Disney’s Pocahontas vs. Matoaka

As we gear into fall, and the inevitable season of appropriation and fantasy stories I want to share a paper I did while I was at UCLA.  I took a course in the history of film animation and I remember telling my professor, Mr. Soloman, that I wanted to write about the two different narratives of Pocahontas. Well, Professor Soloman, was not as eager as I was to write about Pocahontas, and he of course encouraged me to write about the wonderful work animators have done to children’s narratives (including Disney’s Pocahontas), but I wanted to write about the narrative not about achievement of white animators, but about the Pocahontas narrative and what it represents to children. So after a long debate about me, an Indigenous woman wanting to share my prospective of the narrative and yes I would include the works of the animators, I was given the greenlight to write my essay. Here it is…

Pocahontas has become an international iconic figure whose life has been routinely reinstating the historical narratives of the encounter between Native Americans and English settlers. In addition, the animated image of Pocahontas exemplifies exotic, sensual, sexual and innocence of a young Native American woman.  As a public icon she has also generated a commodification with young girls and popular culture that will continue for decades.

The Pocahontas narrative has also been told that it’s a love story, where we can be told through ethnographical records from Powhatan tribal people, as well as the 1995 Disney Animation of Pocahontas. By comparing the Disney’s Pocahontas to her real-life counterpart using four symbolic criteria—age, her primary love relationship, her diplomatic role, and the effects of contact with white settlers we see that the Disney film has generated a theme of navigated the past, by first distorting and abusing account of history as part of a colonial agenda. Furthermore, in the discourse of Indian “identity” Disney’s Pocahontas loses its ability by becoming politically correct which was part of the objective of the Producer, but instead incorporated stereotypes of Indians that has manifest throughout Native American history. The story is then treated as a love story which then diminishes the violence done under colonial conquest.

pocahontas-disneyscreencaps-com-2809
New settlers (from Disney)

The history of Native American and new settlers of the New World has historical patterns of conflict that is generated by culture gaps of beliefs, however when the iconic imagery of Disney’s Pocahontas is seen, the differences and understanding of bigotry and racism becomes confused with a young audience, and the discourse of Indians becomes puzzling especially to young children. The opening sequence of Disney’s Pocahontas engages the young audience to see animation (an appealing art from which blend in modern appearances of people into caricatures). We are introduced to two caricatures of English men who are visually seen as cartoonish and distorted are waiting to sail to the New World in hopes of riches and fortune as one recites: “To Glory, God and Gold,” they welcome the journey to the unattainable New World. The mingling among themselves about the gold they hope to find, and welcome the battle with the Indians which they know will be inevitable and this becomes the forefront of the narrative.  John Smith, a blonde blue-eyed realist caricature of man runs towards the ship. John enters into the conversation, as he boards the ship, and the conversation continues about their personal conquest of gold and riches. The opening dialog tends to represents white patriarchy intolerance for Indians as they say to each other: “You can’t fight Indians without John Smith”  “with John responding by saying: “that’s right, I’m not about to let you boys have all the fun.” This opening dialog of premeditation of violence and conquest is transformed into young children to become repulsive against Indians.  As for the creation of the term “Indian” it is an idea and an image originated with the colonization of the Americas as the conquerable “Other,” someone whose differences of race, culture, and beliefs justify their extermination, oppression, or exploitation (Mauribbio pg 3). The idea of Indians to young children from hearing dialog like this can lend to a child intolerance of Indians and subconsciously feel anger towards a particular race. The film then can become precarious to young viewers whose only view of Indians are in animation films like Disney’s Pocahontas.  Moreover, this instills stereotypes of Native Americans as godly savages, filthy little heathens, which later becomes the metaphor in the song “Savages, Savages” that sends a message to dehumanizing an entire race to a young audience.

