After watching Squanto, the new Disney movie that purports to be the life of the Native New Englander who died in the winter of 1623, I sat for a long time in the empty theater. I was disturbed.
I believed in the message of the movie, even though it was delivered as brightly and mindlessly as that flower handed to me in 1971 in Haight-Ashbury by a teenage boy tripping on acid: peace and mutual respect. “Let’s all live together,” the Squanto character says near the end of the movie, ending an armed confrontation between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. I was pleased to see a Native character played by an engaging young Native actor occupying the center stage of the entire movie. Unlike that long string of “sympathetic Indian” movies — A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man, Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, just to name a few — there is no central white character for the audience to identify with, no white guy being a better Indian than the Indians themselves. And, especially in the first minutes of the film before the English ship swings into sight, we are given a very nice depiction of what life might have been like in the Patuxet village where the Plymouth Colony was eventually founded. The Native actors speak an Algonquin language, much of which I could understand, even without the translation. The material culture of the Patuxet people is well-depicted. The drum songs are authentic — I knew all of them before seeing the movie. (However, they are Micmac songs, not Patuxet or Wampanoag.)
Even after the whites appear and the movie is beginning to drift far afield from the story of Squanto’s life, the abduction of Squanto by deceit rings true. Squanto’s young bride and other Patuxets pursue the ship to no avail. As the ship vanishes from sight, the young bride calls out Squanto’s name and mumbles something that I could not quite understand. On reflection, from the way the movie went from that point onward, I decided it must have been, “Squanto, where are you going?” To which Squanto must have replied, “I’m going to Disney World!”
On board, bound and cast into the hold, Squanto discovers he is not alone. He is surprised to see his fellow captive is Epanow, a Wampanoag chief. (I shared his surprise, since Squanto was abducted in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth while Epanow was taken in 1611 by Captain Edward Harlow.) Once Squanto is in England, the movie gets increasingly silly. An avaricious buffoon merchant emerges as the villain, played broadly enough to be a bad guy in any Disney cartoon. He throws Squanto into a bear pit where he wrestles with a giant American grizzly bear in a scene which reminded me of Bela Lugosi wrestling with a rubber octopus in the recent film Ed Wood. Squanto emerges unscratched from several violent embraces and then sings the big bear to sleep. Old Indian trick number one. From being a semi-real Native New Englander Squanto has suddenly evolved into a noble savage ubermensch. Perhaps the air of England affected him the way earth’s gravity affects Superman. He eludes hundreds of pursuers who learned their skills from the Keystone cops, steals a boat and gets away. Meanwhile the merchant says (no lie!) “I want my Indian. I want Squanto. He could sing and he could fight.”
Squanto, however, is now being washed up on shore to be found by a misplaced colony of monks. As soon as we see them, we know who they are. The fact that there are more than seven monks means little; one can easily recognize them by both their costumes and their madcap ways as the beloved Seven Dwarfs. They take him in and teach him English (in a matter of hours, it seems). Interestingly, he speaks English with what appears to be a California accent. They also introduce him to a horse — which he immediately learns to ride. (And why not? We are now in Indian cliché-land.) Soon, however, (why did I see this coming?) those monks begin to learn from him! He fashions twenty or thirty lacrosse rackets (never mind the fact that it takes at least three seasons to make even one lacrosse stick — he probably got them from the Starship Enterprise’s replicator) and soon all the monks are playing his game. At dinner they sing Indian songs instead of saying grace. He makes popcorn for them. They all love Squanto. All except one, whom I’ll call “Grumpy.” But in the end even Grumpy comes around and passes on to Squanto the wisdom that he should love his enemies and pursue the path of non-violence. Since I could spend a thousand words more on the illogicalities of his adventures in merry olde England, let me end it by saying that Squanto finally escapes by leaping on horseback over the bad merchant’s head and onto the deck of a passing ship.
