I have a confession to make: I am addicted to Disney. I think it would be difficult to have been a child of my generation and not been, considering I spent all of my pre-adolescent years in the company’s “Renaissance” period. For every year of my childhood, from my toddler years well into my early teens, there is a Disney memory there. And like most people, especially women, and especially people of color, the relationship I have with Disney is… complicated. I don’t know how many of you have written hateful essays about Disney and contacted them about Song of the South, but– oh! Just me? Hahahahaha! Wacky. So maybe I’ve got a few issues with Disney. Maybe. I’ll try not to be too biased against them for not returning my calls. I think I’m pretty fair here.
My biggest bone to pick is with Pocahontas. My relationship with Pocahontas has been complicated as well, thanks to my childhood urge to inform clearly confused people, who I truly, truly believed, deep in my heart of hearts, had just made a mistake with their histories! Picture me, at six years old: “Do you wand me do dell you aboud da real Pocahondas?” (I was congested a lot as a kid.) Cue semi-informed speech that the audience tuned out halfway through. It’s like I was going door to door in a Girl Scout uniform without any cookies. Yet still, I maintained hope. LOL OPTIMISM!! That’s why my sisters and I have a long series of inside jokes that specifically reference this movie. “Wingapo, bitch!” I have a whole Thanksgiving Pocahontas skit.
In any case, Pocahontas, released the summer of 1995, is Disney’s 33rd feature-length animated picture, and one of some significance when Disney’s handling of race is brought up. It’s, um, a… flawed movie. There’s several reasons for this, the least of which is that Mel Gibson’s casting as John Smith, is, in retrospect, a bit cringe-worthy. The big, main, monster issue– the elephant in the room– is that Pocahontas was a real person.
CliffNotes time! In the Disney version, Pocahontas, the adult daughter of the Chief of the Powhatan tribe, finds herself reunited with her absent father, due to be married to a man she does not love (Kocoum), and set to be tied down to a life she does not want. Then the Virginia Company shows up, and Captain John Smith and Pocahontas get to talking aided by, presumably, tree-spirit Grandmother Willow’s advice to Pocahontas to “listen to her heart,” which works out for them way better than Google Translate ever has for me. Just saying. Through the power of song and, giving credit where credit is due, some absolutely gorgeous animation, Pocahontas demonstrates to the very blond, white-toothed John Smith that cultural differences don’t have to be a pissing contest between SUPER SPIRITUAL and have-I-mentioned NATURE LOVING indigenous groups and the city-boy Brits.
Meanwhile, Governor Ratcliffe (one of the more subtly named Disney villains) and the British settlers, after declaring that everything they’re willing to build on top of is now called Jamestown, proceed to dig the shit out of everything looking for gold. While Smith was away, a Newsies-era Christian Bale (no, really– and this movie was actually released the same weekend as Batman Forever) accidentally shoots at some Powhatan scouts (no, really) who want to check out these funny hairy guys with the guns, and kills one of Kocoum’s comrades. The scouts retreat, and Ratcliffe plans an epic showdown.
Pocahontas gets back to her village just in time to sneak back out again when John Smith follows her home. Nakoma, her BFF, covers for her by lying to Kocoum even though she’s really worried about this whole interracial relationship thing. During the secret rendesvous, Pocahontas reveals “Gold? Um, we’ve got maize, I guess?” (oops) to John Smith before he and Pocahontas have to sneak back to their respective homes, only for reals this time. However, the Chief and Kocoum have been planning an epic showdown of their own, and in desperation, Pocahontas tries to convince her father to talk things out with the English. Which doesn’t work. And a suddenly self-righteous, holier-than-thou John Smith declares to Ratcliffe, “[b]ut this is their land!” …Which also doesn’t work. Um, spoiler alert?
Pocahontas sneaks out AGAIN, and meets John Smith, but both of them have been tailed by Kocoum (per Nakoma’s request) and Christian Bale (per Ratcliffe’s request), who shoots at Kocoum, but on purpose this time, and kills him. John Smith is captured and set to be executed ritualistically at sunrise, but Pocahontas meets him in the POW tent, where they declare their love for each other. The rest of the night is spent alternating between shots of the Native Americans and the English preparing for battle and both singing the (incredibly triggering) “Savages”. (Starting at the third song from the bottom. The one with the raccoon.)
