Review by Karen Murphy, (c) 2002 Karen Murphy
When I went to pick up my son from school, a few days before Thanksgiving, and found him watching Disney's Pocahontas for the third time that week, my blood pressure soared. I've been doing research on the historical Pocahontas for an undergraduate course I'm teaching, and the movie is full of inaccuracies. Yet it has become part of elementary school curricula across the country, as mythical as the Thanksgiving story itself. It seems to be presented annually, before Thanksgiving, to schoolchildren who assume they are watching the story of the "real" Pocahontas.
Admittedly, the animators based their drawings of James Fort and Powhatan's Village on illustrations from the period, but they went against the advice of their own Powhatan consultant, educator Shirley "Little Dove" Custalow-McGowan, when depicting the people and events. After the film was released in 1995, Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Nation condemned the film because it "distorts history beyond recognition." He pointed out the fact that our only information about his legendary rescue by Powhatan's daughter comes from Smith himself, a man described by other colonists as an abrasive, self-promoting mercenary. Smith wrote about being saved by an Indian princess, long after the supposed event, in three conflicting memoirs full of self-aggrandizing falsifications. More reliable sources show that at the age of seventeen, during a friendly visit to Jamestown, the "real" Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English and held as a hostage for over a year. While restrained against her will, a widower (eleven years her senior) named John Rolfe impregnated her, then offered to marry her as a condition of her "release." Two years later, Rolfe took their son, Thomas, and Pocahontas (renamed "Rebecca") to England. As part of a fund-raising effort to help keep Jamestown afloat, Rebecca Rolfe became a celebrity. She encountered Smith twice on English soil and spurned him. While attempting to return to Virginia, she fell ill and died at the age of twenty-one. It was after her death that John Smith began telling the story of how she supposedly saved his life. How different this is from the glorious tale of an Indian princess risking her life to save her white admirer.
Pocahontas, named Matoaka by her own people, was one of Powhatan's many children by one of his many wives. Since her actual appearance might not sell tickets, the animators decided to make her into a curvaceous Barbie doll in a deerskin miniskirt. And John Smith, a dark-haired, short, bearded man in his thirties, was transformed into her Ken, a blond, clean-shaven body-builder. It's possible that Matoaka may have had a crush on the man, but records show that their early relationship resembled that of affectionate siblings not lovers. After all, when she first met John Smith she was a girl of ten to twelve. A movie about the real John Smith going after the real Pocahontas would be banned by Blockbuster's as child pornography, so Disney had no choice but to make them look like consenting adults. I'm sorry, but it's one thing to mess with fictional characters like the The Little Mermaid or Pinocchio. It's quite another to distort the facts about actual people with living descendants.
However, the cartoon character's physique seems unimportant compared to the absurd way she is shown paddling down waterfalls in her canoe, ecstatic about changes "just around the river bend." The movie attempts to be P.C. by showing the Englishmen chopping down the trees, digging up the earth in their pursuit of gold, and killing men from her nation. With this in mind, why on earth would one of Powhatan's daughters sing about the impending defeat of her nation, the destruction the wilderness, and the death of her people?
Furthermore, Disney's "Pocahontas" recycles the classic romantic scenario of the Indian maiden leaving her family and culture behind to be swept into the arms of a handsome white stranger. Unlike her Disney counterpart, the true Pocahontas did not reject her native suitor, Kocoum. They were married. And it's unlikely he embodied the unsmiling Indian stereotype. "He's so serious," the fictional Pocahontas complains. I'd be serious too if my family was about to be wiped out by invaders.
The movie perpetuates more cheerful stereotypes as well. For instance, what's wrong with showing Pocahontas as a nature-lover, surrounded by her cute animal sidekicks? All Indians live in harmony with nature, right? Well, considering the fact that generations of Native Americans were forced to attend residential schools with the rationale "kill the Indian and save the man" (Carlisle founder, Richard Henry Pratt), many indigenous people have been retrained so that they no longer know the earth-friendly practices of their elders. And since, today 50% of the descendants of Native people live in urban areas, the harmony-with-nature ideal may be another great white fantasy.
Ironically, November is Native American History month, the time set-aside for studying Native American heroes of the past and present. Yet, if it weren't for what I teach at home, my children would think that Squanto was the only Native American resembling a hero. In fact, I have heard some of their classmates in the 1st and 3rd grade make statements like, "There are no Indians anymore. They're extinct." In education today we try to avoid stereotyping other ethnic groups, so why is it still okay pass on inaccurate history about Native Americans? Our libraries are full of stories of the American West where a good Indian was a dead Indian and films where white actors in red-face make whooping sounds while slaughtering innocent settlers. It's high time to teach children about the lives of contemporary Native Americans and all the many heroic Indians of the past. Start with Sacagawea. I'd like to see Lewis and Clark doing all that navigating over mountains and rivers with babies on their backs. Then go to your favorite search engine and as fast as you can click your mouse there is a wealth of information about the history and present realities of Native Americans.
Many of us can think back to the time we sat the stage in our elementary school gym wearing war paint and feathers or shoes with buckles and a Pilgrim's hat? This antiquated curricular method of "covering" the topic of Indians is alive and well in schools to this day. At this time of year, on stages all across the nation, children pretending to be Wampanoag Indians are wearing Lakota Sioux headdresses, a few teepees in the background--imported from South Dakota no doubt, since the Wampanoags lived in wigwams. If you have any doubts about the accuracy of the facts American children pick up about Native Americans, these Thanksgiving plays will confirm your suspicions.
Educators have become more truthful about the realities of slavery and Japanese concentration camps in our past. Why do we draw the line at telling the truth about Native Americans? The smallpox-infected blankets were 100% more real than the Disney Pocahontas's off-the-shoulder demi-top.
Native people deserve better. Our children deserve better, all of our children.
1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O'Neill and Margaret M. Bruchac
My Name is Seepeetza by Shiley Sterling (about an Indian residential school)
"Oyate is a Native organization working to see that our lives and histories are portrayed honestly, and so that all people will know our stories belong to us. For Native children, it is as important as it has ever been for them to know who they are and what they come from. It is a matter of survival. For all children, it is time to learn the truth of history. Only in this way will they come to have the understanding and respect for each other that now, more than ever, will be necessary for life to continue."