Stop comparing Indigenous women to Pocahontas
Waquaa, wiinga yupiuga, yugtuun uguvaaw. Camiunga Karianaaq, Alaska.
Hello, I am Yup’ik and my native name is Uguvaaq and I am originally from Kongiganak, Alaska.
I first want to acknowledge that the following words are my own. I do not speak for every Native American. I do not speak for all Alaska Natives nor do I speak for every Yup’ik person. I speak on behalf of my own experience as an Indigenous woman and the ways I have processed and learned from those of my elders and the matriarchs within my own life.
When film animators first produced Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), they hoped that people would gain a greater understanding of themselves and the world around them. Thomas Schumacber, senior vice president of Disney Feature Animation, stated that the story was fundamentally about racism and intolerance between the Powhattan and English colonists. Yet the story lacked fundamental truths that I was always aware of.
Pocahontas was the first film where I saw and heard the word “Indian” explicitly on screen. The film included Native American pastiche and was portrayed as a beautiful and sentimental love story between “America’s Greatest Heroine” Pocahontas and John Smith, a sympathizer of these “savages.” I was never allowed to watch the film; my mother was always aware of how unsettling and inaccurate the film was and never wanted me nor my siblings to be exposed to it. I first watched it when I slept over at a friend’s house. I was only six, and yet as I watched the movie, I was uncomfortable at the portrayal of my people on screen and asked myself if those that I saw were my own, growing ashamed of how grotesque the cartoonish Indians were.
In Disney’s Pocahontas, filmmakers were aware that Pocahontas was a real person and fully understood the details of her life before starting production, yet they glorified her personal story and romanticized her relationship with John Smith. Their chief Native American consultant, Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow McGowan, went on to claim:
they had said the film would be historically accurate. I soon found that it wasn’t to be…I
wish my name wasn’t on it. I wish Pocahontas’ name wasn’t on it. (Vincent, Disney E5)
This is very troublesome. Disney made multiple trips to Jamestown, Virginia, visited museums, and spoke with Native American leaders and descendants of Pocahontas, but McGowan was hardly impressed. She was appalled by the film. Disney hired Indigenous consultants and voice actors, explicitly disregarded their work but kept their stamp of approval to show audiences that this film was different that that of Peter Pan and more progressive because of it. But rather than the film being more accurate and better than Peter Pan, the film proved to be even worse because it was a blatant lie. Instead of making a historically accurate film, script writers created a narrative that completely avoided Pocahontas’s kidnapping by the English colonists; the forced isolation from her people for a year; her conversion to Christianity; her marriage to John Rolfe and name change to Rebecca Rolfe; and her death from tuberculosis in England at the age of 21 (Edgerton, 5).
Historically, John Smith and Pocahontas were never lovers. She was 12 and he was 27 when they met in 1607, and her real name was Matoaka. Filmmakers were aware of her age, yet in the film itself they created the character Pocahontas to look much older than her actual age, and sexualized every aspect of the caricature, from the long, flowing black hair to the full red lips. Even the songs within the film contributed to this stereotype and misconception.
The Academy Award-winning song, titled “Colors of the Wind” functions as a galvanizing anthem for Pocahontas, conveying virtues of tolerance, cross-cultural sensitivity, and respect within the “them vs. other” narrative:
How high will the sycamore grow
If you cut it down, then you’ll never know
And you’ll never hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon
For whether we are white, or copper skinned
We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains
We need to paint with all the colors of the wind
These graceful sentiments, however, obscure a very dark aspect of this story. She sings this song in response to Smith’s arrogant statement that the English need to teach these “savages,” and the song serves almost as a lesson to him and those who believe that Native Americans need to be civilized. But how could one sing with all the voices of the mountain when those very same voices raped, killed, and stole the other?
It is evident that the image of Native Americans has long been shaped by the film industry. From western films to Disney animated features, the narrative of my people has inevitably been rooted in colonial and neo-colonial traditions that have accommodated to white audiences to make them feel better and more comfortable with the fact that their ancestors committed mass genocide. It erases my narrative as an Indigenous woman and what I face because of this identity.
When I walk down the street, I am ten times more likely to be murdered when compared to any other demographic. I live in a city that is one of the top ten cities with the highest number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girl cases, ranking third, and a state that ranks fourth out of the country with the highest number of cases. This isn’t an issue that I was shielded from, I grew up in this reality. I wake up every day knowing that if I ever go missing or murdered, my case would probably get no coverage in the media, and even worse, if violence were perpetuated by a non-native I would not be able to prosecute them because of my tribal membership. I am not defined by your need to be comfortable, or to make you feel better about what happened to my ancestors and what continues to happen to women in my community. So, will you compare me to Pocahontas now?
Charitie Ropati, Yup’ik, is an enrolled member of the Native Village of Kongiganak. She is a 2019 Center for Native American Youth Champion for Change and Columbia University student studying Civil Engineering and Politcal Science.