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Pocahontas Was a Kidnap Victim, Not a Disney Princess

Disney perpetuated the ugly rumor that Pocahontas was a “gentle savage,” who co-signed colonization.

In Defense of Pocahontas: Disney’s Most Radical Heroine,” written by Sophie Gilbert and published by The Atlantic, defends Disney’s portrayal of the Powhatan historical figure, stating, “While its interpretation of history attracted considerable criticism, less was written about the fact that Disney had, for the first time, provided an independent and fearless heroine with a strong sense of self.” The article goes on and on, praising the film for its environmentalism and progressive storyline. A resounding, “What?” could be heard throughout Indian Country. Captain Save-a-Princess, stop trying to make Pocahontas happen. Let it go. Let it go.

The Atlantic probably published the work thinking no Indian reads, or that no Indian would dare contest Gilbert’s flawless rhetoric. Defending Disney’s version of a tale Europeans invented in the 18th century is just bad form. Self-respecting Natives know Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka, couldn’t have been more than eleven when she supposedly saved John Smith. Also, she was abducted. We’re familiar with her story and maybe Gilbert should be too. Disney’s Pocahontas is about as progressive as it could have been considering that its about a native woman in tight buckskin who falls for a white dude and speaks English, all while talking to the birds and trees. Yep, progress.

No wonder why The Rainbow Family of Living Light want to occupy the sacred Black Hills—they think we can talk to animals and trees. When they drink the mushroom tea, they think they can too. Natives have always been valuable sources for hippies. Rainbow Family member, Lillian Moore, writes in her letter to the editor at ICTMN, “My people are a community of orphans. Most of us don't know our history or our own spiritual lineage, and have never been on the land of our ancestors. We are hungry to connect with the creator like everyone else and we are on the land that these lessons came from. Isn't it natural that we would feel called to burn sage and sing songs about the hawks? It is good for everyone to pray. The prayer brings more awareness and compassion.”

Why do hippies think our land is cultural gold to strike rich on? When I feel disconnected from the earth I take a walk. I don’t sing about the hawks. I only need to see a hawk to appreciate it. I’m sorry, but we don’t have Indian superpowers. If we did, I’m not sure we could transfer them to you, especially when you essentialize us. There are Indians who have no lineage documented. There are Indians who’ve lost their languages and practices thanks to Indian boarding school and laws which hindered practicing ceremony or having gatherings. I hardly doubt the majority of Rainbow Family members are orphans. They probably have parents who love them and are disappointed they think a hippie conquest is going to bring them closer to autonomy.

What brings me closer to autonomy is the real story of Pocahontas. When I got tuberculosis, my mother told me about a Powhatan girl who got the European disease, just like me. My mother told me about an Indian girl who turned to Christianity, just like my grandmother did after being taken into boarding school. Disney perpetuated the ugly rumor that Pocahontas was a “gentle savage,” who co-signed colonization.

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The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert would like me to adopt Disney’s Pocahontas, while, on the fringe, there’s a call for submission for Native artists to “Take Back Tiger Lily.” Four Winds literary magazine is calling all Natives to reclaim Peter Pan’s Tiger Lily as our own. They say, “Many argue that we ought to eschew Tiger Lily altogether, valorizing a more authentic character. But she is still an Indian princess, the sort young girls on and off reservations across America look to as a model, having very few authentic representations of their lives in the public sphere.” I don’t want Tiger Lily back anymore than I want Disney’s version of Pocahontas in my house. Tiger Lily is Europe’s nineteenth century depiction of their eighteenth century “Squaw.” My kids have plenty of Indian women to look up to, and they will learn to abhor racist depictions just like I did.

I’m working to obliterate Tiger Lily and Disney’s Pocahontas while The Atlantic and Four Winds magazines are trying to save every decaying romantic image of Indian femininity. I’m not some Captain Save-a-Princess. Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie was a creepy man who inspired Michael Jackson. His writing depicted Indians as savages adorned with scalps. I’m not a Captain Save-a-Hippie either. I want everything that intrudes on Indian’s right to live without racism or romanticism to die along with the old racists who invented them. Get your Disney Princesses and get out.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island, a place bound by the Mariah Slough and the Fraser River. She studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work, “Heart Berries,” can be found in Carve magazine, and her story, “House Party,” is forthcoming in Yellow Medicine Review.

This story was originally published on July 3, 2015.