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Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Native American scholars Darius Coombs and Bob Charlesbois
Bob Charlesbois: You know there’s not a whole lot known about Massasoit. There are bits and pieces that are written about him. Massasoit was a revered leader amongst the Wampanoag people, obviously he was because he could summon the loyalty of so many communities around him. He was a very well loved Sachem and it wasn’t based on fear, it was based on love, so we know that about him. Whether or not he was inclined to peace, I’m not sure about that you know. He was inclined to do the best thing for his people at the time which would have secured their peace and their well being.
Darius Coombs: You hear about Massasoit being a great leader, a great Sachem, a great chief. As far as we know, he was only the leader of one community and that was Pokanoket which was located on the border of the Narragansett people and as Bob was saying, the Narragansett after the plague had happened decided to have Mamoosa attack Massasoit’s community and start taking over. So he was smart enough to come out here in the Spring of 1621 to Plymouth colony and make a war alliance. I wouldn’t even call it a peace alliance it was more or less like a war alliance with the colonists so they had that alliance going on to help fight off the Narragansett people.
Paul Ingles: So he started to observe this Plymouth community from the outskirts.
Coombs: There are signs that Massasoit knew about the people being out here but the first time there was a native person going into the pilgrim village was in March of 1621. Actually a chief went into the village. It wasn’t a Wampanoag chief it was a chief from up in Maine. His name was Samoset. He came down earlier with a trade ship and was let loose pretty much and he was in Massasoit’s community. His name was Samoset and Massasoit being a smart man, he wasn’t dumb said Samoset, you’re leader, you’re a sachem, and you’re a chief, you know how to speak English, you’ve dealt with these people before, why don’t you go into the village and see what’s going on and Samoset walked into Plymouth colony in March of 1621 with just a brief cloth on and he told them what had happened, the plague that had come through here, asked them why they were here, they told him, they sat him down, they fed him, they gave him something to drink and then he told them well I’m not from here but I’m going to bring you a leader who is familiar with this area who is from here and that’s when he ran back and told Massasoit all right, it was all right to come along and that’s when he brought himself and 60 of his men.
Ingles: But this was after a brutal Winter for these colonists. They lost a lot of people. I understand something like 15 of 19 women died?
Charlesbois: The numbers that we have indicate that half of them perished. From the original 102 it was exactly 51 that were left.
Ingles: And so the fact that they were in a weakened position and the fact that they had women and children, this all embolden Massasoit not to see them as a threat and to encourage this encounter?
Charlesbois: I guess you could surmise that but he also was looking for closure, actually for an out in his situation with the Narragansett’s. That was an overwhelming factor I think. He wanted to protect his people from being hegemonized if you will by the Narragansett’s by usurping his power and not only his power but the safety of his people. As it turned out it wasn’t a rosy, happy situation in which everybody sat around as we mention nowadays and ate turkey or whatever. This was a business agreement and the colonists felt they needed protection. They were in the new world, what they called the new world and they were in a foreign place, they didn’t know what to make of these people and they needed security as did the Pokanoket Wampanoag’s from the Narragansett’s.
Coombs: I stress war treaty because it really wasn’t a peace treaty. You’re talking about two different people totally, one thinking one side and the other thinking another you know? Friendship is even a strong word to use back then. You didn’t hear that a lot. Language was different, cultures were different, it was hard enough to understand each other than be friends but that’s when the very first treaty was established and the biggest – you’ve got the six points and another point was leave your bows and arrows outside the village and if you come to a native place you leave your muskets outside but the main point of the treaty was if you go to war I will help you out and if I go to war you help me out. Aside from that, we’re going to keep separate lives.
Ingles: So one writer I read about this offered the opinion that seems similar to what you gentlemen are saying that the two groups came together not because they necessarily valued peace or respect for each other that much as a concept but because they saw cooperation as the only way to cater to their respective self-serving advantages.
Coombs: Yeah, it was fortunate for them in 1621 when they did but they didn’t need an ally because of what the traders had done prior and Massasoit needed an ally because of the disease that happened. He did not want the Narragansett taking over his area nor did the colonists want other people attacking them.
Ingles: Let me ask you Bob Charlesbois, so in the years to follow, how did the settlers aid Massasoit against enemies and how did Massasoit aid the settlers against other more hostile forces? Were there incidences where the treaty was actually put into practice?
Charlesbois: There were a few and it was evident in those instances that occurred that the might of the English was shown. Massasoit was correct. Those weapons were a very powerful tool to those unacquainted with them. That would have been the native people here. What eventually happened was that the English showed their military might and killed and wounded a number of people in one of the villages that was opposed to the treaty and so forth and they extracted not only the acknowledgement of their might but also extracted an oath of fealty to the King of England.
