As we Disney Canon aficionados are all aware, Pocahontas is a highly divisive movie, in more ways than one. On one hand, it has been criticized for its rather inconsistent pacing, its comparative dearth of entertainment value in relation to its Disney Renaissance predecessors, and the lack of chemistry between its leads. On the another hand, it has frequently been picked apart and derided for the liberties that it takes with the real-life events that inspired it (and, admittedly, for good reason). However, there is another aspect of Pocahontas that I feel hasn’t been discussed frequently enough: the film’s portrayal of the First Nations of North America. And considering the progress that Western animation studios have made in portraying non-Western peoples and their cultures (as well as the current political climate), I find such a lack of discussion on this matter unconscionable.
I’ve stated before that Pocahontas was the first Western animated feature to make a conscious effort to accurately portray a non-Western culture, and it was also my first exposure to any story concerning Indigenous people. (It was released only a month after I was born.) Not to mention, it was also one of several movies released in the early 1990s – some of the best-known including Geronimo: An American Legend, Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale, and, of course, Dances with Wolves – that attempted to provide a more sensitive portrayal of the First Nations, and to tell some (if not all) of the truth about their tumultuous history with the white establishment. And, to be perfectly fair, it’s far better than the deliberately offensive Hollywood images of the 1950s and earlier. However, as I’ve learned more about Indigenous people and issues pertaining to them, Disney’s portrayal of them in Pocahontas hasn’t aged too well over the past 25 years (especially not in comparison to media that centers on contemporary life, such as Smoke Signals or Molly of Denali). Therefore, I would like to point out the most glaring issues in the film’s approach.
One problem is that the Indigenous characters in Pocahontas seem to superficially embody the “innocents in Eden.” This concept, which bears some resemblance to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the so-called “noble savage,” implies that Indigenous people, living so close to nature, were free from the burdens of “civilized” (i.e., Western) society, and baffled by the mere concept of there being people unlike them. The former element is averted for the most part, as evidenced by the fact that the Pamunkey people – the specific Powhatan tribe to which Pocahontas belonged – are shown to interact with other Indigenous communities of the region and possesses their own complex society; it’s the latter part that is the most troubling. Based on what I’ve read, it is possible that the allied tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy may have interacted with the Roanoke Colony (or, at the very least, heard about them). In the movie, though, the arrival of the Virginia Company is implied to be the first contact that they had with outsiders. (Note: This particular aspect may or may not coincide with the liberties that the filmmakers took with historical events.)
Another serious issue – probably the thorniest, in fact – is the presence of the “Magical Native” stereotype. Kekata, the tribe’s shaman, shows shades of this when conjuring images in smoke (whether for children’s entertainment or when “divining” the motivations of the British), but the most glaring example is Pocahontas breaching the language barrier with John Smith by “listening with her heart.” As Paul Astell – author of the blog Feeling Animated – states in his review of the film:
[U]nless you’re dealing specifically in myths and legends, Native Americans themselves are not “magical.” While harmony with nature and the seasons is a big part of most Native American cultures, the filmmakers take this concept to ludicrous lengths by presenting them almost as deities, able to do any number of foolhardy things (like jumping off hundred-foot cliffs and stealing bear cubs from their mothers) with no consequences whatsoever. Pocahontas suddenly developing the skills of Google Translate by “listening with her heart” is just the icing on the cake – it’s lazy and mildly insulting, both to Native Americans and to the audience.Feeling Animated
Yet another problem with Pocahontas‘ portrayal of Indigenous people – comparatively minor to those I mentioned above, but worth mentioning nonetheless – lies in the design of the characters. While the character designers and animators do mostly succeed in giving the characters a somewhat accurate Northeastern Woodlands aesthetic (as opposed to the Plains cultures that most laypeople are familiar with), their designs still feel too “generically Native,” rather than specific to the Powhatan Nation. (They also sometimes incorporate elements indicative of other Native peoples; Nakoma, for example, sports a hairdo that is apparently of Diné origin.) This is especially true of the design of Pocahontas herself. In recent years, I’ve come across various pieces of fan art that give her a more culturally – and historically – appropriate look (the most notable of which is shown below), and now I’m wishing that the artists who worked on the film could have done the same.
At the end of the day, while Pocahontas certainly meant well, its portrayal of Indigenous people still leaves a lot to be desired. If the film was made nowadays, perhaps they might take better care in avoiding potentially offensive clichés. At any rate, it appears that Disney has since learned its lesson when it comes to portraying non-Western cultures; this one’s not quite as bad as Aladdin in this respect, but nowhere near as good as Moana or Mulan.
What are your thoughts about Pocahontas?
This is a user-submitted post by Jordan Hashemi-Briskin.
Edited by: Kelly Conley