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Disney’s Pocahontas 

The Disney animated version of Pocahontas pervades the stereotype of the Indian princess with mythical abilities by first constructing her as buxom young woman who communes with Grandmother Willow (an old tree in the forest) for spiritual guidance and advice. Secondly she is given the enduring ability to converse with the animals of the forest, and has close animal friends: Meeko the raccoon, and Flit the hummingbird.  Third, Pocahontas is an independent and a strong young woman where she can walk freely in the forest and has the ability to dive off hundred-foot cliffs as a sexy athletic into the water. She runs through the forest hidden trials, eat berries fresh of the trees, and roll in the grasses of the meadow enjoying all the riches of the wonderful New World. By all these traits she is also the seductive and precocious young woman who seeks out John Smith.  She sees here prey in the English man, she stakes him like a wild cat as she craws around in a short one-shoulder skintight buckskin dress, she is an exotic Barbie doll who also has cleavage, long dark wavy hair and sports a tribal tattoo on her arm. As for her age, the film depicts Pocahontas in here late teens or early twenties. The animator Glen Keane, who also created Disney’s Ariel created the caricature of Pocahontas as a realistic sexy vixen which seems to be the trend of women created by Disney. Gene Keane, the supervising animator on the film said that he researched the paintings of the real Pocahontas, but wasn’t very impressed, so he made a few ‘adjustment.’ Besides her beautiful ‘more Asian’ eyes, he gave her a body with a waspish waist, sexy hips and legs, and breast that he claimed are truly impressive (Kilpatrick 153). From these adjustments made into the caricature of Pocahontas she becomes a fantasy woman for young viewers to idolize and generate an ideal image of what young woman should look like.  It also transforms into young viewers to believe that there are American Indian Princesses.

Although the film tries to represent Pocahontas as unbelievable strong and an energetic character, she becomes more of a sexy, vulnerable and innocent creature “that connects to an anthropomorphic nature, and desire for the white colonizer” (Mauribbio 13).  From this, Pocahontas becomes merely the ideological transformation of the Indian Princess and the martyr for diplomatic relations between the orchestrations of the discourse that become the theme of the film.

poc 2.jpgIn contrast, the real story of Pocahontas is that “she was about ten years old when the English colonists arrive in the spring of 1607 (Cutalow & Daniel 24). Captain John Smith was twenty-seven years old when he arrived with the other colonists in the land they often referred to as the New World (Cutalow & Daniel 12). Pocahontas was a favorite child to her father Wachunsenaca, who was the Chief of the Powhatan. As a child of the leader of the tribe, she always had an entourage of priest (quiakro) and warriors who protected, cared and watched over her. The story of the young Pocahontas was never alone, quite the reverse on how the Disney film perceives her as a free independent young woman walking the forest alone. Furthermore, in journal documents by John Smith he recorded his interaction with the young Pocahontas where he described her as childlike; however the story of Pocahontas throwing herself to save him only surfaced years later by letters that may have been fabricated to the Queen of England (Allen 314). The age of Pocahontas has been so distorted in order to make colonization a romantic illusion between Indians and colonist.  This mythical model to make her older lends to the heterosexual relations of a love story that welcome the English settlers as a dominated public culture that could interact with Indigenous royalty in order to help in the discourse of the expansion on Indigenous land.

In sequence to Disney’s narrative structure Pocahontas as a young woman could easily transformed into a love story that becomes appealing to young audiences, particularly with young girls. This formulation becomes a powerful marketing machine that has revived and exploited young girl’s perennial fascination of playing the young Indian princess. Disney is also able to interpret Pocahonta’s legacy which we might call the United Sates “foundational romance” which makes a serious statement about ethnocentrism, androcentism commodification and exploitation as barriers to dream of interethnic harmony that Smith and Pocahontas represent (Rollins & O’Connor 195).  Additionally, Disney marketed the film that it was the first Disney animated feature based on historical facts. This statement from Disney not only generated controversy, but cultural confusion. Yes, it is true that Pocahontas was a real person, but the story that renders from Disney gives a theme of interracial love where the theme becomes a multicultural lesson by which patriarchy brings conflict and war and matriarchy from Pocahontas brings peace and wisdom and love. In addition, it gives little girls this allusion that Princesses exists within Native American communities.

tmp439509008441671681The Disney animation illustrates the love relationship between John and Pocahontas as innocent, yet also natural. When John is taken captive and the scene of John position on a rock awaiting to be executed, Pocahontas desperately throws her body onto him to saves his life. This particular scene results in a over-the-top romantic narrative in which Pocahontas rescues Smith and becomes the diplomatic individual between the English colonists and her tribal community by avoiding violence. She pleads to father to stop in the execution in which her father obliges.  Thereafter, Pocahontas helps John Smith to his feet and quickly shares the relationship she has with the John Smith. Her father having so much love for his daughter decides to adopt him as a son within their village. The salvation of John Smith helps develop profound emotions towards Pocahontas. She now becomes the communication gap that stands between the Indians and white setters. What children get confused with is the aftermath that occurs, where the relationship lends to the justification of progress of civilization and the violent treatment on Indians for their land. For young children they see colonist as freedom and Indians as enemies for progress. This gets translated through the film of Disney’s Pocahontas where Indian war and the salvation of John Smith becomes the liberation for settler colonialism.

