Issue Essay

Pocahontas: Cartoon Character or Historical Figure


[1]     Disney’s Pocahontas has understandably received a lot of flak about the historically inaccurate story that is told about the legendary Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.  There is a good reason for that.  The movie does little that can be construed as historically accurate, yet Disney claims that was never their intent.  Disney, in their previous movies, has been attacked for being racist and unsympathetic to racial minorities.  Their answer was a movie whose sole purpose, as stated by Disney, was to promote racial tolerance.  The question is, then can a movie promote racial tolerance when the issue is built on false history, history that if told accurately would depict the exact opposite?

[2]     First, I feel that it is important to establish exactly what Disney’s intentions were in making the film.  Secondly, I intend to show that Disney provided enough historical information that it is questionable whether or not one can assume that they were trying to teach history, history that is specifically aimed at children.  Lastly, I will show that the real story of Pocahontas was not about racial tolerance, that it was not about understanding one’s culture, but it was in fact about trying to change one’s culture.

Disney’s Intention

[3]     From the movie’s start Disney has been preaching innocence about trying to accurately depict history.  Disney, in their press kit, expressed that, “Pocahontas is a story that appealed to us because it was basically a story about people getting along together… which is particularly applicable to lots of places in the world today” (Pocahontas 33). In addition, Thomas Schmucher, who is the senior vice president of Disney feature animation, says, “It is a story that is fundamentally about racism and intolerance and we hope that people will gain a greater understanding of themselves and of the world around them.  It is also about having respect for each other’s cultures” (Pocahontas 35).   In a sense that is what the story of Pocahontas promotes, racial tolerance between two groups who are seen as “different” from one another.  The problem that most people encounter is that Disney chose an actual person and an actual legend in which to display that theme.

[4]     Disney even goes on further to suggest that their intentions have a modern relevance when they say that “It is an important message to a generation to stop fighting, stop killing each other because of the color of your skin” (Pocahontas 37).  It is quite clear that Disney never intended to write or rewrite history, as they have been so viciously attacked for doing.  They are writing about tolerance and understanding, while at the same time they are giving back some respect to the indigenous people of America.  James Pentecost, the producer of the film, feels that “moviemakers shouldn’t be handcuffed when using real stories as jumping-off places for works of entertainment” (Kim 24).  Disney simply liked the idea of Pocahontas; they liked the message that it conveyed, and they made it applicable to Hollywood.

[5]     Gary Edgerton and Kathy Merlock Jackson, in their review of the movie, conveyed these same ideas about Pocahontas.  They insist that “The filmmakers at Disney never really intended Pocahontas to be historically accurate, despite all the sentimental rhetoric; they were producing yet another animated feature after all.  Native Americans were hired to secure a more positive, even hagiographic, portrayal of Native American characters within an earnestly sympathetic narrative” (93).  It is clear by that quote that Native Americans were hired by Disney during the construction of Pocahontas not as historians whose job is to accurately depict history but simply as Native Americans who can help relay what it means to be a Native American.

[6]     When it all comes down to it "historian Robert Tilton says we shouldn’t quibble.  ‘The fact that the film will bear little resemblance to the historical facts is not an issue’” (Colt 64).  Tilton and Ramussen suggest that the importance of Pocahontas is that the film will succeed in bringing the Legend of Pocahontas, as we know it, to the largest audience that ever has been exposed to her tale.  It will convey the essential elements that are present in the story, and it will demonstrate that Pocahontas was “an individual of unusual energy and vision who influenced the course of history”  (Ramussen and Tilton 50).  They go on further to add that Disney was also interested in Pocahontas because the legendary story lends itself to “timeless themes” that are relevant in today’s society  (Rasmussen and Tilton 50), which only reiterates what Disney has already professed about the goal of the animated feature.

[7]     Another aspect in the way Pocahontas seems to be promoting Native Americans is through Disney’s portrayal of the New World.  Most critics have commented on the wonderful animation that was used to portray the Virginia forests and the non-commercialized Native American land.  This is reinforced when Rasmussen and Tilton remark that “Pocahontas will also acclaim the American Indians’ environmental awareness and understanding of the interrelationships between the land and the plant and animal worlds.  Never before has the Pocahontas story been told with so much emphasis on the setting” (Rasmussen and Tilton 50).  It can be argued that Disney tried to really emphasize that beauty of the land, while they tried to take attention away from the historical inaccuracies.

