Pocahontas – A Horrific Misrepresentation of Historical Fact BY 186120 Of the fifty three full length animated films produced by Walt Disney Animation Studio, only two have been based – albeit loosely – on real characters or events. Disney’s 1995 rendition of the story of Pocahontas is the first of the two historically grounded animations; historically based, however, does not necessarily mean accurate. In this instance, the film’s creators plucked a handful of factual events and the names of a handful of people associated with those events. The bulk of Pocahontas was designed with entertainment, rather than history, as the primary objective.
Pocahontas, in the form of her Disney counterpart, is the daughter of a Native American chieftain named Powhatan. A precocious child, she is a great source of worry for her father the chief; in order to both tame her and secure her place in the tribe, Chief Powhatan agrees on her behalf to a marriage proposal made by the tribe’s premier warrior, Kocoum. Pocahontas is uncertain if marriage to him will make her happy or not, because she feels like there must be more in store for her life than simply settling down with such a serious warrior as Kocoum and spending the rest of her days living in the typical manner of other women of her tribe.
In order to assist with her decision, Pocahontas goes to visit Grandmother Willow – an anthropomorphic tree who questions her about her dreams and ambitions. Pocahontas tells Grandmother Willow about her father’s intent of betrothing her to Kocoum; she also makes mention of a very specific dream she has repeatedly experienced. In this dream, she sees an arrow which continually spins around in circles. After some consideration, Grandmother Willow suggests that Pocahontas should listen to the spirits around her for advice, and that perhaps the spinning arrow from her dream indicates a change in her life is imminent.
Meanwhile, a group of sailors and soldiers have left England and set sail to the New World. Led by a man named Governor Ratcliffe, they are intent on colonization of this uncharted territory as well as acquiring great riches and new resources and returning with them to the English empire – while filling the Governor’s coffers at the same time, naturally. He is depicted as a greedy, arrogant man; his opinion of the natives who supposedly inhabit the New World is made clear as he repeatedly refers to them as “bloodthirsty savages” and indicates they should be shot rather than dealt with as potential allies or trade partners.
Along with his dog Percy, Ratcliffe expects to be treated like royalty by the remainder of the ship’s crew. A captain named John Smith is among the many crewman sailing to the New World aboard the Governor’s ship. According to his compatriots, you “can’t fight Indians without John Smith. ” He seems to have great renown amongst his peers; they are obviously willing to stand beside him and follow his command because he proves himself not only competent but also Just and willing to go to great lengths in their defense.
Unlike the Governor, John doesn’t treat the other members of the crew like laves or low level employees but, rather, like equals – even though he obviously has After more than four grueling months at sea, the English finally reach the New World. Their ship manages to find a deep enough location to safely dock; it Just so happens this location is very near to the village of Pocahontas’ people. They establish a camp after which they receive a pep talk from Governor Ratcliffe. Essentially, this consists of Ratcliffe ordering the men to go out and acquire gold for him.
He also demands they shoot any natives they encounter rather than attempting to communicate or establish any sort of trade connections. While exploring the area at Ratcliffe’s behest, John Smith becomes aware of Pocahontas’ presence. Against Ratcliffe’s wishes, Smith immediately attempts to strike up a conversation with her; although they do not initially speak the same language, there is an obvious rapport between the two – as evidenced by their ability to communicate nonverbally despite their lack of cultural commonality.
Governor Ratcliffe, after a period of time, becomes enraged by the men’s inability to secure what he perceives as “his” gold. Rather than moving to a new location to search, he concludes that the natives in the area must have already located it; as a esult, Ratcliffe orders his men to attack the nearby native settlement – the home of Pocahontas and her people. At this point John Smith realizes the risk to Pocahontas’ life, so he makes haste out of the encampment towards her village.
He locates her speaking with Grandmother Willow, who convinces John that the only way he can be with Pocahontas is to speak with her father and attempt to stop the attack. On their way to speak with Powhatan, Pocahontas and John are overtaken by Kocoum, who attacks John and attempts to kill him. One of the men from the encampment has followed John, however; this man shoots Kocoum and kills him in n effort to both protect John and also follow the Governor’s orders. When the body of Kocoum is returned to Powhatan, along with a captive John Smith, Powhatan sentences John to death and berates Pocahontas verbally.
