Indigenous Representation in Movies: Pocahontas
Writer: Itumeleng Sibiya
Editor: Renata Daou
Graphic Designer: Yann-Ling Lee
Pocahontas undeniably carries an innate power of tickling a nostalgic bone and is constantly attached to a powerful childhood memory. It always finds itself in the curated list of the greatest Disney animated adventure movies of all time, as it knows no ageing. Just to sweep over its achievements: the film earned over $ 346 million at the box office, and it procured two academy awards for Best Musical or Comedy Song for "Colors of the wind".
For those who don't have the slightest idea of what this classic animated movie is all about or can't seem to refresh their memory, I will gladly provide a short synopsis. The film sheds a light on the romance between an Indian Princess named Pocahontas and Cap. John Smith, who voyaged with other white settlers on a mission to find gold. The white men created a colony and ravaged the countryside for gold. This led to a huge tension and hatred between the Natives and the Europeans. Amid the hostility between the two parties, Pocahontas and John Smith fell in love with each other, whereas the Princess was deemed to be wedded to Kocoum, a brave native warrior. However, a war threatening to engulf their union sets in and they are on the verge of deciding what their loyalties are.
Like any other movie, Pocahontas is not spared from controversy, despite Disney's claims that the Pocahontas franchise was meant to counter prejudice and create cooperation, indigenous people and critics beg to differ with that notion. With how virtually invisible indigenous people are on the small screen, movies like Pocahontas are the only tangible frame of reference that shapes the public's perception of Aboriginal people. Thus, when the true identity and characteristics of natives are altered/ tampered with, it leads to a ridiculous idea of them. Media and Filmmakers care to reduce the cultural heritage and diversity of indigenous people to highly stereotyped and exaggerated customs, dress, livelihoods, and spiritual beliefs and ceremonies. This consequently deprives them of individuality as their primary character is narrowed to interactions with White people. Affirmatively, it is indubitable to realise that indigenous stories are often conveyed through the lens of those who are not even of indigenous genesis or origin, who only have an intention to skew the real stories of indigenous people.
With all that being said, Pocahontas is no different, and here's why: Pocahontas was heavily scripted to suit a sappy romance story and this romanticisation of indigenous stereotypes was met with disapproval by the indigenous community. They say that the European/ Western community is only open to interacting with indigenous culture when it is massively romanticised and fictitious, disregarding the real essence of indigenous culture. In the same vein of a highly glamorized portrayal of the story of Pocahontas, it is buried in myths that span from the 17th century, and now it is hard to separate fact from fiction. The animation also has noticeable historical inaccuracies, meaning it has overlooked real history and was limited to a specific agenda in mind to make the rest of the world feel comfortable with its existence. With how painful and miserable the real story of Pocahontas is, it is unimaginable to have it fabricated to suit a Disney princess or a love story. On the commencement basis of dispelling historical inaccuracies, Pocahontas was not even her real name, it was her childhood nickname that meant "playful one", or " ill-behaved child", or " little wanton". Her real name was Amonute, born around 1595, and she also had a more private name, Matoaka. She belonged to the Powhatan people and was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, a mighty ruler of more than 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes, in the Tsenacommacah, encompassing the Tidewater region of Virginia. When the English Colonists founded Jamestown in 1607, she was only 10 years old. She was intelligent and an inquisitive preteen, who was an essential Powhatan trade emissary to Jamestown. She brought food to the starving Colonists in exchange for tools and weapons.
The part of Pocahontas’s story where she makes a spectacle to rescue John Smith’s life has historians feeling uneasy because they believe that "Smith was never in peril and the placement of his head on the stone was ceremonial". Conversely, Smith's explanation of the rescue must have been his lack of knowledge about the Powhatan ceremonial customs. During hostilities in 1613, the colonists abducted Pocahontas and demanded a ransom from her Father who only paid half of the ransom, and she remained in captivity. During her captivity, she lived in Henricus under the care of a Puritan minister named Alexander Whitaker, where she was encouraged to convert to Christianity and was later baptised under the name Rebecca. As a teenager (17 or 18), she got married to a widower John Rolfe in April 1614, who was famously known for introducing the cash crop tobacco to the settlers in Virginia, and she bore their son Thomas Rolfe in January 1615. When both Pocahontas and John Rolfe travelled to London, she was presented to the English society as an example of a "civilized savage". She was then trotted around as a "noble savage" for a few years before she got sick (from pneumonia or tuberculosis) and died (around 20 or 21).