BqJ4-9ZCYAAJoWPConversely, the true love story of Pocahontas is accurately that of a love story, yet a love story between the love of a father and his daughter.  Pocahontas’s father, who was a paramount Chief of the Powhatan society, was known as Wanunsenaca. The relationship between Wanunsenaca and Pocahontas was so strong that even the English colonist recognized that Pocahontas was a distinguished young girl and the favorite child of the paramount chief (Custalow & Daniel 5). The name Pocahontas was not the young childs birth name, yet it was the name of her dear departed mother who was the wife of the paramount chief.  She died during childbirth in which Wanunsenaca became devastated. Overcome with grief, he found a spiritual connection to his lost wife within their child (Custalow & Daniel 6). The true name of the child was Matoaka meaning “flowers between two streams.” Yet with the death of his wife, Chief Wanunsenaca would call her Pocahontas meaning “laughing and joyous one,” (Custalow & Dainel 7) as a reminder of his late wife in which his love and devotion grew for Pocahontas. Furthermore, the village of the Powhatan knew the importance of Pocahontas and therefore she had numerous women who cared for her, which is probably one of the reasons she became so friendly with everyone. The chief placed his child as the highest regard in his life, which resulted in Pocahontas to always be protected. From the chief’s wishes, Pocahontas, was always carefully protected with an entourage of priest (quiakro) and warriors.  However, the true love story about Pocahontas and her father would have undermined Disney’s political correct message and would not have been appealing to a young audience if a romance was not shown of a princess and a young good looking English man.

Disney’s Pocahontas becomes an animated heroine, a new kind of protagonist in a film where romance becomes the force that subordinates her role as a young princess protecting her love John Smith.  She protects him and sacrifices her life to save him as we see in the Disney film, yet what we can also generate from the Disney animation is that she becomes the martyr of peace and the diplomatic icon. pocahontas-disneyscreencaps-com-8152The Disney animation not only rewrote history where it eliminates the controversial political moments between the relationships of an English colonist and Native Americans, but it rather re-enforced the bigotry and racism a society has for Indians in the song “Savages, Savages” that becomes disseminated outside the context of the film, and have a particular harmful impact with young and impressionable audiences. Additionally, the reality of the narrative is based on colonialism and the valiant racism that translates into “Indian hating” by dialog within the Disney film. For example, there is dialog about explicitly killing Indians:  “I’m gonna get a pike of god, build me a big house… and if any Indian tries to stop me, I’ll blast him…” another example is when John Smith says:  “We’ll kill ourselves an injun, or maybe two or three…” these sorts of dialog become not only destructive to American Indians today, but to young children who are continuing to identify American Indians to Disney’s Pocahontas, where the protagonists is a princess, and her tribal people are seen as savages from the theme song of “Savages, Savages.” Even though it looks as though it’s being translated to both whites and Indian, the term has been branded in the ideological representation of Indians.  Kids now still remember this song have internalized a racist description that remains powerful and degrading of American Indians even today.

According to James Pentecost, the film’s producer, the changes that were made for the film were decided upon because Pocahontas’s real story was simply too long. He’s said, “We decided to dramatize what we felt was the essence of Pocahontas (Kilpatrick 152). The essence of Pocahontas is merely to change her age and create an innocent sexy woman who becomes a martyr for the justification of colonization in the film. Moreover, it also generates one again the stereotype of the Indian princess who falls desperately in love with a white man she seeks out in the forest. The Indian princess however becomes the part of the products and promotions for young children, where caricatures become a culture of what young audiences will identify as Native Americans.

Sigourney1851-Child-116Counter to the truth of what Pocahontas represents as a diplomatic role in her tribe was to bring peace. Not only the colonist in Jamestown, but also with rivaling tribes.  When the English colonist fell on hard times during the winter month, Chief Wahusenaca of the Powhatan would send envoys with food to Jamestown. As what has been distorted with stories of Pocahontas bring food by herself to the English was a story that has been manufactured. Pocahontas was allowed to go to the English settlers, yet under supervision with the Powhatan ambassadors, which came part of being privilege and the chief daughter. She demonstrated peace from the Powhatan to the English. From the aspect of historical Indian history, it was customary to bring a child along and to place that child in the lead to show that the visit was meant for official business.  If there were only warriors and possible some quiakros, another tribe might misinterpret the intentions of the approaching group ( Custalow&  Daniel 26). This tactic and action of having a female child represented peace and helped in communication in the lines of language barriers and truly a diplomatic individual.  In contrast, the Disney film makes Pocahontas the driving force of the movie, which in a way makes some sort of feminist statement of a being a diplomatic force as well, however here actions lends more to her sacrificing her life for an English colonist as opposed to negotiating peace in a functional setting.  In the end we see more of a woman devastated then diplomatic.