Come morning, Pocahontas throws herself in front of a bound John Smith just as her father is about to deliver the killing blow, convincing him to free John Smith. The settlers are actually pretty cool with this plan, except for Ratcliffe, who has decided to shoot Chief Powhatan anyway. Smith jumps out and takes a bullet for the Chief and Ratcliffe is sort-of arrested by the other settlers, and everybody present learns a Lesson about Differences. John Smith goes back to London, along with the chained up Ratcliffe and some cargo that I think might be slapping the whole “stealing resources from Native peoples is wrong” message right in the face. Pocahontas says she will always be with John Smith in her heart and watches the ship sail away.
…Until 1998, when Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World was released (direct to VHS!), and Pocahontas and John Rolfe (who OMG hate each other! due to being a crappy romantic plotline where they are SO ALIKE and LEARN TO RESPECT EACH OTHER, etc.) meet up when she stows away on his ship to be an ambassador to England, since King James is going to send out an a war armada otherwise. She dresses up in English clothes and makeup, and meets the King, who thinks she’s the bee’s-knees until she criticizes his hobby of bear-baiting. She and her bodyguard are arrested on Ratcliffe’s recommendation, then busted out of jail by Rolfe and… presumed-dead John Smith! Awkwaaaard. Pocahontas goes before the Queen and explains that Ratcliffe is a lying liar who lies, then goes with Bodyguard, Smith, and Rolfe to crash some English ships together, have a swordfight, and get Ratcliffe arrested again.
Everybody has to choose to stay in England (Pocahontas’s bodyguard, for some reason) or leave England (everybody else), but Pocahontas also has to choose between John Smith and worldwide travel and adventure, and politician John Rolfe. She picks Rolfe, who wasn’t around for that news, I guess, but reveals he’s snuck aboard Pocahontas’s ship sailing back for America! Sort of a ballsy move if you didn’t know she wouldn’t be going with Smith, huh? According to Wikipedia, they proceeded to “kiss as the ship sail[ed] into the sunset.” Blech.
Okay. Now for some music-devoid facts. It’s been a long time since I read a book about Matoaka, the real name of the child called Pocahontas, so I’ve refreshed my memory with Wikipedia and a response to the film that was issued by the Powhatan Renape Nation.
Not-Captain John Smith, mercenary, one-time slave, colonist, and kind of shitty settler (yeah, they did actually NEED that corn) would have been in his late twenties to early thirties when he came to America, and apparently was such a dick that if the Actual-Captain Christopher Newport had gotten his way, John Smith wouldn’t have gotten any older. Also, when John Smith went back to England from getting shot? It was because a spark from his own gun landed in his powder keg. John Smith accidentally shot himself. This is the man we’re talking about. Pocahontas (a nickname essentially meaning “brat”) would have been around 12 years old in the winter of 1607, when John Smith & Co. met the Powhatans. Smith’s writings are the major source of information on Pocahontas, and she’s definitely mentioned as “a child of tenne years old” who apparently hung around Jamestown a lot to play with the kids there and bring the starving settlers all manner of tasty goodies. What’s that? Kids, you say? Yes, when a country is being colonized, you bring the women and children with you, because you’re moving in. Didn’t you know that?
Some more different English settlers and some Patawomecks kidnapped Matoaka a few years later around 1611 and held her for ransom. Chief Powhatan didn’t pay up to the English settlers’ liking, so they kept Pocahontas until 1614– when she had been converted to Christianity, taken on a Christian name (Rebecca), and allegedly told Powhatan off for not paying up in full, saying she was going to stay with the English. Presumably this is because she met John Rolfe, tobacco man. He is said to have loved her very much, despite his “agoniz[ing] over the potential moral repercussions of marrying a heathen,” though Rebecca-formerly-Matoaka’s feelings are unknown, and she may have done it to form a political alliance; in 1615, the same year her son, Thomas, was born, Ralph Hamor wrote that there were no further troubles with the Powhatans since the marriage of John and Rebecca Rolfe. In favor of this logic is the evidence that she had not only turned her back on her father and tribe, but also on her own family– a husband, Kocoum, who she married in 1610, and potentially (though it is unknown) children from that first marriage, to live with the people who kidnapped her. That, or Stockholm Syndrome.
The children might have been erased because Virginia Colony sponsors decided Pocahontas would be a great mascot for their tourism department and a nice way to hook new investors to boot. She was paraded around England from 1616-1617, meeting the King and Queen and generally being the good-PR poster girl the English wanted her to be. In 1617, the Rolfes boarded a ship to return to Virginia, but the ship didn’t even make it beyond the Thames before Matoaka-now-Rebecca grew sick and died.
