Squanto

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As an icon, Squanto is known, but he isn’t really known. What Santa is to Christmas and the Easter Bunny is to Easter, Squanto is to Thanksgiving. He is a sense memory from childhood. He’s more than a man, or really much less than a man, now. He is a symbol. 

There he is smudged into the paint of the handprint turkey you made in kindergarten. 

You don’t need to go visit Squanto – have kids and at some point when they’re in elementary school, he’ll come to you in the form of Timmy with the gap in his front teeth dressed in a fringe vest and a feather headband.

We’re going to spend the next few episodes of the podcast in Plymouth, thinking about the icons the Pilgrims have left behind leading up to their ultimate legacy, Thanksgiving and those handprint turkeys. As a first step, let’s exhume Squanto from the smudged paint, and restore to him not just some dignity but some agency.

Episode Transcript

Welcome back Iconographers. Let’s begin in the mid-90s. I guess I should be specific, this is that kind of podcast. The 1990s.

Film critic Roger Ebert is at the movies, as he so often was, ready to review the latest Disney movie, a tale of two worlds meeting for the first time, the old world and the new world. The ships arrive on the horizon, the tribe moves briskly through the forest, equal parts determined and baffled; eventually there’s a stand-off between English settlers and the native population, and at the most dramatic moment, a plea for peace and understanding.

Ebert pans the film, gives it one and a half stars out of four, scoffs about a “highly imaginary version of the first contacts between Native Americans and early settlers from England” that “runs everything through the mill of Political Correctness, so that we get a character who says, "If we want to understand them, then we should learn all we can about their culture."

Ebert’s all like um I’m pretty sure the English were “interested mostly in establishing their own culture, were intolerant of disagreement, and did not think the Indians had a culture. But this is one of those historical movies in which everything is seen in hindsight… the kind of superficial, tidied-up, idealized history that might appeal to younger viewers. No thoughtful person will be able to take it seriously.”

But wait. This isn’t what you think it is. It’s not 1995, and Roger Ebert isn’t watching Pocahontas. This is 1994, and Ebert is reviewing the live action film Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale, starring Adam Beach, Mandy Patinkin, and Irene Bedard, who, yes, also provided the speaking voice of Pocahontas one year later.

Sorry, I don’t mean to play mind games. I point out the similarities between these two Native American-fronted Disney movies that were in production at the same time to drive home a point – that there was a movement afoot 25 years ago, an effort to bring the stories of famous Native characters to the fore, to give them the hallowed status of protagonist, and to grant them something that seems so simple but is so hard to obtain in art and in life if you’re not white, male, cisgendered: Agency.

We’ll talk a lot about agency this episode – about having the ability to make one’s own choices, and about having that ability taken away –but for no suffice it to say that while putting a Native character in the starring role of a big budget family film may give the illusion of agency, he (Squanto clip) or she (Pocahontas clip) is still playing a minor supporting role in a much longer narrative that goes back centuries, and within that narrative he or she is unable to make choices that violate the rules of that world.

If you’ve ever shuddered at the Disney Pocahontas character’s intrinsic ability to translate languages because she can listen to the colors of the wind, this bit from Entertainment Weekly’s 1994 review of Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale is going to be a trigger.

“Surprisingly, Squanto perpetuates some of the stereotypes it’s trying to squash. The main character pacifies a wild bear by quietly singing to him, and jumps with his horses from the land onto a moving ship — hmm, must be that mystical Indian magic at work.”

Yes he’s thrown in a bear pit and he lullabies his way out of it. Our hero is put through hell by his white captors – called inhuman, put on display by virulent racist buffoons, doomed to never see anyone he loves again. It would be enough to break just about anyone; it does break his fellow captive Epanow, who burns a ship full of helpful Englishman while they sleep as retribution. But Squanto sees just enough goodness in his time in England, comes across the exact amount of white characters who make you think “Oh, not all white people are virulent racist buffoons,” to have it make sense for him to step into the middle of a standoff between the two worlds he now belongs to – the Old World and the New – and call for peace between the Pilgrims and the native Wampanoag people.

(clip, Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale) Now kill me. Kill me! And you’ll kill them and they’ll kill you. And more of us will die. And we will kill eachother til there’s nothing left, nothing but ashes and bones. We must end this, here, now.

It’s a speech that reaches out across the ages – a plea for cooperation in 1620, and, for the audience in 1994, a  mourning all the cooperation that hasn’t happened. It’s also the only climactic speech that Squanto or Pocahontas as written by Hollywood screenwriters could ever deliver.

(clip, Pocahontas) If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me too. Look around you, this is where the path of hatred has brought us.

The cards were stacked against them from the beginning. No matter the journey they take, they have the same amount of agency as the gay best friend in a 90s rom com; their function is to tell the kind white people: “Oh sweetie, I understand you. You’re worth it, someday everyone will see that.”

(Iconography theme)

This is Iconography, and I’m Charles Gustine your guide on this tour of icons real and imagined. This episode, I’d like to pick our tour of the ideas that have defined New England right back up where we left it at the end of our episode on John Smith.

It’s 1614, six years before the Mayflower sails into Plymouth Bay. Captain John Smith has already headed back to England from his glorious summer of mapmaking, and he’s left behind his second-in-command to finish the unfinished business.