Disney’s Pocahontas was an attempt to rewrite a historical event between Native Americans and the English colonist, yet it is instead a fairy tale. In a New York Times article, by Eric Goldberg, the film’s co-director, he said the following statement: “we’ve gone from being accused of being too white bread to being accused of racism in ‘Aladdin’ to being accused of being too politically correct in ‘Pocahontas.’ That’s progress to me” (Kilpatrick pg 150). Mr. Goldberg’s view of progress may seem distorted or rather yet he needs a new definition of progress. pocahontas-disneyscreencaps-com-3600There is no progress for American Indians, if anything this film takes us backwards in the humanity understanding of American Indians, and it also permeates into the Indian stereotypes that remain in our society. Furthermore, it also resonates (in a new form) hatred that young kids can feel about American Indians on an International scale.

Disney Studios evidently holds that an animated film needn’t adhere to the guidelines of “truth” however; the visualization to young kids tends to be more immediately emotionally compelling that in written words. Not many people will want to read the story of Pocahontas, instead the viewers of the film will have this films’ pseudo-history as “fact’ in the minds of generations of children who see this film (Kilpatrick pg 151). Disney Pocahontas builds on to the relationship myth that surface as a popular national narrative, where the image of Pocahontas becomes more useful for legitimizing the continued colonization of Native American and alters not only the truth of a young woman and her legacy, but also the cinematic representation of Native American woman as objectified creatures where identity can be altered. Moreover, the discussion of the authenticity or reality of Pocahontas has also indicated debates. Yes, Grandmother Willow who shares words of wisdom to Pocahontas is fictional, and the protagonist Pocahontas who is viewed as an adventurous young woman traveling through the river in her canoe and heading over a deadly waterfall without messing up her hair indicated a fictional character and situation.  However, the person Pocahontas was a real Powhatan child who lived during the time of contact between colonist and Native Americans. She witnessed the conflict of war happening between her people and the English colonist. Additionally, the age of Pocahontas was only ten years old and John Smith was twenty-seven years old these are facts that should have been told about the Pocahontas.

true-story-of-pocahontasOn the contrary, Disney who apparently made some effort to hire Native American to work on the film and to act as consultants seems to have generated miscommunication of the concept. First, here was the main objective to make a ‘true story’ or ‘accurate accounts’ of the real person Pocahontas, rather the film become an animated film about a fictional character, where the animators and producers made her a celluloid Indian Princess – a Disney Pocahontas. The Native Americans Disney had on their team were Russell Means, a Lakota Indian, and a former American Indian Movement leader, who became an actor and did the voice of Powhatan (the Chief of the Powhatan) and Irene Bedard, a Inupait, Inuit and Metis mixed-Indian who portrayed Pocahontas voice. Russell requested that changing the dialog of calling Pocahontas to daughter was needed and his request was granted, however his other request to change the images of the Indians who were sketched more like bloody warlike Indians at the being of the film was not changed. He says, “there are scenes where the English settlers admit to historical deceit…. their animated settlers say they are here to rob rape, pillage the land and kill the Indians.  This is true that Disney is entrusting with children while the rest of Hollywood won’t trust that truth with adults” (Kilpatrick 153).This statement from Russell indicates that film does become the vehicle of misrepresentation of American Indians and has the ability of creating iconic images that become figures of caricatures for child who thus devalues the humanity of a race. American Indians are concern about how history becomes unclear through cinematic depicts, but most understand that they are fictional stories, but to recreate and reinforced stereotypes of Indians become the more dangerous aspect in our society and for Disney’s animation of Indian characters they become larger than life and an icon image both good and bad in our society.

John-Smith-disney-prince-13193306-400-239As Terry Russio, a screenwriter for Disney, said, “You can judge the sentiments of the country by who you can confidently make fun of.  Nowadays the ultimate villain, I suppose, would be a fat, white male terrorist who ran a Fortune 500 company on the side”(Kilpatrick, 154). From this statement this may be the English colonist leaders as they are the ones that wanted the English men to journey into the “New World” and conquer the Indigenous peoples at any cost necessary, in Disney’s Pocahontas it becomes the motivating force with the animated narrative.

