When French explorer Samuel de Champlain came to America in the early 17th century, tens of thousands of native people already were settled in New England.
It was so populated that the explorer decided to skip New England and alter his route. He eventually founded Quebec.
Centuries later, the American Indian population had dwindled to the point where some tribes were near extinction. Later still, the tribes returned in number with new economic strength.
The story of the nation’s native people is told in the new series “We Shall Remain” on PBS’ “American Experience.”
“After the Mayflower,” the first of the five 90-minute films that covers key moments in American Indian history, up to the siege of Wounded Knee in 1973, premieres Monday. Other episodes on subsequent Mondays include “Tecumseh’s Vision,” “Trail of Tears,” “Geronimo” and “Wounded Knee.”
The series begins in New England with that mythical starting point of harmony in the New World: the first Thanksgiving of 1621. There in Plymouth colony, the participation of the Wampanoags aided the battered Pilgrims, even as their alliance with the English helped the position of the tribe in Southern New England.
Chris Eyre, of Cheyenne-Arapaho heritage, and Cathleen O’Connell directed the film, which, like the others, are starkly different from the usual approach to history on “American Experience.”
“Because so much of the native experience is hidden from traditional history, and because so much of our series takes place before the time of photography, we embrace dramatic filmmaking techniques much more fully than we’ve done in 20 years of ‘American Experience’ history,” O’Connell says.
“We’ve paired feature filmmakers with documentary filmmakers and rigorously developed a shooting style that we feel is believable, authentic and compelling.”
More important, “We Shall Remain” was written in what she calls “an unprecedented set of collaborations between natives and non-natives.
“We relied heavily on members of the native communities whose histories we are telling, who are experts in language and culture. But many of them – principals, extras, cultural consultants, language coaches – had never been on a film set before.”
Stories of the Connecticut tribes are found in the initial film, largely by way of the Pequot War. It focuses on the relationships between the Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoag chief Massasoit and, later, his son Metacomet, otherwise known as “King Philip.”
For actor Marcos Akiaten of Chokonen, Chiricahua and Apache ancestry, who has portrayed American Indians in previous films before taking the role of Massasoit, the production was a change.
“It was a great delight to be directed by an Indian director and an executive producer who made a tremendous amount of compromises in order to make this as authentic as possible,” Akiaten says.
“I’ve been in many of these large Indian productions that have been directed basically by Caucasians, and (this) was an opportunity for me to actually work with an Indian director. And it was through his eyes that helped bring my part and the other parts and the other factions of this movie all together as one.”
It wasn’t an easy process, says documentary filmmaker Ric Burns, who co-directed “Tecumseh’s Vision,” a film about the Shawnee leader.
“From a non-native point of view, the challenges, as I see it, were really principally in two categories,” Burns says.
“One had to do with how do you try to create a history that bridges these cultures, which have been at times so in conflict with each other? And those times are not only in the past; they continue today.”
The other challenge, he says, came in bringing the past alive.
“There’s a lot of information that’s out there, and any of us can go to the library and read it,” Burns says. “But it’s dead until that spark leaps from the past and from the dry documents and the statistics and is reignited in somebody’s heart.”