PAULA PETERS: But when John Smith LEFT, he had instructed Captain Thomas Hunt to make just one more stop in the region that they called Plymouth already, but it was the village of Patuxet, and he was supposed to just do some trading, maybe get some beaver pelts before they headed home, but instead he took 20 men. And one can imagine how that might have happened, he probably lured them aboard his ship in a ruse to trade, and then they were captured.

I’m in Mashpee, the headquarters of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, speaking to the researcher and designer behind the exhibit that’s officially kicked off the massive quadricentennial commemoration of 1620.

PAULA PETERS: Natasui Sonk Waban. My name is Sonk Waban, that’s my traditional name. I am Paula Peters. I am Mashpee Wampanoag and I am one of the developers of this exhibit, the “Our” Story exhibit which is sponsored by Plymouth 400 to tell the Wampanoag story of colonization.

Like me, Plymouth 400 is not content as an organization to start the remembrance of the Mayflower’s arrival in 1620 with the Mayflower arriving. Instead, the observance of this monumental moment in American history commenced in 2014 with “Our” Story – the Our is in quotes – a multi-year, travelling exhibition which began by looking at 1614 and adds a new piece every year, and will continue to do so as we march our way to 2020.

PAULA PETERS: The mission of this exhibit really is to get people to consider the backstory to the Mayflower’s arrival. That there were so many encounters that occurred prior to the Mayflower coming that really did a lot to shape the way that the colony would be established and grow into the future. And people don’t get an opportunity to learn about those things even though they are well documented in the journals and the diaries, the writings of the European traders and explorers that came here, they’ve been more or less overlooked in favor of a prettier story.

This episode’s icon, Squanto, is perhaps the most prominent victim of this kind of over-simplifaction. Here’s a snippet from one of Paula Peter’s’s articles on the Plymouth 400 website setting the stage for the first “Our” Story exhibit piece, which is titled Captured: 1614.

The story of Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, who remarkably welcomed the Pilgrims in their own language is often re-told. It begins in the spring of 1621 almost as if the “friendly Indian” dropped out of the sky to become an invaluable emissary between the settlers and the Wampanoag. The lesser known albeit well documented truths are:

That Squanto was among 20 men taken from Patuxet in 1614.

That another seven men were taken from Nauset.

That Squanto was the only one known to return.

Prologue: Patuxet

Practically nothing about Squanto’s life before his abduction is known. That’s because what we know about people from the 17th century comes from records – letters, censuses, diaries, books, maps. Squanto’s tribe didn’t have any of these things because they didn’t have a written language – there wouldn’t be a Wampanoag written language until the 1660s, when a white settler produced a Wampanoag translation of the Bible.

The Wampanoag culture was an oral one. They passed down their stories from generation to generation through spoken language. This had been working just fine for centuries, but the one thing an oral tradition can’t contend with is the decimation of continuity that comes with disease and war. A story needs storytellers.

And so instead we are left to pore over a map. 1605, a French explorer Samueal de Champlain navigates the coast of what John Smith will soon call New England. He’s inadvertently held up in what will become Plymouth Bay.

“The wind being contrary, we entered a little bay to await a time favourable for proceeding. There came to us two or three canoes, which had just been fishing for cod and other fish, which are found there in large numbers. Some of them came to us and begged us to go to their river.”

Champlain does a little exploration of the bay fifteen years before it becomes an English colony, and he draws a map.

He doesn’t just draw the land like John Smith would. His is a little picture of life on a summer day in Patuxet in 1605. Here’s a wetu a dome-like longhouse with smoke billowing through a hole in the top. Eight of these wetuash dot the landscape, each is surrounded by an ample patch of maize. Men with spears crowd the shore looking towards the sailing vessel, and a canoe plies the water.

Somewhere in there is young Squanto, probably in his early to mid-20s. He likely lives in his mother’s wetu – this is a matrilineal culture - with her extended family, all these families together within the massive round sanctuary created by saplings and cattail mats. 

In the winter, once the crops are harvested they’ll abandon this village and head a few miles inland, build wetuash from the bark of trees so large and so old we just couldn’t fathom them today – had Champlain stopped by a few months later, he would’ve seen nothing but an abandoned bay, which, of course, would have been bustling again by the spring.

But by 1619, when Squanto returned from five involuntary years spent overseas, this would all be gone. Not because his people were five miles inland for the winter. But because his people had been beset by plague in his absence, and had died or scattered to the wind. Patuxet was no more.

Part 1: Taking

The kidnapping of natives did not start with Squanto in 1614.

Matter of fact, at pretty much the same time that Thomas Hunt was tricking Squanto and his fellow Patuxet’s into boarding a ship they wouldn’t be permitted to leave until it reached Europe, another English ship backed by the same financier was approaching Massachusetts with a native captive aboard. Epanow was a Nauset who had formulated a pretty ingenious escape plan during his years in England, an escape plan he was about to put into action. We’re going to follow him for a bit to help us understand the rationale behind and the ramifications of native kidnapping. He’s a really important part of Squanto’s story, both as a character who’ll have a big part to play down the line, and as a thematic foil to the cuddly corn-planting version of Squanto; it’s probably why the screenwriters behind Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale fudged the details and put Epanow on the same 1614 ship to England as Squanto, intertwining their journeys.

