December 10, 2011

Thanksgiving in This Is America, Charlie Brown

Recently I watched The Mayflower Voyagers, the first episode of This Is America, Charlie Brown. Here's the scoop on the series:

This is America, Charlie BrownThis is America, Charlie Brown was an eight-part animated TV mini-series, depicting events in American history with characters from the Charles M. Schulz comic strip Peanuts. It aired from 1988 to 1989 on CBS. These eight episodes, originally released singly on videocassette, were released in a 2-DVD collector's set on June 13, 2006 by Paramount Pictures. However, the DVD set went out of print once Warner Bros. bought all rights to the Peanuts TV specials. No announcement as to if and when the DVD set will be reissued has been made.

Traditionally, these episodes have not been rerun on television, but one episode, "The Mayflower Voyagers," was paired with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (with which it was released on DVD) in 2008 by ABC, in order to fill the remaining half-hour once filled by He's a Bully, Charlie Brown. However, the special was edited to make room for Dancing with the Stars. It was again paired with the Thanksgiving special when it was broadcast on Thanksgiving Day 2010 and 2011.
Naturally, I was curious how a Peanuts special would handle Indians and the Thanksgiving theme. Answer: Not too badly. The half-hour show could've been better, but it could've been worse.

Boarding and voyage

The first third tells of the colonists (including the Peanuts gang) boarding the Mayflower and crossing the ocean.

It begins with a few red-flag phrases:

  • "Columbus discovered America"
  • "Seeking religious freedom"
  • "Virtual wilderness"

  • The problems with the first and third phrases are obvious, but the second phrase deserves some explanation.

    The show correctly notes that not all the voyagers were Pilgrims. Some, called Strangers, were seeking their fortune in the "New World." Some were indentured servants. But the latter groups aren't mentioned again. As usual, it's all about the Pilgrims.

    The Pilgrims were seeking "religious freedom" to practice their brand of Christian absolutism. The Church of England had persecuted them because of their fanaticism--the kind that led Oliver Cromwell to behead people.

    The Pilgrims didn't tolerate other religions and neither did the Church, so the Pilgrims had to flee. It would be more correct to say they sought a place where they could rule, since they didn't believe in religious freedom for all.


    The second third tells of the colonists arriving and trying to "settle" the land.

    At Plymouth, they found "the land cleared by Indians, though no Indians were in sight." Wow...a lot of history hides behind that statement.

    Remember how the show previously said America was a "virtual wilderness"? As soon as the colonists stopped, they found land already cleared and farmed by Indians. How does that square with the "untamed" myth? Answer: It doesn't.

    Since the colonists didn't find any Indians there, they could've concluded the land was free for the taking. Or they could've concluded 1) Indians had owned and occupied the land before, and 2) they still might have claims on it. Obviously the colonists went with the self-serving first conclusion.

    The show acts as if the colonists were mystified by the vacant land. Actually, I believe they found and dug up Indian graves and robbed took items from them. So they knew they were settling on an Indian village decimated by disease.

    Indeed, they knew or should've known the history of the region. In particular, that the English had been sailing along the coast, trying to establish colonies, hunting and fishing, spreading disease, and in some cases, enslaving Indians. These intrusive actions had been going on for years.

    With all that happening, the Indian village wasn't deserted for no reason. The English were beginning their incursions and the Indians were understandably wary. Again, the colonists might've thought of this before occupying the "empty" land.

    The first winter

    Unavoidably, the show deals with the harsh first winter. Since it's a children's show, it soft-pedals the resulting deaths. It talks of the "sick and dying," and "losing one or two people a day," but focuses on the Peanuts gang's efforts to tend the patients and keep the colony going. Graves are shown only briefly, in the distance.

    The narration says, "By the end of February, two and a half months after landing, no Indians have been seen." And, "Half of the original 102 passengers have died. Only 20 adults and 30 children have survived."

    In March, Samoset the Wampanoag Indian arrives. Among his positive traits, he's not carrying any weapons. He isn't half-naked; he's wearing buckskins. His skin is a slightly darker shade of beige, not reddish. He's wearing an appropriate headdress, not a Plains feather bonnet.