Ingles: So Darius called it a war treaty. Many characterizations of it have focused on it as a peace document. What do you think, if anything is remarkable about the conditions that were negotiated between these two communities?
Charlesbois: You know the six very basic points, the fact remains as with all things and matters political or diplomatic or something, you operate from, it’s almost like a card game, you’re operating from your strength. I should say a chess game rather. You’re strength versus strength and I think Massasoit felt that his liaison with the English or his relationship to the English would have guaranteed the security of his people. I think that the English themselves or the common English person probably felt the same. This was an event that would allow the English to show the might of musketries of the archivists and so forth and how it could influence people.
Ingles: Did the negotiation of these points though lead to anything that wouldn’t have happened otherwise like integration of the cultures in any way or learning from each other, acceptance of each other that might not have happened if it hadn’t been manufactured?
Coombs: I would have to say no because you’re talking about two totally different cultures. If anything at all, this treaty was just more or less like a war treaty and when you have treaties like that you don’t really have to be friens with the people. It’s a business agreement basically and that’s what it was.
Charlesbois: They were in a situation where they needed native allies, they needed some protect from basically the unknown. They had no idea what awaited them out there and that would have been the driving force to that alliance. Massasoit, to be honest with you, he was, number one, he was a revered chief. He was a person in a bind. He was in a bind more than the pilgrims were in a bind actually and as it turned out they were ascendant in the whole deal. They became the Massachusetts Bay Colony when coupled up together with the purity fathers up in Boston and so forth.
Ingles: Right well their numbers swelled from 300 to 20,000 with the condition of those colonies and the power balance started to change. The British weren’t as interested in keeping any peace or even entering into a war alliance.
Charlesbois: No. It was a moot point. It had outlived its purpose and had far outlived its purpose and as such they didn’t need the Wampanoag and later colonists didn’t have any loyalty or feeling of gratitude to any native people and that’s I think sort of the lead up to King Phillips war. You know?
Coombs: Yeah, you’ve got the first generation pretty much on both sides in a way that pretty much tolerated each other, tolerated would probably be a good word to use back then but you had the second generation on both sides that really couldn’t stand each other. More and more people coming over, more and more people taking up land, the bottom line, two different ways of thinking about it. One side believed in ownership of land and the other side didn’t and once you have that big difference in the way of thinking eventually you’re going to have war and that’s what basically happened in 1676 or 1675 I should say.
Ingles: What feels like the take home message to learn from considering this particular story in terms of peace making philosophy? What do you think is helpful to advance through history from this moment in time that could inform people who care about peacemaking?
Charlesbois: Well personally I don’t think we should abandon the effort to make peace in the world. I think it’s important. I think I’d have to hang up my cleats so to speak if I felt that way about it but I think this is just another example of how wars are in modern times and probably from the time since humans were waging war, when they were throwing sticks and stones at each other. They’ve always had their interest at heart. I think we have to rise above that though. I think human beings have to rise above that. There has to be a tradeoff somewhere. If we really want peace then we’ve got to make a concerted effort to sit down as the Iroquois would say, under the tree of peace and we’d talk. What we’re doing right now is very important. The dialogue is all important, the realistic dialogue and laying everything out on the table. I think that’s more important than anything. Shows like this for instance I think are essential to understanding and telling the truth. And what’s so bad about the truth? I think we shouldn’t be afraid of the truth. I think we should bring it out and we can go from there. We can work on it. You know?
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with film director Chris Eyre about his work on the
Paul Ingles: I saw on the website that historians have only been able to find about two lines of a reference even to the first Thanksgiving.
Chris Eyre: Isn’t that incredible?
Ingles: How did you manage to shape your depiction of the event from that?
Eyre: Well we took the two lines and basically said okay, out of this we can extrapolate that there were indigenous foods, beans and rice and wild turkey, probably some deer. And there was a menu made through our historians and production and then we just started to build from what state was the settlement in (at that time). You know you think okay, did they sit down? Did some of them sit down? Do they stand around? What’s the mood? Did the settlers try and formalize the situation? Is it you know real casual? Are they laughing? Are they interacting? Are the Indians offering their indigenous food? We came up with working with the actors and just kind of playing around with different ideas.
Ingles: In your depiction of the Thanksgiving it seems like anyone, Anglo or Native, who would be watching that imagining and sharing a wish that the goodness and the sharing had lasted in our history although it certainly did not. Was the hope at that moment a goal for you to depict finally and particularly because you just watched it again recently?