(clip, Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale)

Paula talks me through the Epanow panel in the “Our Story” exhibition that straightens the timeline out.

PAULA PETERS: He was taken in 1611 and brought to Sir Ferdinand Gorges who was a wealthy financier who never actually came to this country, but had this weird fascination with Indian men, I don’t know what that was all about, I’m gonna leave that to your imagination.

A man like Ferdinando Gorges – and there were many men like him with deep pockets and shallow scruples – had no shortage of excuses he could use to justify his kidnapping strategy.

PAULA PETERS: One was to rescue these people from the wilderness, which if you take a careful look at how the indigenous people of this nation lived, they were not in wilderness. They were many many very sophisticated in their own way tribes. The other reason was to convert them to Christianity. And that wasn’t really necessary either because indigenous people have their own spirituality which is still practiced to this day.

I want you to, if you have the fingers available, Google the original seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which dates to 1629. What you’re looking at is a nude native man, his junk covered by a conveniently placed bush, arms wide, arrow down in a sign OF fealty, with a word bubble coming from his mouth saying “Come over and help us…” I’m not making this up, it literally says “Come over and help us.”

This wasn’t really Gorges’s or Thomas Hunt’s style though – they were businessmen not missionaries, so what was in it for them?

PAULA PETERS: Another reason was to bring them back and learn native customs and language from them so that when the sailors went back they would be able to negotiate and talk to them. Another reason was to display them as curiosities. In London it was common for you to see a native man just brought to functions or parties as a curiosity.

I was curious about this “curiosity” phase that comes up in both the Epanow and Squanto stories – it’s always mentioned that they were shown around as curiosities, but it’s never clear what that entailed.

PAULA PETERS: I guess that leaves a lot to the imagination unless of course you read Shakespeare, and Shakespeare who was a really good friend of Gorges, wrote in was it Henry VIII, and you’ll have to double check that for me but I’m pretty sure that was the one… he wrote about an Indian, a strange Indian I believe he’s called in the play and he has a great tool that fascinated the ladies. I’m just gonna leave that there…

The last and most horrific reason was to sell them into the slave trade, which was really a challenge and that would be less of a reason as time went on – there was actually a ban on brining native slaves to the West Indies later on in the 17th century in like 1665 I believe or 1670. They banned entirely bringing any native slaves down there because the native slaves were convincing the African American slaves to rebel against their captors.

Epanow was never sold into slavery, but you can tell from the Gorges quote that’s displayed in the “Our” Story exhibit that Epanow is precisely the sort of dude that would have absolutely led a slave insurrection had he been given the chance.

PAULA PETERS: “He was a goodly man of a brave aspect, stout, sober in his demeanor.” So I mean you can actually interpret a lot into that. Sober in his demeanor probably means he was just bullshit at being kidnapped and taken against his will. He was definitely not happy about it, so he spent from 1611 to 1614 primarily living with Gorges and while he was there,  was able to determine what it was that they valued and they valued gold so he tricked them into believing that there was gold on Nope which is the Wampanoag word for Martha’s Vineyard, so he took them, he convinced them to let him go back there, gets to Nope on the ship that Gorges provided and his people come out of course to see this ship.

They’re probably fearful and curious about what’s going on there, and they’re probably really delighted that there’s someone like Epanow who’s calling out from the ship. And he then is, ironically, he’s able to use his language as a code, because they don’t understand what he’s talking, but he can talk to the men who’ve come to the ship and he tell them in his own language that “listen I’m captured by them, I’m gonna try to escape, let’s hatch a plan.” They hatch a plan, and they come back the next day, and the next day they are able to provide cover for him as he jumps from the ship and they fire a volley of arrows at the ship and there’s somewhat of a battle that takes place, some lives are lost on either side, but Epanow escapes and he’s delivered back to his people on Nope island, and he ultimately becomes a Sachem.

And as a sachem, as the chosen leader of his tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, Epanow becomes a sizable thorn in European explorers’ and settlers’ sides for years to come. This happened over and over again – natives recruited by force into being interpreters end up turning on their captors once they’re back in America, pretending to say one thing and actually saying “kill these fools” - and it’s both gratifying to see Gorges repeatedly fail because he never learns his lesson, but also haunting, because every time he doesn’t learn his lesson, it means another family torn apart.

(clip from “Our” Story exhibit)

These clips that play at the “Our” Story exhibition, of Wampanoag actors portraying their ancestors, give a sense of the world-shattering rift that might come with a Ferdinando Gorges-sponsored expedition stopping by your village.

(clip from “Our” Story exhibit)

But just a sense because we don’t actually have journals and books from the Wampanoags of 17th century Massachusetts who didn’t have a written language, and the Europeans who were visiting them with increasing frequency and putting pen to paper did not have a vested interest in recording the natives’ treasured oral histories or their perspectives.

PAULA PETERS: The colonials were there to interpret their story. That’s why this exhibit the overall name of it is “Our” Story. And the colonials, they’re not going to highlight those parts of the story that are clearly devastating to the Wampanoag nation.

We know absurdly little about Squanto before he was captured, and we don’t know much more about him after he was captured either. We don’t know how Squanto felt, for instance, when, after five years in the wind, in chains, in Spain, in England, and then in Newfoundland of all places, he finally found his way back to Patuxet and his village was gone. Wiped off the map. Literally.

