As an Indian parent, former kindergarten teacher, principal, and now as an educational consultant preparing future teachers for diverse classrooms, I am constantly approached with questions about American Indians — the overwhelming majority of which are sparked by the movie industry’s blitz of Indian myths and stereotypes. This year, the challenge centers around the movie Pocahontas.
Disney is not always an easy target. Pocahontas, for example, can be easily caricatured as politically correct yet historically incorrect, sexist yet feminist, and both ethnographically sensitive and ethnographically suspect. Yet the overwhelming nature of the Disney juggernaut — a cultural onslaught that includes not just the animated film but spin-off books, toys, dolls and kid’s clothes — compels teachers to tread into this difficult terrain.
The motion picture industry has probably taught more Americans about American Indians than any other source in the teaching and learning process of American children. And this includes many Indians. Apathy and lack of self-esteem are all too common in the school lives of American Indian children, and a key reason is the negative portrayal of Native Americans in movies and television shows.
Children’s self images are very pliable and susceptible to external forces. Unfortunately, young Indian students who are treated as though they are less than human — whether in movies, children’s books, sports mascots or phenomenon such as the “tomahawk chop” — will tend to assume they are, indeed, inferior to white children. And this has a profound educational impact. Some educators, in fact, contend that American Indians remain the least educated ethnic group in the nation. For example, only 55% of Indian students graduate from high school, compared to 83% of their white peers. Of those who do graduate, only 17% enter college, the lowest percentage of any ethnic group.
The most common criticism of Pocahontas revolves around its historical inaccuracy, so let’s set the story straight. Pocahontas was the daughter of Tidewater Virginia’s legendary chief Powhantan. She married a tribal member in her early teens. Several years later, when she was 18, she was lured aboard a British ship in the Jamestown area and held captive for more than a year. She was dressed in the English fashion and took religious instruction, becoming baptized as a Christian. In 1614, Pocahontas married British colonist John Rolfe. In 1616, as part of a plan to revive support for the Virginia colony, the couple traveled to England with their infant son. There Pocahontas met King James I and Queen Anne. Just as she and Rolfe were setting sail back to America the following March, Pocahontas died, perhaps because of small-pox, perhaps because of the foul English weather. She was buried in an English churchyard.
None of this is reflected in Pocahontas. In the movie, Pocahontas disobeys her father and goes out to meet Captain John Smith. This probably would not have happened during the time period portrayed in the movie, as it was a cultural norm for tribal members to adhere to any strict orders from their leaders, especially during a time of war.
Then there is the question of Disney’s portrayal of Pocahontas’s appearance. The type of dress worn by the Disney Pocahontas would have been very sexist during her time in history. Further, she has a Barbie-doll figure, an exotic model’s glamour, and an instant attraction to a distinctively Nordic John Smith. Yet historians agree that Pocahontas and John Smith had no romantic contact. In short, Disney has abandoned historical accuracy in favor of creating a marketable New Age Pocahontas who can embody dreams for wholeness and harmony. But unlike Pocahontas, there is a large segment of American Indians who have not melted into the main-stream of American society, nor have they been totally eradicated by or assimilated into white culture.
This New Age Pocahontas is in line with shifts in stereotypes about Native Americans. For half a century or more, the dominant image of Indians was that of “savages,” of John Wayne leading the U.S. Cavalry against the Indians. Today the dominant stereotype has shifted to that of the noble savage, which portrays Indians as part of a once great but now dying culture that could talk to the trees like Grandmother Willow and the animals like Meeko and Flit that protected nature. Such contradictory views of Indians, from terrifying and evil to gentle and good, stem from a Eurocentric ambivalence toward an entire race of people they attempted to destroy.
Pocahontas, meanwhile, is rooted in the “Indian princess” stereotype, which is typically expressed through characters who are maidenly, demure, and deeply committed to some white man. As writer Gail Guthrie Valaskakis notes, “The dominant image of the Indian princess appeared in the 1920s. She is a shapely maiden with a name like Winona, Minnehaha, Iona — or even Hiawatha. She sits posed on a rock or in a canoe, seemingly suspended, on a mountain-rimmed, moonlit lake, wearing a tight-fitting red tunic and headband with one feather; and she has the perfect face of a white female. Disney’s Pocahontas is a 1990s version of the red tunic lady. She combines the sexually alluring qualities of innocence and availability.”
SAVAGELY RACIST TERMS
Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the racism in Pocahontas is in the movie’s use of terms such as “savages,” “heathens,” “pagans,” “devils,” and “primitive.” These terms reflect something wild and inferior, and their use implies a value judgment of white superiority. By negatively describing Native lifestyle and basing the movie on a “we-they” format, there is a subtle justification of the subjugation of Indian tribes by so-called “advanced” cultures in the name of progress. The movie makes little reference to the European greed, deceit, racism, and genocide that were integral to the historical contacts between the Indians and Jamestown settlers.
The song “Savages-Savages,” despite its context of seemingly criticizing the values portrayed by the Europeans, contains brutally racist lyrics:
What can you expect
From filthy little heathens?
Their whole disgusting race is like a curse
Their skin’s a hellish red
They’re only good when dead
They’re vermin, as I said
They’re savages! Savages!
Barely even human. Savages! Savages!
Drive them from our shore!
They’re not like you and me
Which means they must be evil
We must sound the drums of war!
Regardless of the movie’s context, such lyrics are offensive to American Indian people. For Indian children, it becomes a nightmare when they come home in tears because school children or playmates sing “Savages-Savages” to them.
As an Indian educator, part of what I find discouraging about Pocahontas is that it takes time away from so many pressing issues. Many Indian educators would like the American public to take a quantum leap and come up to speed on cultural matters, so that we can begin better addressing issues such as the federal Indian budget, tribal sovereignty, loss of tribal languages, land claims, access to higher education, standardized tests, environmental exploitation and degradation of Indian lands, treaty rights, repatriation of artifacts, protection of burial sites and return of Indian remains — the list goes on and on.
Protecting children from racism is a year-round responsibility and must extend beyond the school year. The producers of Pocahontas carefully chose the summer season to release its recreation of their invented Indian princess character — a time when most American youth are out of school and thirsty for movie entertainment. The question is, entertainment at whose expense? Since Disney won’t, it is up to educators to help children answer such questions.