The misrepresentation of Pocahontas is one of the many ironic distortions of an image or culture. Disney’s 1995 animated film introduced a non-white princess to audiences globally and showed millions of children the beauty of two different cultures coming together.
However, Disney fabricated elements and deleted portions of a historical narrative about a Native American marrying a colonial Englishman in the process.
Plattsburgh State’s Center for Women’s Concerns, Native People’s Association and Organization for Women of Ethnicity hosted a forum Thursday, Nov. 11, to address the twisting of a true story and implications it has for its audience.
Pocahontas encompasses several problems, including unrealistic body images, stereotyping Native Americans, over sexualization of women and the assignment of gender roles, which was commonplace in Disney movies at the time.
Pocahontas was based off of a real Native American girl named Matoaka who was only 12 years old when she stopped her tribe from killing an Englishman. Five years later, she was baptized and married to John Rolfe to escape captivity.
No one expects a Disney movie to be a purely factual, but there should be a responsibility to tell history accurately. Many at Thursday’s forum believed not. Without Pocahontas, there is a void in narratives that detail Native Americans, and the factual story could scare young children.
Several students and professors at the forum strongly disagreed with teaching inaccuracies to children with the intent of clearing it up later. It would be confusing and generally dishonest to lie about history, considering many kids must face harsh realities every day. It is condescending to assume children in America could not empathize or understand the plight of Native Americans in this country today, or that they are too feeble to hear the stories.
Supporting a false story of Pocahontas means condoning a major corporation profiting from telling a lie. As attendees at the end of the forum learned, Matoaka’s descendants live today and have received no money from Disney. This practice of stealing stories from people and capitalizing from it is appalling. There needs to be a responsibility for any storyteller to not twist the facts when he or she is commodifying someone else’s life.
The misrepresentation of Native Americans goes beyond just one animated movie.
Every few years, a major company is criticized for appropriating the Native American’s look. Urban Outfitters and Victoria’s Secret have both made headlines for featuring undergarments with printed patterns deemed culturally insensitive by the Native community. Halloween costumes of Native Americans are continually being manufactured and protested. Sport teams across the country continue to advertise Native Americans as mascots, one being the Cleveland Indians, which advertises a racist mascot named Chief Wahoo.
Native People’s Association President Mahlon Smoke said this is why the Native American community has had such mixed reactions to Pocahontas. Yes, she is a falsification of a real Native American woman and her story is reduced to an easily digestible tale about English-Native American unity, but she remains one of Disney’s seldom non-white princesses and has a place in the minds of young girls who look like her.
“I realized this is not the story I wanted, but rarely do you get a Native person story,” Smoke said.
The Native American community deserves ample accurate representations across different mediums. Accurately representing an entire ethnic group can be a burden, but it’s a challenge worth facing. Without these standards, history will continually be rewritten and reshaped until it is unrecognizable. Disney would do well to retire Pocahontas, wait a few years, and produce a live action version. This film could be in tune with history and still rich in its depiction of the beautiful Native American culture.
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