PAULA PETERS: There’s only one short sentence written about Squanto’s return to Patuxet. Dermer brings him there and he writes that “He returned to his village, finding all dead.” Now you have to know more, there was probably more emotion than that but they just don’t write about it, which is unfortunate. But channeling my inner Squanto, I’m pretty devastated.

The Dermer that Paula Peters is referring to here is Thomas Dermer, an explorer who was meant to be part of John Smith’s aborted 1615 settlement in New England, and who, in 1618, came across Squanto in Newfoundland. Squanto was at Cuper’s Cove acting as an interpreter on behalf of the Newfoundland Company’s treasurer John Slany, the man who had taught him English. Upon meeting, Squanto and Dermer quickly saw in each other a means to an end – a way for both of them to get to New England - and Dermer wrote enthusiastically to Gorges that this native who understood English might well be the aberration Gorges had been searching for – an interpreter willing to act as a legitimate go-between for the two cultures.

So Dermer took Squanto with him to Plymouth. England. Before they could make their way down the North American coastline to New England, Dermer brought Squanto back to coordinate with Gorges.

Channel your inner Squanto with Paula here for a minute. You’re as close to home as you’ve been in five years – still 1,500 miles away, but you’re halfway there, on the right side of the ocean finally. And, as rumors swirl of a great plague that has wiped out the natives of America, you’re forced to go in the wrong direction, back across the ocean. And wait for permission to return to your home and your people. If they’re still there. Maybe they are there today, and tomorrow they’ll be gone. You don’t know. You don’t have the agency to find out.

In spite of all this – in spite of the troubles that have come from Europeans, especially those affiliated with Gorges – Squanto does what no one before him had done: he faithfully acts on behalf of Dermer as guide and interpreter, helping him safely navigate the intricate web of tribes in New England as he trades and explores.

This is where Epanow, who had shirked the role Squanto now occupied, literally jumped ship, reenters the story. Dermer makes his way down to Martha’s Vineyard and meets with the Nauset sachem.

PAULA PETERS: Initially they have a pretty peaceful encounter.

After that chat, Dermer goes down to Virginia for the winter, and in the spring, he and Squanto reunite and pay Epanow another fateful visit.

PAULA PETERS: I wonder if Epanow suddenly IS incensed by the idea or learns that Dermer is an agent of Gorges, and that would infuriate him because he obviously was not very happy with his treatment by Gorges. And it may have been that turned him on Dermer but they attacked Dermer and ummm he is uh wounded very badly, some say mortally wounded. We don’t know for sure if that is what he actually died of, but it is Squanto that comes to his defense and says “Stop, he’s a good man, don’t do this to him,” despite the fact that these are essentially an extension of his people. But he defends Dermer. And I think that might be the start of him really becoming ostracized by the rest of the tribe.

I liken Squanto to the baby bird that falls out of the nest and my mother had always told us “Oh you can’t touch it because if your scent gets on the bird, the mother bird will reject it.” Well Squanto fell out of the nest and landed in Europe and was completely immersed in their cultural ways and he just became more like them then he was like his own people. And in his opportunity to try to come back and assume his prior role there was nobody there to embrace him, so Squanto was really a man with no country.

Knowing all of this casts a tragic, deeply ironic shadow over the next, more famous part of Squanto’s story; here’s a lost man, prized for an ability to speak English that makes him a pariah amongst his people, living amongst white settlers on the exact spot where his tribe had thrived just five years before, teaching these starving newcomers the skills it will take to have a good harvest and become an unstoppable force. There’s a reason this stuff doesn’t come up in your average Thanksgiving pageant.

Part 2: Giving

(clip, Kids History) Hello Englishman I’m Squanto perhaps we should strike a treaty between our peoples. Good idea. Here’s some, here this is maize. No that’s corn.

This History Channel short on Youtube in which kids tell the story of Thanksgiving has helped me come to terms with something. Squanto is a children’s icon.

For weeks before I found Paula Peters and the roving “Our” History exhibit, I’d been trying to track down Squanto’s footprints – the traces every icon of Squanto’s caliber leaves behind in the modern world. I expected John Smith to be tough to visit in New England for all the reasons we outlined in his episode, but Squanto is Mr. Massachusetts (truly if you’re being literal about the Wampanoag origins of that name).

And yet the only pins I can put in my Squanto map are the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth and a memorial plaque in the town of Chatham on Cape Cod. The museum in Plymouth has a wooden bust of Squanto that is certainly historically inaccurate since we have no way of knowing what Squanto looked like. It used to be part of a larger wooden sculpture that sat above the entrance to the museum, which depicted the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620, an event Squanto did not witness.

The memorial in Chatham states proudly that “Somewhere within gunshot of this stone lies the remains of Squanto,” which is either not true now or wasn’t true for the first few decades the memorial was memorializing – 16 years or so ago, the memorial was moved about 3 miles, well out of gunshot range. It’s possible the statement was never true, of course.

Despite the lack of monuments dedicated to Squanto, there’s no doubt that Squanto is an icon, the first name that comes to mind for many people when defining an entire formative era in American history. Search for Squanto, and plenty of books come up. Of course, they’re pretty much all children’s books.

