Pocahontas: the Disney version v. the true story

It’s sad to say, but many Americans get their history lessons from popular films and televisions shows.  They see movies like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Pearl Harbor,” and “Troy” and take all the events and dialogue they see Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck, and Brad Pitt portraying as true, historical happenings.  This learning-history-from-blockbusters tactic is especially prevalent with films based on the early frontier encounters between settlers and Native Americans, because unlike World War II (depicted in “Saving Private Ryan”), for example, most people do not get much supporting historical feedback on early Native Americans in history textbooks throughout their school years. Because of this lack of Native American education, it seems it would be doubly important for the films and televisions shows depicting Native Americans to portray them accurately, right? Unfortunately, as we’ve learned Tuesday in class, it doesn’t happen that way.

In the opening of Chapter Three of The People we read the true story of Pocahontas, and it’s safe to say that what we read was a far cry from what we get in the Disney version. Then, in “The New World,” another movie based on the untruths of the Pocahontas story, our class was able to point out more than a handful of inaccuracies in the opening five minutes of the movie— and we’ve only been studying Native American history for three weeks.  Is it assuming too much that a filmmaker would be able to get it right in the years that probably went into making both movies?

It’s hard for me to see the point in perpetuating so many historical inaccuracies through pop culture. I guess the truth is that it’s easier to just generalize and romanticize historical events in movies, especially movies involving Native Americans; it takes too much effort to get the story straight. Why admit upfront that Pocahontas was only 10 years old when John Smith and his fellow colonists arrived in present-day Virginia when it sounds so much better to say that the two of them fell in love and she risked her life to save him?

If we are going to be downright truthful, as we learned from The People and class discussion, what happened to Pocahontas was a prime example of settler colonialism, where “settlement” becomes associated with profit, spreading Christianity, and progress with no consideration for the Native people of the “newly” settled area. As Professor Hoxie wrote on his PowerPoint slide, Pocahontas quickly ceased to be a diplomatic pawn and became the symbol of white fantasies instead.  Some may have seen her marrying of Rolfe as a union between the two sides, but really it just highlighted European control.  Pocahontas even had to convert to Christianity in order for Rolfe to marry her and then she was given a more suitable “white” name for when she visited Europe.  Although Pocahontas fulfilled her role as the intermediary between the two sides, none of her European counterparts reciprocated; it has even been recorded that when Pocahontas and John Smith met in her later years in Europe, she turned her back to him and told him that he and the Europeans had lied to her and her people.  She probably wouldn’t be happy to know that today most people know the Disney version of her story more than they know the true happenings — and just like she said,  it’s all because of Smith’s lies.


Side note: I found this website created by the Powhatan Renape Nation, an American Indian Nation located at the Rankokus Indian Reservation in Westampton Township, Burlington County, New Jersey. Among other features on the website, here there is a page where their chief, Chief Roy Crazy Horse, writes his peoples’ version of the story of Pocahontas while divulging his frustration with the false story of Pocahontas perpetuated by movies such as Disney’s Pocahontas.


2 Responses to “Pocahontas: the Disney version v. the true story”

  1. 1 Erik Walden June 28, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    It’s ridiculous how inaccurate Disney’s movie was!
    I want to recommend a great read where the life of Pocahontas is featured, read it last year and found it absolutely Amazing. She tells her own story, really engaging and informative. I believe it is on special for the month of July in conjunction with independence day celebrations…. see http://www.amazingpeopleclub.com and browse to the title “Amazing Americans”. Enjoy!

  2. 2 small business email marketing May 2, 2013 at 4:40 pm

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