Pochahontas Held Captive By Disney

Expressing deep philosophical reservations about a Disney cartoon places one in a difficult position. At best, you look like the little mouse flipping his middle finger to the descending eagle. More likely, people will see you as a joyless fanatic who needs to get a life. But even as a reviewer who saw no racism or homophobia in "The Lion King," I cannot conscience how the latest animated hit to roll out of the Disney juggernaut, "Pocahontas," tramples the truth. Even giving the creators the benefit of the doubt as to which road they were paving with their intentions, "Pocahontas" is one of this decade's biggest cases of cultural imperialism. Try as Disney might to make a positive film about Native Americans, the company has done a great disrespect to one particular person, Pocahontas, and thus to all of her people. The problem is pretending it is in any way biographical by calling the movie "Pocahontas." In fact, Disney's story is almost pure fiction, based on folklore rather than reality, even though the studio says this is its first animated film inspired by "a historical figure." By portraying a romance between Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith, the film diverges radically from actual events -- events the movie's huge cultural impact will all but obliterate in the minds of American youth. "It's like rewriting history," says Jamie Mullins, a resident of Walled Lake, Mi. who says she's a descendant of Pocahontas. "Can you imagine a fictional story in which Anne Frank and a Nazi are suddenly lovers? I don't think it's appropriate." Perhaps a more authentic perspective of Pocahontas' life is depicted by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, a state-run organization in Williamsburg, Va., which has chronicled the life of the legend in a small permanent exhibit entitled, "Pocahontas: Symbol of a New World." According to Debby Padgett, spokeswoman for the project, 17th century European engravings depict Pocahontas "as about age 11" when she met Capt. Smith. In 1607, her father, Chief Powhatan, saved the British settlers in Virginia by giving them food (perhaps in an effort to draw them into his Powhatan Confederacy of some 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes in coastal Virginia), and Pocahontas was a regular deliverer of this charity. In exchange for this aid, the British colonizers burned the Indians' crops and slaughtered them. By the 1700s, a Powhatan civilization of some 14,000 was reduced to mere hundreds (today they again number several thousand in Virginia). The myth about Pocahontas saving Smith's life also has little credibility. Smith did not write, in his memoirs of those years, of the alleged incident in which Pocahontas supposedly threw herself in front of Smith as her father was about to execute him with a club. Neither did any of his comrades record such an incident. Smith first told the tale in 1624, after Pocahontas' death, when she was regarded as royalty in England and thus had some coattails he could ride. Mullins claims that Smith also wrote that two other women saved his life in similar incidents. Scholars on Virginia history offer another explanation of Pocahontas' famous rescue of Smith. According to Nancy Egloff, research historian for the Jamestown Settlement, the foundation's museum, the incident closely paralleled an Algonquian adoption ritual. In her article, "Pocahontas: Powhatan's 'Only Nonpareil,'" Egloff says that when Powhatan raised two stones to beat Smith's head, "Most likely, Powhatan wanted to assert his sovereignty over the captured Englishman in order to impress upon Smith the power he held over the English in Virginia. Through this event, Pocahontas became Smith's sponsor, and symbolically, his 'sister.'" Far from being a Mel Gibson kind of guy, Capt. Smith was a mercenary who apprenticed in oppression in Ireland, and used to kidnap Powhatan children regularly. According to David Stannard's "American Holocaust," Smith once wrote that his Indian victims were "craftie, timorous, quicke of apprehension, and very ingenuous. Some are of disposition fearefull, some bold, most cautelous [deceitful], all Savage.... Their chief God they worship is the Divell." After a few years, Smith left Virginia, and, according to Egloff, Pocahontas soon after disappeared from Jamestown. It was William Strachey, an early secretary of Virginia, whose writings shed some light on subsequent events in the life of the Native American princess. Strachey recorded that following Smith's departure, Pocahontas had married an Indian warrior named Kocoum. But by 1613, she was living by herself in a village in northern Virginia. It was there that Capt. Samuel