Thank You Squanto!, Squanto’s Journey, Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving, Squanto Friend of the White Men (which has been renamed Squanto Friend of the Pilgrims), John Billington Friend of Squanto if you’re looking to journey out into the Squanto Expanded Universe. There are no biographies of Squanto currently in print that are aimed at above an elementary school reading level.

Squanto is known, but he isn’t really known. What Santa is to Christmas and the Easter Bunny is to Easter, Squanto is to Thanksgiving. He is a sense memory from childhood. He’s more than a man, or really much less than a man, now. He is a symbol.

There he is smudged into the paint of the handprint turkey you made in kindergarten.

You don’t need to go visit Squanto – have kids and at some point when they’re in elementary school, he’ll come to you in the form of Timmy with the gap in his front teeth dressed in a fringe vest and a feather headband.

We’re going to spend the next few episodes of the podcast in Plymouth, thinking about the icons the Pilgrims have left behind leading up to their ultimate legacy, Thanksgiving and those handprint turkeys. As a first step, let’s exhume Squanto from the smudged paint, and restore to him not just some dignity but some agency.

To do that, we first need to share the credit or spread the blame a bit more evenly. Come on back to 1621 with me, I have some people I want you to meet.

“About 16th of March, a certain Indian came boldly among them, and spoke to them in broken English, which we could well understand, but marveled at it.”

As they relay it in Mourt’s Relation, half letter-back-home, half publicity pamphlet for the New World, the English colonists at Plymouth were just beginning to thaw out from a winter that had nearly halved their numbers when they were approached by “a tall straight man, the hair of his head black, long behind, only short before, none on his face at all.” This was the first native to voluntarily step out of the shadows and into the light in these four uniformly terrible months they’d spent in the New World.       

“He very boldly came all alone and along the houses straight to the rendezvous, where we intercepted him, not suffering him to go in, as undoubtedly he would, out of his boldness. He saluted us in English, and bade us “Welcome!”, for he had learned some broken English among the Englishmen that came to fish at Monchiggon. He was a man free in speech, so far as he could express his mind, and of a seemly carriage. We questioned him of many things…”

This episode of Icongraphy is about Squanto, but this guy, this first emissary… this wasn’t Squanto. ‘His name was Samoset.”

Samoset, wasn’t from around these parts, he was from up north in today’s Maine. He did know the people that were from around here though, the tribes who had been hanging around the periphery of Plymouth colony, feeling things out, everpresent but largely invisible. The Pilgrims, as we now know them, had spent an arduous winter burying their dead – so many dead – in secret on an out-of-the-way hill in the dead of night in a probably futile attempt to disguise just how pathetic their numbers were from these unknowable watchers.

Samoset finally revealed what the Pilgrims been wondering for months – how many people were out there watching, and who was their leader, the guy they really needed to meet. And this guy, the sachem of the Pokanoket, their chosen leader… also wasn’t our man Squanto. This was Massasoit, a powerful man of about 40 responsible for the well-being of a network of tribes who were, as Samoset relayed it, “ill affected towards the English, by reason of one Hunt, a wretched man that cares not what mischief he doth for his profit.” That would be Thomas Hunt, the man who abducted 27 Patuxets and Nausets in 1614, including Squanto.

One week after his initial visit, Samoset returned with an advance party for the great sachem himself, and here finally, we meet Squanto “the only native of Patuxet, where we now inhabit, who was one of the 20 captives that by Hunt were carried away and had been in England.”

He'd spent the months since Epanow’s attack on Dermer as a prisoner, first of Epanow, and then of Massasoit, who didn’t trust him but did see that he might be useful. Squanto made a good impression on both sides that day in March by acting as go-between in the monumental interaction that ensued – the Pilgrims and Pokanokets exchanging hostages and laying down weapons in order to ensure a peaceful meeting, and, in that meeting, working out a treaty that lasted a half century, until long after the primary signatories were dead.

At this point, Samoset largely disappears from the narrative, perhaps returns home to Maine, and Squanto begins the work we recognize him for to this day, in every elementary school Thanksgiving pageant from here to eternity.

Here’s an instructive excerpt from History Stories for Primary Grades, 1927, the chapter called Squanto, The Corn Planter.

“Squanto was an Indian. He taught the white people how to plant corn. Squanto could speak some words of English, for he had once been carried on a white man’s ship to England.”

Pause… Interesting word choice there 1927. Resume…

“Squanto liked the white man and came to live with them. He showed the white men how to dig up the ground and how far apart to make the hills. Then he showed them how to drop in the grains of corn and how deep to cover them with earth. But before Squanto covered the hills of corn he did a curious thing. What do you suppose he did? He caught a fish and put it into a hill of corn. The Indians often used fish in this way to make their corn grow. Do not forget Squanto the corn-planter.”

And we haven’t forgotten Squanto the corn-planter. We’ve just remembered him at the expense of the actual Squanto and at the expense of the other natives who played an important part in creating diplomatic relations between settlers and tribes.

Squanto wasn’t the first Native American the Pilgrims met. And he wasn’t the one who held their fate in his hands. Squanto wasn’t even the longest tenured interpreter for the Pilgrims, and as we’ll see he wasn’t necessarily the most loyal. That would be Hobbamock, a pneise or elite warrior serving under Massasoit who lived near Plymouth for years and who is the focus of the Wampanoag village you can visit today at the living museum Plimoth Plantation.