Consequently, Disney did hired Shirley Little Dove Cutalow-McGowan, a Powhatan who teaches and travels the country teaching the history and culture of her people and the history and legacy of Pocahontas. She was contracted to work on Disney and the animation of Pocahontas. When she reviewed the early rushes, she was disappointed and expressed the following: “My heart sorrowed… Ten-year-old Pocahontas has become twenty-year-old Pocahontas.  The movie was no longer historically accurate” (Kilpatrick 154). By remaking the character as an ambiguous “other” and by denying Pocahontas her agency, Disney Pocahontas offers a polarizing perspective to Indian-white relations.  In addition, by recreating Pocahontas age, it was easy for Disney to make her a spectacle-engaging visual pleasure through the aesthetics of Disney animation of females and that of the classical Hollywood cinema depiction of women in films. Pocahontas becomes the beautiful sexy naïve woman with a daintiness nature. And the representation of the “real” American Indian female character in this film is displaced by an objectified model of the beautiful vixen who seeks the attention of a white blonde blue-eye English settler.

smith_map_of_virginiaFurthermore, according to the film’s producer, James Pentacost, the Native Americans’ interest in historical accuracy is somewhat irrelevant.  He believes that “Nobody should go to an animated film hoping to get an accurate depiction of history” (Kilpatrick 154). This may be true to animations such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Peter Pan(1953), yet for Pocahontas most people now know that she was an actual Native American female, where it becomes a contradiction to the media hype which tried to reinforce that this was one of Disney’s first animation for “political correction” (Kilpatrick 154). This becomes dangerous as Disney becomes a powerful force of communicating through narratives animation that translates to young children all over the world. As stated from Linda Woolverton, a screenwriter for Beauty and the Beast (1991)and The Lion King (1994)said: “When you take on a Disney animated feature, you know you’re going to be affecting an entire generations of human’s minds” (Kilpatrick 154). Disney has become an American culture in terms of its American identity particularly with a film like Pocahontas. In this case, the animation doesn’t necessary accepted the sentimentalized of the aristocracy conducted on to Powhatan Indians, rather Disney’s animation gives the psychological meaning to the context of expansion and contributes to the belief of settlers taking land justifiable by the virtue of violence against Native Americans. Disney films are praised as wholesome family entertainment where the moment children see Disney films they view them as facts for generations. This can become dangerous as children are depicting their facts at a young age and grow into the belief that what they see as children becomes real.

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Disney’s white characters

The visual mediums of cinema and television have become pervasive and potential resources showing how to depict American Indians, especially given the limited understanding of the diversity of American Indian cultures: “Underrepresentation and negative portrayals may influence the self-concepts and images of a group which can generate attitudes and beliefs among a group” (Huston, 22). This becomes relevant in Disney’s Pocahontas as children are seeing Indian character as ambiguous and the violent “other” and white characters are shown as the superior race that have justifiable actions. This reductive binary—Indians as the violent enemy and whites as the superior and dominant characters—was pervasive seen in Pocahontas and the diminishes appreciation for the real lives of American Indian men and women that continues still today in misrepresented forms of team mascots, the crying ecological Indian and Disney’s animation of Indians.

In conclusion, the Disney film does not purport to be 100 percent historically accurate, it is after all, a Disney film that has been re-imaged and many people may feel that the film shouldn’t be held to the same level of factual accountability, as to say a history book.  Nonetheless, Disney did advertise the fact that it hired Native American consultants, an obvious attempt to lend a veneer of authenticity to the deeply flawed portrayal.  However, the truth story of Pocahontas legacy has been distorted which has generated a stereotype of not only the celluloid Indian Princess, but the damaging effect young children will take from the portrayal of Native Americans.  This not only causes damage to women, but as a society as a whole.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003. Print.

Custalow, Linwood, and Angela L. Daniel. The True Story of Pocahontas: the Other Side of History. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Pub., 2007. Print.

Huston, Aletha C. Big World, Small Screen: the Role of Television in American Society. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1992. Print.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians Native Americans and Film. Lincoln (Neb.): University of Nebraska, 1999. Print.

Marubbio, M. Elise. Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film. Lexington, KY: U.P. of Kentucky, 2006. Print.

Pocahontas. Dir. Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. Prod. James Pentecost. By Carl Binder, Susannah Grant, and Philip LaZebnik. Perf. Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, Russell Means, Christian Bale. Walt Disney Pictures / Buena Vista Pictures, 1995. DVD.

Rollins, Peter C., and John E. O’Connor. Hollywood’s Indian: the Portrayal of the Native American in Film. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1998. Print.

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