A "noble savage" is a common form of romanticisation of indigenous people. This means a representative of primitive humankind as idealised in romantic literature, symbolising the innate goodness of humanity when free from the corrupting influence of civilisation. She was caught between a rock and a hard place to forget her culture and transition to an English culture to appear more "civilised". She manoeuvred through a difficult process of cultural abandonment and adaptation to a culture so different from the one in which she'd grown up and she still managed to keep her head above water. Many say she renounced her own Powhatan culture for the English culture, ignoring the fact that she would have never been put in such a dire situation of conforming if she wasn't abducted and forced to make cultural amends. Now, comparing Disney's portrayal of Pocahontas and the real history of Pocahontas, one can see how inaccurate the story is. It's cringe-worthy how a brutal story turned into a fluff, whimsical story, completely ignores the grim wheel of history and denies indigenous people and the whole world the truth of the indigenous culture. This altered narrative leaves viewers no reason to ponder afterwards.
The historical misstep of ageing Pocahontas to be a striking voluptuous woman, as a beautiful object of desire for white men carries serious real-world consequences. There is a high rate of indigenous women who are assaulted by non-indigenous men because of such misrepresentation of native women. The problematic depiction of the British Colonists and Native Americans as similar "savages'' was wrong on the side of Disney. They made an effort to maintain a balanced and fair coverage while dehumanising the oppressed. For example, there is a scene that sees both the colonists and Native Americans singing "savages" , which suggests that both are equal savages. When in fact Disney won't admit that the colonists are wrong for ravaging the Native's land for gold, and this dehumanises the Natives by robbing them of their innocence. Why should they treat both sides as savages and bad to different degrees? They are completely ignoring the fact that the British Colonists ambushed the Natives and they (the natives) acted out of self-defence to protect their ancestral land and treasures. A Native American woman, Kenzie Allen, a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin said, "if Disney 's choice was between being ‘accurate 'or ‘socially responsible’, my question would be Socially responsible to whom?" To suit the dominant culture, Disney abandoned having Native Americans speak in Powhatan. Alternatively, we get a scene of magic leaves that allows Pocahontas and John to understand each other.
Disney took a keen interest in representing an indigenous tribal member and brave warrior, Kocoum, as serious and stoic to a point where the female protagonist, Pocahontas perceived him to be "stiff" and "hard to conversationally penetrate" and that's why she can't marry him. This stereotype paints Natives as one-dimensional people who fail to display a similar range of emotions as other racial groups. They are depicted as "people of a few words with magical powers". Lastly, Indigenous People are widely portrayed inhabiting the wilderness in most Hollywood movies, and Pocahontas follows the same pattern. Of course, it aims to show its authentic culture but it would help to not only associate indigenous people to live in desolate, rural or the wilderness.
On a concluding note, it is disheartening how Pocahontas is reduced to pleasant and kinder details to suit the interest of the dominant culture. This false reality of indigenous people must be erased. The solution to this misrepresentation is having Aboriginal people telling their own stories, through their lens, unscripted and raw. Alethea Arnaquq-Barl, an Inuk Filmmaker said, " [….] We're at a point now where so many films have been made about us, without us, that they're just telling the same stories over and over again". Also, Sony Bellantyne, who is also a filmmaker from the Grand Rapids first nation said, "In my film, Crash Site, every girl that appears on screen is indigenous, and every person that appears on screen is a person of colour. This is the world I see and it's full of colour. I try to keep that in mind whenever I'm casting". Ultimately, Natives should be at the forefront of telling their own stories and appearing in them, not to be disguised by mascots who reduce indigenous cultures to gimmicks.