So I guess my question is… why Squanto? Why is Squanto the standard bearer not just for the peaceful coexistence between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags, but between all Native Americans and non native Americans?

Perhaps it’s because he most embodies the lesson we want to draw out of this story – he was, as we imagine him, selfless and giving pretty much to a fault, very much like the mythic version of Pocahontas we examined last episode. Together with Pocahontas and Sacagawea, the navigator for Lewis and Clark, Squanto is a member of a holy trinity of helpfulness. You’re taught from a very early age to idolize their race-blind generosity, and then, as you learn more (if you learn more) this idolatry is complicated by questions of perspective – who gets to tell their story and who doesn’t – and context – helping white colonists and explorers has pretty much never been a net positive for anyone other than white colonists and explorers.

PAULA PETERS: Oh, it’s really really whitewashed. Me from my journalism background, I looked at this story and I felt like wow we really buried the lede here. Because if everyone knew that prior to the Mayflower arriving and prior to Plymouth colony becoming Plymouth Colony that it was actually Patuxet, that it was actually Squanto’s home, that Squanto’s people all died from a plague that also came over on boats similar to the boats that kidnapped him and took him away, there’d be a whole nother spin on the story. And it’s important to get that backstory now because people are refocusing on that critical date of 1620, and while they’re looking at that we want to make sure that people do get a chance to look back. And where we’re looking at the life of Squanto, which was albeit pretty brief after the Mayflower arrived and the colonists came here, he was more loyal to the colonists then he was to Massosoit and the Wampanoag and the people of Pokanoket.

Which can create a complex phenomenon when it comes to Native American history: the icons that non-Natives, myself included, want to talk about most are the ones who stepped in to help white people. This is the big idea I wanted to run by Paula Peters after we’d done a lap around the “Our” Story exhibit – I wondered, when it came to figures like Pocahontas and Squanto (both nicknames by the way) whether there will always be a sort of eyeroll there when these two are the only two names that come up, like “Ugh, these two again,” or whether perspectives on them were changing and evolving over time.

PAULA PETERS: You know I think there is a new direction, at least from a scholarly perspective, I know that scholars on indigenous history are really refocused on this and really are making a true effort to tell the story in balance. That’s gotta filter its way down to grade schools and third grade is typically the time you would learn about the Pilgrims arriving and the first Thanksgiving be that as it may and I rather doubt that they’re going to delve too deeply into that critical backstory as I put it of the slaves and being taken and the kidnappings and the disease and all of that. They should be, but I’m going to be really surprised if that enters into the 3rd curriculum. Here in New England and particularly in Plymouth and on the Cape and where there are tribal communities it I different. We do get an opportunity to get in front of those kids, but that’s a small percentage of kids across America that are actually getting that story and I think that that’s something that needs to be updated but it’ll take time.

Paula isn’t just going to twiddle her thumbs waiting until that time comes; she’s taking her show on the road, putting her people’s story in accessible places around the state of Massachusetts. The entire exhibit moves to a new location every month. As Paula and I talk, her son Steve is dodging the family dog Mindy (stop it Mindy clip) as he packs up some of the smaller parts of the exhibit – tomorrow the whole thing is taking a ferry trip across Nantucket Sound to it’s next destination, Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard.

PAULA PETERS: You really are able to reach so many people that way and it’s just an opportunity because it’s so portable, we have that opportunity to bring it around to other places and get it in front of people wherever it goes, it’s gonna have way more eyes upon it so I’m really glad we decided to do that and not just install it one place where it would get stale…

CHARLES: Somewhere in Plymouth where it would get crowded out by all the other stuff

PAULA PETERS: Yeah and this way it just never gets stale wherever it goes, it’s like wow this is really cool, where’d this come from.

CHARLES: What do you hope people will take away from this is they were to come and see it.

PAULA PETERS: Well I really hope that they take away the balance of the story, that they hear the other side, they hear the voice of the indigenous people and that therein the lies the balance. Because for so many generations of Americans especially the story that’s taught is really taught from one perspective

Part 3: Balance

As part of giving Squanto back his voice and the agency to make and stand by his own choices (good and bad), I’m going to do something that’s going to seem antithetical to restoring balance at first. I’m going to tell you a story that’s going to make you not like Squanto very much. You may never see him the same way again.

In March of 1622, about a year after Squanto had moved in with the Pilgrims – his old bedroom in his old house, but with a new family living there basically – Captain Miles Standish, Plymouth’s military leader, was heading up north on a trading mission with the Massachusetts tribe. Along with a small crew, he was bringing the colony’s two translators, Squanto and Hobbamock.

Hobbamock had come into the picture a few months back, on loan from Massasoit as a direct representative of his Pokanoket tribe, unlike Squanto who acted as an arbiter between the Pokanokets and Pilgrims. Hobbamock and Squanto didn’t always dislike each other – not long after they became work buddies, they were both captured by a rival sachem, Corbitant, who hoped to rile up the English by taking their translators. Hobbamock escaped and helped the Pilgrims find and rescue Squanto.