Argall, Smith's successor, discovered her and had her kidnapped "for the ransoming of so many Englishmen as were prisoners with Powhatan," wrote Strachey. Even though Powhatan released seven British prisoners, he refused to meet all of the ransom demands, so his daughter was never released. Instead, she was "converted" to Christianity and baptized with the Christian name, Rebecca. Mullins believes the English kept Pocahontas alive only so she would marry an Englishman: "I don't know what constitutes torture to other people, but being told you're a demon and a savage and being dunked under water every day fits my definition." While still a captive in April 1614, Pocahontas married British tobacco merchant John Rolfe. In 1616 the couple visited England, where the Virginia Co. exploited Pocahontas to gain investors. Indeed, Egloff describes how Pocahontas was used to help recruit settlers to Virginia, and how, while living in London, "Pocahontas' living expenses were paid by the Virginia Company." When she ran into Smith in England, she was enraged by this reminder of his actions in Virginia. "Even for a fiction story, that's not the spirit Disney captures," Mullins says. As Rose Palmer notes in the book "North American Indians," while Rolfe and Pocahontas prepared to return to Virginia in 1617, Pocahontas died of smallpox in the port of Gravesend. She was 21 or 22. She and Rolfe had a son, Thomas, whom Rolfe abandoned at Gravesend, but who eventually made his way back to the New World. Many prominent Virginia families trace their ancestry to Thomas. Disney's film portrays Pocahontas at a maturity she never reached, in her mid- to late 20s, comparable in age to Capt. Smith. Rolfe is never mentioned. The movie's opening does make clear the British had two interests in Virginia: finding gold and killing Indians. Smith is portrayed as an ace killer of "savages," a swell kind of misdirected guy. Pocahontas is presented as a maverick, preferring the company of a raccoon named Meeko and a bird named Flit to her fellow villagers. These animals don't "talk," but they gesture and carry on just short of that point. For verbal advice, Pocahontas consults a talking willow tree. Ironically, personalizing these natural characters is the Disney tradition which most closely parallels the Native American philosophy, yet Pocahontas' relationships with the three doesn't seem at all spiritual -- a missed opportunity. Pocahontas and Smith meet when he almost shoots her. When they meet again, she understands his language through the spontaneous combustion of magic, and they fall in love. Eventually, a clandestine meeting between the two is interrupted and ends with the death of one of Pocahontas' fellow villagers, setting the stage for her to save Smith's life and thus avert war in the film's climax. "Why would she want to save the life of the man who was destroying her people?" Mullins asks. "You'd have to be mad." The backdrop to the love story is indeed madness -- the growing prejudice, paranoia, greed and violence on the part of the British settlers, a combined force so great the filmmakers also spread it among the Powhatans, bringing them down a moral notch or two for the sake of equality. The ending is fairly predictable, though Pocahontas and Smith do not remain a couple. As a family film, "Pocahontas" presents a strong heroine and some simple lessons about prejudice. Aside from British soldiers wearing Spanish armor, it's pretty inoffensive stuff. That's what Disney sells, and it's beside the point. In a just world, Disney would have told the story accurately or not at all. Mullins argues this fantasy could have been told without the name Pocahontas. Indeed it should have been, since Pocahontas was not able to prevent the genocide of her people. "They shouldn't have made a film with the title 'Pocahontas' about that historical period," says Mullins. "To confuse the facts with this dehumanized image whitewashes the genocide. It's just wrong." "The British never had any intention of being kind and neighborly to the Powhatans, even though the Powhatans initially welcomed them. How Disney gets this fairy-tale romance, I don't know.... I'd rather make my own peace with Pocahontas' life than have Disney shove a whole other life down my throat," she adds. The omnipresent film merchandising exacerbates the problem for Mullins and her family. "We don't have a chance to ignore this," she says. "When people start mocking the people you come from -- not just your tribe, but specific ancestors -- how do you go into a grocery store with the cereal boxes promoting the movie? "It's hard enough dealing with her legacy. It's going to be very difficult to have this eroticized cartoon speaking