Shortly thereafter, the tribe is shown preparing for war; they will move to attack the settlers in their encampment and end the threat to their way of life once and for all. A plan forms in Governor Ratcliffe’s head upon hearing of John’s capture. He insists upon a rescue attack upon the savages – which will act as a thinly veiled grab for the gold he still believes the natives are hiding. John is to be executed at sunrise, so the entire encampment must rush to prepare for battle. They march toward the natives, while at the same time the natives are marching toward them.
Before Powhatan can carry out the execution, however, Pocahontas throws herself in front of his club and prevents him from striking John down. She declares her love for him, and she reminds her father that killing John would go against their beliefs. The natives, hearing Pocahontas’ profession of love and their chiefs eventual agreement with her decision, back down from the battle; the Englishmen are willing o do the same. Governor Ratcliffe attempts to force them into fghting, but the refuse. Instead, he aims his gun at Chief Powhatan and fires, hoping the chiefs death will spur the war along and allow him to obtain the gold.
John, however, sees what is about to transpire; he dives in front of Pocahontas’ father and takes the bullet instead, ensuring the continuation of their newly-won peace. Unfortunately, this injury will prove fatal to John unless he returns to England and receives proper and return to his home, while Pocahontas opts to remain with her people rather than returning with him. When viewed from a historical rather than entertainment standpoint, virtually everything about Disney’s production of Pocahontas is either incorrect, irresponsible, or virtually outright offensive to the natives it depicts.
For example, the main character’s name is misrepresented in the film. “Pocahontas” was merely a nickname which might have meant “naughty one”; the real Pocahontas’ given name was Matoaka. Although she was truly the daughter of a native chieftain, Matoaka was born in 1595. Since John Smith’s historical sailing expedition departed England in 1606, Matoaka would have been 11 upon his arrival – not a young adult as depicted n the film. Likewise, Smith wouldVe been 46 when he set sail since he was born in 1560. Pocahontas and John Smith never had a romantic relationship as depicted in the film.
In reality, she befriended Smith, and she visited the Jamestown settlement where he lived on several occasions. She was actually married to a Powhatan warrior named Kocoum, but their marriage only lasted approximately three years; afterwards she was kidnapped by and eventually married off to an Englishman named John Rolfe with whom she had a child. Pocahontas never actually saved Smith’s life, either. During her childhood, she was simply a participant in the tribal ritualistic ceremony which made Smith an honorary member of the Powhatan tribe.
Smith may have recalled the event differently after many years had passed, or he mightVe changed the story’s events in order to set himself up as the main character in a much more exciting tale of adventure. Quite possibly the most offensive facet of Disney’s Pocahontas is its overall theme. The entire story acts as a perpetuation of Pocahontas as a “good little Indian” who chose to forsake the savage native lifestyle in favor of a more civilized British colonial existence. To the Europeans, she made an excellent heroine: brave, intelligent, and eager to assist the British with their conquest of the New World.
Even more importantly, she proves herself more than willing to sacrifice her own much less valuable life in order to save the life of Smith, a European man. By comparison, the other natives are depicted as the savages the natives make them out to be. Although they seem to be relatively peaceful and self-sufficient, they are depicted as more than willing to sacrifice Smith for a murder committed by another British soldier – as though the natives view all Europeans in the same way. This is ronic since the Europeans viewed natives as being all the same – an entire race of savages, while many accounts indicate the natives were able to distinguish specific white men from each other). The fact that the natives were seen as equally aggressive to the Europeans is yet another point of contention; some native tribes certainly took offensive action against colonial settlers, but by no means can it be assumed that any fault lies equally divided between the two cultures. Disney did not limit their gross historic inaccuracies to the Native American perspective.
Some of the European characters and situations, although not as ffensive as the aforementioned issues with the native portion of the story, were regardless still inaccurate. Governor Ratcliffe, for example, is portrayed as an evil, self-serving man in the film; in reality he was a great supporter of trade between the either; his given name was actually John. Ratcliffe was the second leader of the Jamestown settlement – which he and his crewmembers had formed. Additionally, he was not only the crew’s leader but also the captain of the Discovery, the ship on which the sailed from England to the New World.
