English Department, University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Tucson Presentation on Smith’s Pocahontas and Disney’s Pocahontas
FILM AND VISUAL MATERIALS ON TEACHING THE EARLY AMERICAS PANEL
If there’s one Native American that all my students have heard of and even think they know something about, it’s Pocahontas. To counter their misconceptions, it’s always been pretty easy to take sections from John Smith’s True Relation of 1608 (which tells of his capture by Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father, but makes no mention of his supposed rescue by Pocahontas), and compare it with the fairly brief section in The Generall Historie (1624) and a remark Smith had made two years earlier in 1622 in New England’s Trials that “God made Pocahontas the King’s daughter the meanes to deliver me” (qtd in Tilton 176).
Incidentally, Pocahontas was a nickname meaning something like “the naughty or spoiled child,” and it’s significant that she has gone down in white history by that name, rather than her formal Powhatan name, Matoaka, or the name Rebecka that she used after 1614 when she adopted Christianity and married John Rolfe. She died 1617 and thus was not available to refute the outrageously romantic and at the very least ethnocentrically skewed misinterpretation that Smith put into print—namely, that she had rushed in to save him from being clubbed to death by her father and had thus privileged European culture and its representative over her own.
I have also presented students with information from a 1962 essay by Philip Young called “The Mother of Us All: Pocahontas,” which has stood the test of time rather well. Young points out the archetypal and mythic significance of this story that has its roots in folklore, namely, “The tale of an adventurer . . . who becomes the captive of a king of another country and another faith, and is rescued by his beautiful daughter, a princess who then gives up her land and her religion for his” (Young 196). The tale was so popular in the Middle Ages that medieval scholars call it “the enamoured Moslem Princess.” In The Generall Historie, Smith in fact uses several other rescue stories in addition to the one about Pocahontas including his supposed liberation by the Moslem Lady Tragabigzanda. More recent scholarship includes the book Pocahontas by Robert Tilton (1994), ethnohistorian Helen Rountree’s work on the Powhatan Indians, and information supplied by Chief Roy Crazy Horse on the Powhatan Indian website (powhatan.org).
When I last taught my early American literature survey course, I took in a two-page section from the Powhatan website called “Pocahontas Myth,” which specifically discusses the 1995 Disney film. Roy Crazy Horse, speaking for the Powhatan Nation, claims that “The film distorts history beyond recognition” and that his “offers to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected.” He adds that Smith’s deliberate falsehood has been elevated to “a national myth worthy of being recycled again by Disney” (powhatan.org). Many of my students had already seen Pocahontas when it was first released, and—predictably—their initial response tended to be that the Powhatan Nation was being overly sensitive to a film that was meant to be sheer entertainment. They were, however, intrigued by several facts mentioned on the website and well known to historians, for example, that Pocahotas was only ten or eleven in 1607 when she supposedly rescued the captive John Smith, and that she herself was captured by the English in 1612 and held as a political prisoner for over a year.
After we looked at Roy Crazy Horse’s comments, I then showed a fifteen-minute clip from the film leading up to Smith’s dramatic rescue. What the students saw (if they hadn’t noticed before) was a teenage Pocahontas with incredible curves in all the right places, shapely legs, an off-the-shoulder, revealing buckskin outfit, doe eyes, sexy long hair, and lipsticked lips. They also saw a twenty-something blond, blue-eyed, athletic-looking John Smith (instead of the jaded thirty-something self-promoter of the historical record). In the background, the English and the Powhatan Indians are each chanting a song of mutual cultural misunderstanding, “They’re savages, savages . . .” (a little bit of seeming political correctness here), but not really enough to offset the indeed savage-looking Powhatan about to beat out Smith’s brains with a huge club as Pocahontas throws herself onto Smith and exclaims “I love him, father.” In an earlier scene, Pocahontas had visited Smith while he was awaiting execution and he had vowed to her, “I’d rather die tomorrow than live a hundred years without you.”
Of course, I tell my students that Pocahontas has become the source of the stereotyped “good Indian,” particularly the good Indian woman. A study of Native American stereotyping published in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal in 1978 concludes that “Native Americans continue to be labeled in inaccurate, misleading, static, and derogatory terms” (38) and shows that the most influential media of such miscommunication are television and the movies. In her 1996 book American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities, Devon Mihesuah, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and an academic, states, “Stereotyping American Indians is a form of racism that causes numerous problems, not only for those who are stigmatized, but also for those who perpetuate the myths” (113). She adds that the media and other entities use “outright exploitation” and derive “enormous profit” from maintaining “a distorted reality of Indians” (115), whether unrealistically positive or negative.
Although Disney did use some Native American consultants in the film, and although the voice of Powhatan is that of Indian actor Russell Means, ultimately the producers ignored historical accuracy and resorted to stereotypes. So that my students can get some idea of how absurd the film Pocahontas appears to many Native Americans, I ask them to consider the words of Robert Eaglestaff, principal of the American Indian Heritage School in Seattle, who said that it is like “trying to teach about the Holocaust and putting in a nice story about Anne Frank falling in love with a German officer”; or Shirley (Little Dove) Custalow-McGowan, a Powhatan who travels throughout Virginia teaching about her people, “History is history. You’re not honoring a nation of people when you change their history” (qtd in Kilpatrick).
Hanson, Jeffery R., and Linda P. Rouse. “Dimensions of Native American
Stereotyping.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 11 (1978):
Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. “Disney’s ‘Politically Correct’ Pocahontas.” Cineaste 21
(Fall 1995): 36+. Rpt. http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/Pocahontas.html
Mihesuah, Devon. American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities. Atlanta:
Clarity Press, 1996.
Tilton, Robert S. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. New York:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994.
Young, Philip. “Pocahontas: The Mother of Us All.” 1962. Rpt. Three Bags Full: Essays
in American Fiction. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972. 175-203.