    The only real problem is his big hooked nose. True, the other adults also have big noses, but without the prominent bumps. This seems a bit stereotypical to me.

    Samoset says, "My people welcome you to the land." And, "This is land of Patuxet. They cleared it. All dead. Terrible plague."

    Samoset brings Squanto, who tells his story in fluent English. He explains how the English captured him, took him to England, and taught him the language before he escaped and returned.

    Unlike Samoset, unfortunately, Squanto is a half-naked brave. There's no snow on the ground, but it's still March in New England. I'm not sure, but I'm guessing most Indians wore shirts during the freezing winters.

    Teaching the colonists

    In the show's final third, the Indians help the colonists survive.

    "Throughout March and April, Squanto teaches the heritage of his fathers." Specifically, he teaches the Peanuts gang how to plant maize. This begins the show's best sequence.

    First Squanto says they must catch fish called alewives, which perplexes the gang. He tells them to plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a mouse's ear. They should dig the earth into six-foot squares. Form small hills of earth with 2-3 seeds in each. And place the fish around the seeds. "We call this food for the plants. It makes the soil better."

    It's nice that the show devotes several minutes to this agriculture lesson. It demonstrates that the Indians really knew what they were doing, and the colonists didn't. The colonists might as well have been attempting nuclear physics. They would've died long before they discovered how to use fish as fertilizer.

    Squanto introduces Massasoit, the sachem "who ruled the Indians of the region," to the colonists. Unlike Samoset and Squanto, he's short and squat. He has streaks of paint on his face--because chiefs wear warpaint when they're seeking peace, right? We can't tell if he's wearing a headdress or has scraggly strands of hair sticking up from his head. In short, he looks like an ugly cartoon chief.

    Anyway, the narration says the two parties "signed a treaty of friendship and mutual assistance. A treaty that will last for over half a century."

    That statement omits a lot. While the Wampanoag treaty did last that long, the Englishmen continued to encroach on Indian lands. They pitted tribe against tribe and fought or massacred anyone who opposed them.

    So the treaty was far from the era's most notable achievement. Touting it is akin to covering up what really happened. It's like touting the Treaty of Versailles without mentioning World War II.

    Summer and fall

    Six months pass. In September and October, the land produces "the most bountiful harvest the Pilgrims had ever seen. Chief Massasoit brings 90 of his Indian tribe to join the Pilgrims for a feast of thanksgiving."

    One woman is visible among the dozen or so Indians shown. I don't think any Wampanoag women attended. All the Indians are carrying food. The Pilgrims are seated at a table with more food on it, waiting. The food includes a turkey, which probably wasn't part of the meal.

    This is a reasonably good rendition of the feast. The Indians did most of the food gathering and preparation. Outnumbered and weakened by disease, the colonists wait passively to be fed. Although the narrative doesn't say it, it seems the Indians are the driving force behind the feast.

    At the feast, the colonists offer a moment of silence for the departed. Then someone says, "Thank you for giving us Samoset and Squanto, and the great chief Massasoit. And thank you, Chief, for our treaty of friendship. And we wish you many years of good health."

    Despite my criticism of the flaws, the main points here are positive. The Wampanoag Indians are mostly portrayed realistically rather than stereotypically. The farming lesson conveys that the Indians are equal to the Englishmen, if not superior. The Indians are featured at the feast itself; it's not a Pilgrims-first event with the Indians in the background.

    As a children's special, the The Mayflower Voyagers can't go too deeply into the death and destruction. From what I can tell, though, the history is reasonably accurate. While the show ignores some key points, it doesn't fawn over the Pilgrims at the Indians' expense.

    If I were grading it, I'd give it a B. With a few changes, it could earn an A or A-.

    For more on Thanksgiving, see Addams Family Values Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving Dinner in Suburgatory.

    P.S. Judging by the credits, the show didn't use any Indians as voice actors. Give it a demerit for that.

    Below:  Watch the Native portion and judge for yourself.


    Anonymous said...

    The still before I even clicked said enough.

    Yeah, "religious freedom" is an interesting case. Is this like the freedom to be a fascist?

    Anonymous said...

    Don't pick on Charlie Brown, just stop electing him as President.