John Smith’s film portrayal is not entirely accurate either. Many accounts state that he was a difficult man to get along with. He was much more of a mercenary than the film depicts; Smith was restless and sought adventure more than friendly and peace- seeking. As previously stated, his relationship with Pocahontas is misconstrued in the film, because he was never romantically linked to her nor was his life saved by her. Though not necessarily a bad man, he was simply a typical European colonist who sought gold and glory.
The idea that the English settlers were willing to coexist peacefully with the natives so long as the natives laid down their arms is also erroneous. The colonists’ elief in Manifest Destiny led to about half a century of genocidal ethnic cleansing and general warfare conducted against the natives. They attempted to conscript native land to become their own; the native owners, meanwhile, were forcibly sent to live on reservations. There was never a moment of complete peace where the colonists voluntarily stood down in favor of the natives’ wants and needs.
Despite wild inaccuracies constructing the vast majority of Pocahontas’ plot, there were a small number of facts which were represented in a largely accurate fashion. In the film’s initial sequence, when John and the other crewmen are shown singing board the ship, it is apparent – though not explicitly stated since this is a children’s movie – that the men are consuming wine from a keg onboard the ship. During the early 17th century, wine or ale wouldVe been the primary beverage of choice on long voyages because it would not spoil due to its fermented state.
Similarly, the hard tack John is portrayed as consuming, which he shares with Pocahontas’ raccoon friend Meeko, would have definitely been a dietary staple of sailors from that era. Though having limited nutritional value, it was another consumable which would be far less ikely to spoil than fresh fruits and vegetables. In the same scene featuring Meeko, John mentions to the raccoon that he and his men had been eating the hard tack for the past four months while they sailed from England; this is completely accurate. The colonists set sail in late December, 1606 and did not land in Virginia until mid-May of 1607.
John’s eventual departure from America was primarily accurate as well. He was not shot by Ratcliffe, of course, but a gunshot wound did send him back to England for treatment. A final comparison between the film and reality can be made in regards to the colonists’ possession of weaponry. The muskets displayed in the film are historically accurate. They were the same type of weaponry which wouldVe been used during this era; this is, however, effectively where the similarities end. The weapons used in the 1600’s were only accurate within an extremely small range.
While the shot which killed Kocoum was from a short enough range as to be possible, a shot such as the one Ratcliffe fired at John towards the film’s conclusion would have been highly unlikely, because the distance between the shooter and the victim was too great. Furthermore, the majority of settlers did not possess guns during America’s colonial onsuming, guns were primarily in the hands of militiamen or other defenders of the settlement. Likewise, ammunition was also uncommon, rendering the possession of firearms by the average civilian moot.
With stunning animation, catchy musical numbers and a frolicking, adventurous storyline, Disney’s 1995 film Pocahontas is, overall, a reasonably likable production. Unfortunately, it also offers an extremely whitewashed version of history in which the European colonists are depicted as bringing enlightenment and civilization to the savage natives. The film depicts a degree of peace and cooperation which never ccurred between the two disparate cultures; the native characters were shown as painfully simplistic while the British characters were primarily depicted in a manner which could easily elicit sympathy and understanding.
Although the entertainment value found within Pocahontas is great, its value towards historical instruction is negligible at best. From an educational perspective, the film is more harmful than helpful – it perpetuates a negative stereotype about the natives and an incorrectly upbeat image of the invading European colonists. Works Cited Bellesiles, Michael A. Arming America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Print. “Captain John Smith. ” Historic Jamestowne. Preservation Virginia, n. d. Web. 7 Dec. 013. . Crazy Horse, Chief Roy. “The Pocahontas Myth. ” Powhatan. org. Powhatan Renape Nation, n. d. web. 7 Dec. 2013. “Pocahontas. ” Powhatan Museum of Indigenous Arts and Culture. Auld/Powhatan, n. d. web. 9 Dec. 2013. “Pocahontas (1995). ” The Internet Move Database. IMDb. com, n. d. Web. 5 Dec. 2013. Von Tunzelmann, Alex. “Poverty, Alcoholism and Suicide – But at Least the Natives Can Paint with All the Colours of the Wind. ” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 sept. 2008. web. 6 Dec. 2013.