But over time, jealousy and resentment had grown between the two. Captain Standish and the Governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, had noticed this and intentionally played on it, Standish working with Hobbamock and Bradford working with Squanto.

As it turns out, Hobbamock was right to be mistrustful of Squanto. Just after Standish left Plymouth with the two feuding guides, the colonists back in Plymouth got a surprise visitor, panting and covered in blood.

“They had not been gone long when an Indian belonging to Squanto’s family came running in seeming great fear and told them that many of the Naragansetts, with Corbitant and he thought also Massasoit, were coming against them; and he had got away to tell them, not without danger. And being examined by the Governor, he made as if they were at hand and would still be looking back. But no Indians appeared; watch was kept all night, but nothing was seen. Hobbamock was confident for Massasoit and thought all was false…”

And indeed, all was false. Squanto had tried to sow fear and start a hasty battle.

They began to see that Squanto sought his own ends and played his own game by putting the Indians in fear and draw gifts from them to enrich himself; making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would. Yea, he made them believe they kept the plague buried in the ground and could send it amongst whom they would, which did much to terrify the Indians and made them depend more on him then to Massasoit.”

So, to make this all clear, not only did Squanto attempt to incite a war between the Pilgrims and Massasoit by having a family member pretend the treaty had or would be broken any moment, it was also revealed that Squanto had been using the threat of underground plague barrels to keep the still traumatized natives in thrall to his power. Basically, If Squanto said the right words in the English language that his fellow natives didn’t understand, the Pilgrims would unleash plague on them.

This from the guy who had returned to his home in 1619 and found it wiped out by plague…

This isn’t some hidden, secret piece of history that’s only recently gained traction – it’s right there in Governor William Bradford’s first-person account. But, even though it happens in the year of Squanto’s life when we actually know and care about him historically, I never heard about this incident until I began researching this episode. Why on earth is that?

PAULA PETERS: I think that for the same reason that Thanksgiving has become a hallmark holiday, Squanto has been like their icon. And history doesn’t like you to bash their icons. And it was a much cleaner story to just say that Squanto was this great guy, he was this friendly Indian who came and taught us how to fish in this land, and to plant corn and to put fish in the mounds and all that crazy stuff, and then we had this great harvest feast and everyone sang Kumbaya and happy day. That is a much cleaner version of the story that America loved to hear for generations and generations

 

Why would the gatekeepers of Thanksgiving traditions be so protective of Squanto’s legacy? For the same reason that Samoset and Hobbamock both get folded into the Patuxet translator named Tisquantum, creating this one pseudo-fictitious figure named Squanto. I’m not suggesting this is some grand conspiracy lorded over by third grade teachers and Mayflower Societies; this is part of a process that’s ingrained in us, for better AND worse, of identifying history’s heroes and villains and organizing most of history’s lessons to align with the deeds that match their designation. Good deeds to the heroes. Bad ones to the villains.

Squanto is one of history’s heroes – we use him to teach our children about the giving spirit, about sharing resources and knowledge. And he was certainly capable of those things, but he was more complicated than that. The legacy he left behind was more complicated than that.

He was a fully flawed human being with selfish desires all his own. He didn’t take the loss of his tribe lying down. He had a plan and Massasoit and the Pilgrims had their parts to play in it.

His power play drove a wedge between the Pilgrims and Massasoit – one that continued even after Squanto died from, as you probably could have guessed, disease later in 1622, a wedge that almost resulted in the very battle that Squanto had been trying to instigate in the first place. Massasoit had demanded Squanto’s head upon learning of his deception, and Governor Bradford, after much deliberation, had refused, letting Squanto live out the rest of his days with him in Plymouth.

Maybe that gives you the warm fuzzies – Bradford having grown so close to the Patuxet man who lived among his people that he refused to have him killed – but, okay, investigate for just a second why that is. Bradford, as we’ll see over the next few episodes, is another one of history’s heroes, the other Thanksgiving figurehead, and any hint of cross-cultural cooperation between him and Squanto, any inkling they were bros, has an innate power.

When it comes to Squanto and Bradford, or Squanto and Thomas Dermer, or Massasoit and Bradford, we have to tread carefully. It’s important not to automatically read unlikely alliances as burgeoning friendships or as lack of prejudice. Maybe the ice broke, and these men did share an uncommon bond, but it’s more likely that they were willing to put aside their differences to work towards something mutually beneficial. These men saw value in each other. In a dangerous world where more explorers and settlers died then didn’t (R.I.P Dermer), and where natives were abducted by slavers, there was something to be said for protection and interpretation. It’s practical, but it doesn’t make for a particularly heartwarming Thanksgiving pageant.

Which brings us back full circle to Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale, “the kind of superficial, tidied-up, idealized history that might appeal to younger viewers,” as Roger Ebert called it. How does it stack the deck against Squanto and Epanow; how does it promise agency while never really granting it? It comes down to the same problem that dooms Disney’s Pocahontas – it confuses not being a slaver for wokeness, and complexity with villainy.

Bradford and poor doomed Thomas Dermer spend the film saying the same thing John Smith will say in Pocahontas. Doggedly, they beat the drum for understanding in an age that will have none of it.

The slaver Thomas Hunt and his crew and their financier Sir Ferdinando Gorges (here called Sir George) are grotesques. They take glee in their overt provocations, delight in their over-the-top hatred.

