Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

The historical realities behind a persistent national myth (DeDisneyfication, Part 5)

Disney’s Pocahontas is in many ways too easy a target: it has been criticised both by those who see it as overly politically correct as well as those who see it as a continuation of the mythmaking of a culturally dominant group. As such, it seems a good film to tackle at this juncture, as these polar points of view also strongly color our current national political discourse.

In the interest of full disclosure, I won’t leave this information to the end: I have already revealed my white-trash-royalty heritage, so of course I am related to Pocahontas. Not by blood—John Rolfe’s brother, Henry, is in my direct ancestral line, so Matoaka (as she is more properly called) would be a many-times-great grand aunt by marriage. It was common practice for the Powhatan tribes to have a large number of names, and to use them based on context. Matoaka was her birth name, meaning “Bright Stream Between the Hills”, and which they did not use among the English. Pocahontas was apparently a childhood nickname meaning “Playful One”.

So, let’s get right to it: the story is nearly entirely nonsense, made up of tales concocted by Smith to enhance his personal reputation and then romanticized by a dozen hacks selling visions of “noble savages” and “manifest destiny”.

The origin story of Disney’s Pocahontas is that a director was vaguely pondering ideas and ran across an image of Princess Tigerlily from Peter Pan, an image about as culturally sensitive as anything from the ’50s—perhaps a minor step up from the Cleveland Indians’ logo. Indeed, as far as Barthesian myths go, the Pocahontas story is already a whopper larger than any Disney could concoct: an important element of the lore that clothes the Wille zur Macht realities of our national origin story.

That Disney tries to smooth out the edges of this story draws flak as political correctness, but the fact that they touch it at all is something anyone who cares about historicity will decry. But I’ll note that Disney is far from alone in the repeated retreading of this malarkey (again, as with most of their efforts, they chose a subject often retold), although attempts to restore the facts well predate this version, so the animation studio had to very deliberately reach back for a version less rooted in history.

The central problem seems to be—once again—that Disney’s goal, repeating the success of their romantic epic, Beauty and the Beast, did not couple well with their subject, a repeatedly embellished tall tale about the origin of the United States. As usual, their choice of methods to solve this round-peg-square-hole problem is to get a large hammer and beat the whole works into jelly.

The historical facts are difficult to ascertain, but I’ll relate what I can. Even Smith never said he had anything but a friendly relationship with Matoaka. She was around 10 years old at the time, and even by 17th century standards that would have been wildly inappropriate. Smith told nearly the same story he did about Matoaka concerning his execution being prevented among the Hungarian Turks; it was apparently a favorite of his, with details cribbed from popular contemporary moral tales of faithful Christians prevailing through harrowing events: the maiden interposing her own body between Smith and his would be executioner. He related the Turkish version in his 1630 book, True Travels.

Next, Matoaka was kidnapped and held by the English for three years, used to ransom prisoners back from Powhatan, but still not released when this had been accomplished. In a very real Stockholm-Syndrome scenario, she refused to return to her people when at last given the chance, was baptized as Rebecca, and subsequently married John Rolfe. Their union finally cooled the tensions between the natives and the colonists, at least for a while.

Rolfe in his letter to the Virginia Governor wherein he asks to marry Matoaka says of her:

[Her] education hath been rude, her manners barbarous, her [breeding] accursed.

Still, he is willing to take up this burden

for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the Glory of God, for my own salvation […].

Although perhaps these are just his rationalizations as he also says she is the one…

to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled […].

He seems to be having something of a Huck Finn moment, so that’s at least progress.

Three years into their marriage, Rolfe returned to England with Matoaka to drum up investment for the colonial venture and presented her to James I as a Princess, which she really was not. Despite Rolfe’s and Disney’s desires to call her such, Powhatan apparently had a vast number of children and she in no way figured into any sort of succession. They were just about to head back to Virginia when she sickened and died—as was the case with many Native Americans coming into contact with Europeans it was likely from some disease she had no natural resistance against. She was 21 years old.

Powhatan also died soon after and peace with the English came to an end. Nonetheless, Matoaka and her father are inextricably woven into the story of the US by their many notable descendants including two First Ladies, and several members of the First Families of Virginia.

I’ve held off on specific criticisms of Disney’s film mainly because it would be a quagmire boggier than the Lernean swamp. And it’s honestly so empty headed it’s not even worth nitpicking: several of those involved in its making removed—or wished they could remove—their names from the production, for example Co-Director Eric Goldberg worked under the pseudonym Claude Raynes. Most notable among these is Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow-McGowan, a Powhatan native brought in as a cultural consultant, but who became disenchanted with the work when it became clear that there would be little done to attempt historical accuracy.

Let’s just say the film brings nearly no light to this subject, and despite the cries of political correctness, falls back repeatedly on racial stereotypes, even with its comic-relief animals, Percy and Meeko. A bright spot, if it can be called that, is that because of how fraught it is we are likely to be spared a live-action redux.

Lydia Howard Sigourney wrote a poem in 1841, now seldom recalled, but which was adapted into 1910’s silent film version of the tale. I’d characterize Sigourney’s overall tone as imperialist nostalgia, but she has some real feeling for her titular heroine, and though a bit florid, in the end it’s a more fitting tribute:

The council-fires are quench’d, that erst so red
Their midnight volume mid the groves entwined;
King, stately chief, and warrior-host are dead,
Nor remnant nor memorial left behind:
But thou, O forest-princess, true of heart,
When o’er our fathers waved destruction’s dart,
Shalt in their children’s loving hearts be shrined;
Pure, lonely star, o’er dark oblivion’s wave,
It is not meet thy name should moulder in the grave.


Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatans Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than


Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

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