous Program; Ramona Peters, cultural consultant and daughter of the late Slow Turtle (John Peters) who was the  Supreme Medicine Man of the Wampanoag Nation; Jonathan Perry, Wampanoag Indigenous Program and Elizabeth Perry, Wampanoag Indigenous Program explain these events and provide cultural and spiritual details to promote an understanding of Wampanoag society. They are instrumental in opening doors for the past to shine light upon the complicated, well-documented events of that time, including the harvest celebration to cement the friendship and alliance of the Wampanoag with the Pilgrims.

     Jonathan Perry also plays the role of Squanto and his performance is quite convincing. Massasoit is played by David Weeden, a Mashpee Wampanoag. According to Lisa Wolfinger, the producer and director, he was selected to play the Great Sachem because of his screen presence and youthful appearance. "We felt it was important to communicate that Massasoit was a younger man." It is apparent that many of the individuals in the Wampanoag village scenes are members of modern day Wampanoag communities. David Weeden, Jonathan Perry, and all members of the cast gave an excellent performance.

Natives from Desperate Crossing

     It must be pointed out that the Massachusett language, the native language of the Wampanoag, is not spoken at any point in this documentary. While Squanto is accurately portrayed as interpreter for Massasoit during the scene when the Wampanoag leaders are discussing how they should proceed with the Pilgrims, incorporating the Massachusett language, if only in that segment, would have added an extra level of authenticity. While the integrity of the colonists gift of a red coat to Massasoit is relayed to the viewer, the coat bestowed upon Massasoit does not appear to be a horsemen's coat of red cotton laced with a slight lace as described in Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622, Part II. As described by Alvin G. Weeks in his book Massasoit, "the Great Sachem himself, (was) proud ruler of more than thirty villages�" Perhaps, a more detailed narrative about the Wampanoag Confederation, the number of tribute tribes within it and the overall area controlled by Massasoit would have fostered a better understanding of Massasoit's stature within the area known as the Dawnland in the 17th century.

     The focus of the documentary is the Pilgrims and their plight but the viewer is left with a romanticized view of the 'harvest feast', the legendary event. There is no mention of the enormous cost of European settlement to the Wampanoag culture and the impact that those early events had on all native cultures. No mention is made of the devastating war in 1676 between the Wampanoag and the colonists that resulted in the deaths of over 3000 Native People and 800 English. In their book "King Philip's War: The History and Legacy of America's Forgotten Conflict" published in 1999, Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Tougias state " The Wampanoag, Narragansett, Nipmuc, and other native peoples were slaughtered, sold into slavery, or placed in widely scattered communities throughout New England after the war."  They go on to report, "the impact of King Philip's War was so profound that it would be 253 years after Philip's death -1929- before the Wampanoag would hold their first powwow of the modern era." 

    Overall, Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story Of The Mayflower is an excellent documentary! Perhaps it will lead to further productions that deal with the expansive and complex history and culture of the Wampanoag Nation; the Native people most Americans have come to think of as an extinct people who feasted with the Pilgrims. It is time for our true story to be told.