for someone who can't speak for herself. It's very unpleasant." James Pentecost, who produced "Pocahontas," studied history at Michigan State University, indulging his passion for America's past. He doesn't consider Mullins' concerns trivial. "It's a difficult issue," he says. "We were faced with the same kind of problems anyone faces in doing a biography -- in our case, condensing a life into a 70-minute musical. So we did what anyone does -- you go for the essence. I do think we represented the Powhatan Indians' conflict with the British." Pentecost studied the materials on Pocahontas and Smith with a "filter," knowing how victors like to rewrite history. He acknowledges Smith really was "a braggart and not a very nice person," but says the divergences from reality in the script are part of good ol' fashioned storytelling and still preserve the spirit of the tale. "It's a movie that ends on a question mark, which allows parents and teachers to tell the rest of the story," Pentecost says. "I guarantee you more history classes will be discussing Pocahontas in the next year than have in the previous 400." But Mullins has little confidence those discussions will involve much more than a showing of the "Pocahontas" video to students. "Disney's going to beat us to the punch and no one is going to bother to learn anything different about this.... You cannot get a piece of history from people who are colonizers. If you've got something ugly in your past, no one's going to make you look at it." Pentecost rightly observes "it's important that we don't confuse going to the movies with reading and going to school.... This is a work of imagination based on history." But the issue already has been confused in our culture, and Pentecost's sincere hope that "Pocahontas" won't be anyone's sole source of information about Pocahontas is naive. And obtaining public justice for Pocahontas is only part of the problem. "It's not specific to Powhatans; it's all indigenous people all over the world," Mullins says. "'Pocahontas' is just a blip overall. But Disney's going to make so much money off this, and what are they going to do for Indian people?" SIDEBAR: Russell Means: 'The best story Hollywood has ever produced about Indians' Russell Means has yet to have a bad experience with Hollywood. A Native American activist and an actor in films such as "Last of the Mohicans," "Wagons East" and now "Pocahontas," he says no one has treated him poorly in Tinseltown. That doesn't mean he was initially happy with the script for "Pocahontas," in which he is the voice of Chief Powhatan. "But knowing the effect Disney has on kids, I went to the audition hoping to get the part and make changes," Means says. "And wonder of wonders, they were very amenable to all of my suggestions." Means is a very self-assured speaker, perhaps the result of having faced death for more than two months at the Siege of Wounded Knee. As a leader of the American Indian Movement, he was one of the organizers of the deadly face-off against federal agents in 1973. One would think such experience would lend credibility to a film in which he appears. "I don't go into anything about my people without doing research," Means says. "'Pocahontas' is based on historical fact. There are 11 stories about Pocahontas, but only two I would give any credence to" -- those of John Smith and his fellow Virginia settlers. Despite the film's divergence even from the facts Means accepts, he calls it the best movie yet about Native Americans. "My take on this film is not whether it's politically correct or historically accurate to the Nth degree. I feel sadness for those who do, because of their loss of innocence and total repression of the child within.... "There are four things that make this the best story Hollywood has ever produced about Indians, and which make it revolutionary," he says. "For Indian people to ever be treated with respect, Americans have to admit to their historical deceit, and this film does it. It begins with it, saying why Englishmen came over here in the first place -- to rob, rape and pillage the land, and kill Indians." Secondly, Means says the film emphasizes that animals have their own personalities and feelings (not exactly a new idea in the Disney canon). Third, as in "The Lion King," this philosophy also is being applied to the land and elements. "The fourth thing, which I feel is most important, is the children of the world are going to be introduced to my people through the woman. Pocahontas is smarter than the wisemen and her father, and she stops a war. The children are going to leave with nothing but positive images of life." --Don Ruedisueli

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