Additionally, the whole “saved John Smith from being clubbed to death” incident wasn’t brought up at all until John Smith wrote a letter to Queen Anne asking her to be nice to “Rebecca” when she visited. Some historians theorize that Smith just hadn’t written anything about how “at the minute of [Smith's] execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save [his]; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that [he] was safely conducted to Jamestown” before because it was irrelevant, while others theorize that Smith was generally full of shit, but at least he might have been trying to help a sister out. Also, it was pretty convenient to make the “Civilized Savage” look that much more awesome to English people at the same time as promoting your book. Smith met with Pocahontas once more in the last few months before she died.
Defenders of the Disney Pocahontas films (including Russell Means, who starred in it as Powhatan, and Irene Bedard, Pocahontas) say they are stories for children. Their argument is that the world is ugly and harsh enough as it is, and telling children a romantic story where the characters do what is right and good is harmless, and actually beneficial to children’s morality. While I can understand the mindset of wanting to preserve a child’s ignorance (which has been placed on a pedestal as “innocence,” and is a whole other issue)– and even understand the viewpoint, for Means and Bedard in particular, that they need to keep their employers happy– I do not empathize with it, nor do I agree with it. Showing a child a story set in the real world that does not reflect the real world is deliberately misinforming them and blinding them to a reality that they have to live in and deal with every day, just like everybody else does. The only thing is, a child doesn’t have a frame of reference for the world around them like an adult does– they don’t have experiences to draw on.
Not to mention that the history of marginalized peoples was hardly brought up that often in the history/social studies classes I attended when I went through K-12. I can’t speak for what’s being taught now, but as of this time 4 years ago, I went to a high school history class where the students were being taught the Civil War wasn’t actually fought over slavery. I’ve only once heard Pocahontas referenced in a history class, or even as a real, historical figure, when it wasn’t me bringing her up. What children are told and shown may well be what they believe, and when they can’t separate reality from fiction because they’re not dealing with fiction, you end up with a generation of children whose only experience with Native American history is Pocahontas until they’re old enough for Dances With Wolves.
What about my reality? What about being the only kid in your class who doesn’t want to be part of the Thanksgiving play? What about having to watch Peter Pan over and over and over again at friends’ houses, or at school? What about my great-grandfather, who went through Indian school? What about my grandmother, on terrorist watch lists for her involvement in the American Indian Movement? What about getting tired of drums and chanting and recycling (and drinking and gambling) every time a Native character or storyline is introduced in any popular media?
Or how every other girl in pigtail braids is a little “Pocahontas”? What about knowing your own history, and knowing not only will it never be acknowledged in school, but knowing it’s possible no one you know will ever be told by the adults whose job it is to tell them? What about growing up listening to non-Native people claim partial “Indian princess” heritage– and enforcing their legal rights to do so and still remain “white”?? All when my family can’t even get CDIBs.
Is my reality too tough for you to handle? Am I too real for you?
Roy Disney himself said, at the same link as the above Means quote, “We went and did our research,” adding, “[t]his is our version, our interpretation of what we see to be the really important points about what this legend told.” (Emphasis mine.)
There is a fundamental difference between reinterpreting a legend, a fairy tale, or a myth to suit you, and reinterpreting history, because you’re reinterpreting people. You erase their existence to replace it with one that you prefer. You edit and cut and trim the celluloid, and pretend it’s a real life and a true story. This is an issue with most historical movies, it’s true. But for 12 years of public school education, American children have the state-approved “truth” shoved at them, too, and as they say, history is written by the winners. When a group of people is systematically pushed out of the history books, treated as a “campy”/”kitschy” cultural phenomenon, and regarded collectively as something for consumption, that can be bought and sold and used to play dress-up– and that same group, historically, has rarely even been portrayed by themselves in the mainstream media– there’s something wrong with pretending everything worked out okay in a “historical” film. There’s something wrong with that if anyone does it, but especially a company like Disney, the trusted, go-to name for quality children’s entertainment. That’s not okay. It undermines history, it undermines the people involved, and it undermines the real messages and stories that these people have by presenting a backdrop of falsehoods that looks too much like what people have been trained to think is “real” for them to tell the wolf from the sheep.
It’s not okay.