Eyre: Yeah, absolutely. I mean that’s my thinking exactly. I mean when they come and shake hands and then they start to eat, you’re hoping that this is all going to be well and good and so I think that’s where you start to know that wait a minute, this can’t last and that’s where the drama lies.
Ingles: In your documentary, historian Jenny Hale Pulsifer interpreted Massasoit’s outreach to the pilgrims as saying we’re the same people now. Plimoth Plantation native historian Darius Coombs, whom we spoke with earlier might disagree with that saying how different the cultures were, how they would never be the same people. He said, at best, they tolerated each other. Chris Eyre, without a written record of Massasoit’s thinking, are we sort of destined to see it through either the hopeful or skeptical filter of a particular historian do you think?
Eyre: I hope not. That’s my greatest hope is that we embrace the gray areas in our history in that we don’t demonize what we don’t understand or believe in and that at the same time we aren’t so blind that we just see only what we see and exalt that too. Like I said, we shall remain – not to get off the Mayflower with Massasoit but you know in the case of Wes Studi’s character in the Cherokee movie he had always been taught that the character of Major Ridge was the villain to Cherokee people and Wes commented to me that he appreciated playing this character that was supposedly a villain because he never thinks of his characters as bad. He always plays them as good and that goes for his role in Last of the Mohicans which was Magua who was this complete terror in Last of the Mohicans and I think that it’s the same with Massasoit. It’s the same with King Phillip. It’s the same with the settlers. I mean the settlers I’m sitting there watching the series last night when the ships are coming across the ocean and they land at Plymouth and people get out, they’re not thinking hey, we’d like to kill people. I mean it’s not that black and white. They’re thinking they’d like a better life than what they left and I always think to myself you know I don’t know what the component is that turns it into crimes of war but it’s just an interesting subject that I hope that we never stop asking the question and pondering what choices we would have made had we been in the same shoes.
Ingles: Well I was going to ask you specifically what did you hope to leave the viewers with in your portrayal of Massasoit? I think you kind of answered it there but can you apply specifically with this particular character, the sort of nuanced approach that sounds like you were trying to apply to all characters in this series.
Eyre: I mean I – what I try and do is apply the rock and the hard place allegory which is whether you’re a farmer in this country or whether you’re an out of work sales person in this country, I try to apply the statement or the idea that it could happen to anyone and that we shouldn’t be so quick with our judgments as to right and wrong. Sometimes there are circumstances. In the case of the Native American conflict - that happened then or that happens now - it’s not driven by evil people I don’t think all the time. It’s driven by misinformation. It’s driven by politics. It’s driven by populous. It’s driven by money. But I don’t think its core is evil people or bad people. I think it’s about people that are segregated and each group of people are trying to exist, trying to live, trying to get ahead. So when I’m portraying Massasoit or I’m portraying pilgrims in this case, if I get into the gray areas with representation of anybody, then I’m happy. If the character comes out black or white, I think that that’s too easy. And so with Massasoit, he was a gentleman who was caught between a rock and a hard place. He had some incredibly difficult decisions to make such as the peace treaty, such as should he have done something to stop people in the very beginning. He was a man who made a lot of choices because of the shoes he was in and I don’t think it’s fair to go back and say he made wrong or right choices. He was somebody who was doing the best he could do given the circumstance and maybe the circumstance didn’t allow for anything else at that time. Who knows.
Ingles: You’ve already disclaimed yourself as not a scholar but I’m curious still about your take on this particular story because of this debate about whether or not it really was a moment of peace to celebrate or reflect on. How do you feel about it as you look back on the 40 years of sustained, tenuous peace that Massasoit was able to, along with certain leaders of the British Colony, maintain?
Eyre: My take is that it’s a tribute to Massasoit’s leadership that there was a 40 year place of peace. I’m think that’s a tribute to his leadership. I mean we came down to this same conflict over and over and over again in the We Shall Remain series. In the case of Massasoit, I mean what was the alternative? That he start killing settlers, I guess. I don’t know what the alternative is you know.
Ingles: For you, after working on this film and for viewers after watching it, what do you think is the value in contemplating these fleeting moments of peace and cooperation - however tentative - or even self serving as some of the historians would say that they might have been?
Eyre: These moments are all pieces of our past as Americans that we need to not forget in order to go forward. I mean when we talk about things like immigration and we talk about the war in Afghanistan and we talk about the Middle East, these are all important growing pains that this country has gone through that we need to better understand and make sure that we continue you know as America in a good way. As the greatest country in the world. And I think that that’s the only way that we can do so is to look at our history and actually own the history that we’ve been a part of which, to this point, we quite haven’t done but these are important lessons that we look at and say hey, we’ve been here before.