Native Americans get the chance to tell their side of the Pilgrim story

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Carol Hills: It’s not well-known that before African slavery came to America, there was another slave trade. The victims were Native Americans. A new exhibition opens today in Plymouth, Massachusetts, highlighting this other slave trade. It centers on the story of one man in particular: Squanto. He’s now better known for his role in the Thanksgiving legend. The World’s one man history desk, Chris Woolf, has been digging into the story of Squanto. Chris, who was he?


Christopher Woolf: He was a Native American guy from what’s now Plymouth, Massachusetts. He was fluent in English, so acted as an interpreter and a guide for the pilgrims when they arrived. He taught them how to plant corn, where to catch the best fish, and helped negotiate a treaty with the local Wampanoag Native American confederation. In the words of governor Bradford from Plymouth colony, he was a special instrument sent by God for their benefit, something way beyond their expectations, he said.


Hills: So, how did Squanto come to learn English so well?


Woolf: That’s the point of the exhibit that’s on in Plymouth now. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery about six years before the pilgrims came. It’s not a pleasant story. He and a couple dozen other guys were just literally tricked onto ships and taken away and sent to Spain to be sold off. The modern Wampanoag Native Americans feel it’s very important to get this side of the story across. They controlled the entire production process for this exhibit, so they feel that it’s very authentic. The executive producer is Paula Jones, and she told me why it’s so important for Native Americans to be able to give their perspective.


Paula Jones: It is etched in my memory, being in the second grade and the teacher was talking about Thanksgiving and how there were these wonderful Indians that helped the pilgrims. She talked in glowing terms about the friendship and how they helped the pilgrims to survive. “But sadly,” she said, “They’ve all died and gone away.” I remember frantically waving my hand and saying “No, that’s not true. I’m still here.” The teacher basically just patted me on the head and said “How sweet.” We’ve come such an incredibly long way from there.


Hills: We certainly have. But you know what? I have to confess that I didn’t even know really about the slave trade and Native Americans that involved Squanto and others until several years ago. What was that about?


Woolf: That’s another part of the myth about the pilgrims being the first white Europeans to arrive in this part of the world. They weren’t. Of course, Europeans had been coming to trade for fish and for furs and for slaves for over a hundred years before the pilgrims arrived, and that was part of that.


Hills: So, Squanto obviously got back to New England, because he was there to help the pilgrims. How did he get back?


Woolf: He basically ended up falling in with an English trader who had used him as a guide an interpreter on several voyages to different parts of North America before he finally came back for a trip to Massachusetts, which is when he got his opportunity to escape.


Hills: He had such a bad experience with Europeans, being abducted and headed for slavery. Why did he help the pilgrims?


Woolf: Sadly, when he got back to his village Patuxet, which is now Plymouth, everyone he’d known and been related to was dead. A plague had come through, probably some European disease that Native Americans had no immunity to, and there was nobody left. So, he ended up becoming kind of like a servant in another Native American group. It was then, when the pilgrims arrived, that he had value as an interpreter. So, being friendly with the pilgrims gave him security in a very dangerous world.


Hills: The World’s history guy, Chris Woolf. Thanks so much.


Woolf: You’re welcome.