One small candle.
Landing on a wild coast. Engraving by Adriaen van de Venne, ca. 1630.
Oral History Unlimited
Second, the film generalizes inappropriately from the two times (George Weymouth in 1605; Thomas Hunt about ten years later) when English explorers kidnapped Indians to take them back to Europe and falsely claims that this was a common occurrence “up and down the coast.” In fact, those two captains were vehemently condemned by other Englishmen, including Bradford and Winslow, who did not want to offend potential trading partners among the Indians.
Finally, fake conversations are added to Winslow’s reports to twist his denial that the Pilgrims robbed graves into an assertion that they did. This claim is reiterated. The film lies outright, in asserting that the Pilgrims robbed Indian graves as a matter of course. On the contrary, when they realized what mounds were Indian graves, they ceased digging in them and did not disturb bodies. Still discovering that such mounds could be burials, Pilgrims did retain a few trinkets from the grave of a European sailor they had opened, but they reburied him with due respect. They chose to avoid entering and desecrating an Indian cemetery. Winslow wrote, “Within it was full of graves, ... yet we digged none of them up , but only viewed them and went our way.” Winslow reported that, exploring a mound for the first time, the Pilgrims dug and found a bow and some broken arrows, “but because we deemed them graves, we put in the bow again and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchres.” As Richard J. Evans writes in “Postmodernism and History,” falsifying documents can involve “not just leaving words out from quotes but even putting extra words in to change the meaning.” In the film, curious Pilgrims dig a mound. One remarks, “Looks for all the world as a grave.” Winslow responds, “Dost thou not think the savages will find it odious of us to ransack their sepulchres?” Another retorts, “The savages are not here!” Glancing around to check, Winslow says, “I hope not.” The film cuts to advertisements, leaving us with an Image of crude, insensitive grave-robbing marrauders. After the long interruption, the narrator recapitulates, telling us that “The Pilgrims have found an unusual earthen mound in an empty Indian village. Despite concerns that it is a grave, they dig.” The actors discover a buried supply of corn. An expert says, “Some of them find corn, and in other mounds they find graves. And instead of just covering them up and walking away very quickly, some of them actually take to looting the graves.” This deliberate contradiction of the documentary evidence discredits the only historical record there is about the Pilgrims’ attitude of respect towards Native burial customs.
An essential anachronism is ignored. The writings of the seventeenth-century are there to be analyzed. The Pilgrims’ words constitute a view of reality from the time of the events, whatever their polemical intent. Native views, on the other hand, are what people have invented in the last thirty-five years or so, in an attempt to imagine what their ancestors should have thought or would have done. People have been making it up. No traditional memory goes back unaltered to the seventeenth century. Instead, twentieth-century recollections refer to what has been passed down recently – perhaps stories told by grandparents or their contemporaries. The people who provided such oral history in the twentieth century were themselves representatives of a tribe that has a longer tradition of literacy than any other in North America, a tribe whose complex interactions with non-Native society are as far away from isolation as can be. The “memories” were inspired by their own or their elder relatives’ reading and reacting not only to the very colonists’ writings they oppose but also to twentieth-century polemics. Representatives of ethnic identity tell about the encounter with colonists the way they’d like it to have been described if there had been any alternative record. A major source of such speculative invention is the Wampanoag Indigenous Program of Plimoth Plantation. The film presents that institution’s view of historical events based on imaginary long-standing aggrieved memory as an equally valid corrective to the self-serving narratives of the Pilgrims. Instead of discussion and analysis of evidence, we see its mangling to conform with modern sentiment.