It’s so easy to sort the good Europeans from the bad Europeans, you could do it just based on screenshots. But Gorges, for example, wasn’t a preening buffoon – he was a respected and influential businessman whose misguided optimism led him to believe that the best way to form a stable trading partnership with the people in America was to bring some of them to him and train them as salesmen. He was wrong, but in a human way that’s miles from actor Michael Gambon’s shrill campy performance.

I want you to imagine an old-timey scale, like the one Lady Justice holds. We put history’s big names on this scale when we tell a story. On one side of the scale we put the heroes, on the other side, the villains. Bradford is a saint; Ferdinando Gorges is a sinner; Thomas Dermer is an angel; Thomas Hunt is a monster.

And Squanto is pure, noble, and docile… scrubbed of all his own aspirations and given the aspirations we need him to have – a Native who wants us here so much he’ll help us, a placid dude who speaks on behalf of the land and says “No worries bro, we can all share.”

We call this balance because we’ve placed everyone precisely where they need to go to keep the scales from tipping, turning history into a mess of contradictions and betrayals. But it is a mess of contradictions and betrayals. Squanto is a lot closer to the center of the scale then you might think – he is a man who lost his tribe to plague and learned to use that horror as a threat that helped him stay relevant. There should be a lot of people crowded around the middle of the scale, making some bad choices and some good choices. Taking wrong turns and right turns. There will always be outliers; Thomas Hunt can stay way out there on the end, that’s fine.

But here’s the thing about stripping our heroes and our villains of their heroism and villainy and putting them back in the middle, understood for who they were and not who we want them to be. If pretty much everyone’s hanging around the middle of the scale, that’s balance too. A much more stable balance.

Epilogue: Plymouth

On the way back to Boston from Mashpee, I stop at the Plymouth waterfront, because it’s pretty much on the way and this is the right place to think about Squanto, even if there’s nothing here officially commemorating him. It’s an area lousy with commemorations, most installed about 100 years ago, in preparation for the tricentennial in 1920, which did more to shape the waterfront then anyone had done possibly since 1620. And I mean shape it. This waterfront wouldn’t just be unrecognizable to Squanto and Samuel de Champlain; it would also be unrecognizable to Dermer and Bradford and to someone who lived in Plymouth in 1915. They gutted this place, spent years tearing down the waterfront shantytown and warehouse district, and building a grand esplanade that’s crowded with memorials.

There’s Plymouth Rock, squat and unimpressive at first glance – we’ll get to why there’s more there than meets the eye there in a future episode – and there’s an ornate casket for the presumed remains of the Pilgrims who died during that first terrible winter who were secreted away to Cole’s Hill. There’s a waterfront statue of Governor William Bradford, in buckled hat and buckled shoes, staring resolutely inland at what he will create; and looking down at him benevolently from atop Cole’s Hill is Massasoit, holding a peace pipe as he watches the Englishmen arrive in their new home. The two sculptures are a set, both works of the prolific Cyrus E Dallin. Search for “Squanto statue” online and you’ll see image after image of this giant Massasoit. Because of course the two have been conflated.

One memorial is missing from this tableau, the biggest one; she’s not here right now, she’s over in Mystic getting a makeover so she’s ready for her big day in 2020. She’s not the original, but she’s built like the original as close as we can guess and as it turns out, it’s not easy to maintain a seaworthy 17th century sailing vessel. But sail she must – it wouldn’t be the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing without a Mayflower. More on that, next time on Iconography.

 

Iconography is written and produced by me, Charles Gustine, with script editing from Carol Zall. Clemente Cuevas sat down with me for a jam session in Montreal and gave you all those rumbling upright bass notes.

Our guest this episode was Sonk Waban, Paula Peters, whose exhibit “Our” History is currently in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard. Thanks to her son Steve and to Brian Logan, Communications Manager of Plymouth 400. You can learn more about Plymouth 400 at Plymouth400inc.org

Hopefully this episode has gotten you curious about what Plymouth 400 is doing, and you’ll plan a visit. You’ve got two years so like, no rush. In the meantime, help me out and keep the conversation about Squanto going. I need you to consider: Isn’t it Iconic... Donthca Think?

Office hours are open on Twitter @iconographypod, on the Facebook page facebook.com/iconographypodcast, and on the website where you can find show notes and a transcript of the episode. That’s at iconographypodcast.squarespace.com.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, you can help the podcast in two ways – one is get the word out. Tell your people about the show. Slip it in to the conversation where you mention you should go to Plymouth 400 together.

The other thing is to rate and review the podcast on whatever podcatcher you use. Those recommendations help people find the show and help grow our Iconographer community.

To show I’m no hypocrite, here’s a recommendation for you - Iconography is a proud member of Hub & Spoke, a Boston-centric collective of smart, idea-driven podcasts. You can check all of them out at hubspokeaudio.org.

But especially check out the recent episode on cannibalism from Ministry of Ideas, a podcast about the ideas that shape our world. The mere mention of cannibalism has been used to otherize indigenous populations since the age of exploration began – but as you might guess, the real story isn’t as straightforward as it might first seem. Check the “Consumed” episode out at minstryofideas.org or anywhere fine podcasts are available.