He then sails home with his friend Epanow, apparently only a year after his capture. He finds all his people killed by a plague. (At last, one true fact in Squanto’s story). Suddenly, the Pilgrims land and take over Squanto’s old village. Just as Epanow’s Wampanoags are about to wipe out the Plymouth colony, Squanto stands up between the two poised armies and urges them to live together in peace. They eat Thanksgiving dinner together and everyone lives happily ever after — although we are told in a final graphic that the peace lasted until 1675, at which point the Indians were wiped out or driven away.
Squanto’s True Story
In contrast to this, here in broad outline is the actual story of Squanto. In 1605, when he was probably in his 20’s, he was kidnapped with four other Indians and taken to England where they were given to Sir Fernando Gorges. Gorges taught them English so that he could learn from them information about New England which would be useful to him for colonization and trade. Those five Indians accompanied various English voyages to the New World as interpreters over the next decade. In 1614, Squanto sailed with the two ships of Captains John Smith and John Hunt on a voyage to New England. With Hunt, Squanto went on to Patuxet, where he was welcomed back by his people and Hunt was honored for his apparent kindness to Squanto. However, when Squanto and 27 other men accepted the invitation to visit Hunt’s ship, a duplicitous Hunt — who appears to have used Squanto as bait to get more Native Americans — threw them in irons and took them to Malaga, Spain where they were sold as slaves.
Squanto spent the next five years as the slave of a Spanish monk, escaping in 1619 and making his way back to England. In England he was befriended by the director of the Newfoundland Trading Company who arranged for Squanto’s passage back to New England in the summer of 1619. He returned to Patuxet to find most of his people dead from an epidemic. Squanto then acted as an interpreter and a guide for other English captains, including Captain Thomas Dermer, who had brought him from Maine to Patuxet.
The first Indian to contact the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth was not Squanto. On March 16, 1620, a tall Maine Abenaki Indian named Samoset walked into Plymouth saying “Welcome! Welcome, Englishmen.” He had been visiting the nearby Wampanoags. Having learned some English from the fishermen and traders he met in Maine, he decided to pay Plymouth a visit. He then returned the next day with a friend, Squanto, who spoke flawless English — the result of his fifteen years of on-and-off slavery. Squanto then introduced them to Massasoit, the Great Sachem of the Wampanoag people.
For the next two years, Squanto acted as an interpreter for the colony. Apparently, though, his reason for doing this was not entirely selfless. Squanto’s ambition was to take the place of Massasoit as Great Sachem and he used his job as an interpreter to strengthen his hand before undertaking a rebellion. When Massasoit learned of this, he sentenced Squanto to death for treason. Squanto was given refuge by Governor William Bradford and lived out the rest of his life as a virtual prisoner, dying in 1623.
On one level Disney’s Squanto, though far removed from the real historical figure, might be seen as harmless, politically correct nonsense — a nice little PG Disney story. On another level, though, it is such drastic rewriting of history that I worry about people seeing it who do not know the true story of Squanto. It also reinforces Noble Savage stereotypes about Indians. (Interestingly, Disney sent teaching guides based on the movie to 65,000 fifth-grade teachers.)
Disney’s perspective also glosses over questions of conquest, of bicultural adaptation, and of complicated issues of the effects of colonialism on both the colonizer and colonized. Rather than looking at the messages that could be drawn from Squanto’s life, including the tragic results when two extremely different world views collide and one attempts to conquer the other, the movie takes a sugar-coated approach that sidesteps any of the tough questions. As a movie script, it begins well and then dives so deeply into cliché and shallow dialogue that I can only conclude it was done in a hurry to get it out before Thanksgiving.
It’s unfortunate that Disney is recommending this movie to teachers and parents as a depiction of true Native history. With Wampanoag writer and educator Russell Peters as one of their technical advisors, and with the cooperation of the Micmac people of Prince Edward Island (where some of the movie was filmed), and with the talented young Native actors they involved in the project, this really could have been something special. In the end, though, it is another tract for the idea of manifest destiny.