[8]     On top of depicting a beautiful, natural, and uncommercialized landscape, some believe that Disney helps to portray the Native Americans in a way that they have never before been portrayed, especially in Hollywood.  Historian Arthur Schlesinger argues that children should try to imagine what it was like in the beginning of our country.  He goes further to add that children should try to imagine the arrival of Columbus and the colonists “from the viewpoint of those who met him as well as those who sent him” (15).  So often the stories of early colonization that are told to our children are universally from the white man’s point of view.  It can be easily argued that Pocahontas helps to tell the story from both points of view.  Even Russell Means, the voice of Powhatan, has stated, “I think that Pocahontas is the single finest work ever done on American Indians by Hollywood” (Maslin 46).  A Native American himself, Russell Means is just one example of the Indian community who is not against the story that Pocahontas tells; whether fictional or factual, the Indians are clearly depicted as honorable, something that has so seldom has been done in cinematic history.

[9]     On the other side of the spectrum there are critics who argue that Disney must be held accountable for the fact that their portrayal of Pocahontas teaches a false history. As one critic put it, “Movies do more than entertain.  They also teach, whether or not individual filmmakers have such intentions or pretensions” (Cortes 53).   It is clear that many feel that Disney has the obligation to depict a truthful account of history if they choose to talk about a historical character.  It has been said that since the movie Pocahontas was released the actual legend of Pocahontas will change and the Disney version will become the definitive version.

Historical Accuracies

[10]     In the film there are many characters who have been taken right out of our history books.   “Among the colonists were George Percy, the brother of the Earl of Northumberland, John Ratcliffe, the captain of one of their three ships, and, of course John Smith” (Muldoon 21), while in the movie Percy was the dog of Governor Ratcliffe and Ratcliffe was given the rank of Governor by Disney.

[11]     There were, of course, Native Americans who were also portrayed in the movie.  Kokoum, Pocahontas, and Powhatan are the few Indians named in the film, and they have also been recorded as Native Americans in history.  “All we know of Kokoum is that he was, in colonist William Strachey’s words, a ‘pryvate captaine” to whom Pocahontas was married to when she was kidnapped by the English in 1613” (d’Entremont 1303).  However, in the movie, even though Kokoum is a character, he is not married to Pocahontas; they are however, engaged.  Pocahontas was Powhatan’s daughter in real life, but she was one of twelve daughters that he had from several different wives.  And of course, Pocahontas was only twelve or thirteen when she "rescued" the twenty-seven or twenty-eight year old John Smith as recorded by historians.

[12]     If Disney went through such great lengths to assert that they did not want to try to teach history, then one could argue why they did not simply change the names of the historical characters?  Clearly there would have been less criticism of the movie if Disney had simply portrayed a Native American movie without involving historical information and, furthermore, the altering of that historical information.

The Real Story

[13]     The question remains whether or not a film can promote racial tolerance, when the story it is portraying in actuality had nothing to do with racial tolerance.  Pocahontas is most commonly known because she was accepted into white society in England where she was received by the court of James I.  She was baptized as Rebecca and married John Rolfe.  The English saw Pocahontas as an example of someone who could achieve salvation and was presented as an incentive for people to colonize in the New World.  She learned to read and write English, and she learned how to live a "white" life.

[14]     It must also be noted that the film celebrates only the earlier part of Pocahontas’ life, that part of her life when she remained a Powhatan Indian.  The film avoids the later complications that were a result of her interaction with the English.  The events of her kidnapping, conversion, marriage, and untimely death were all untouched by Disney (Rasmussen and Tilton 50).  The story of Pocahontas was conveniently left as a story that basically showed a girl from one background saving a boy from another background.  They never mentioned the kidnapping, the conversion, and the ripping of Pocahontas from her Native American roots.

[15]     The real story of Pocahontas is clearly not about racial tolerance.  The English and the Native Americans did not tolerate each other.  The English saw the Indians as a race that was in need of salvation.  They did not want to integrate with them; they wanted to convert them.  They wanted to turn them all into version of Pocahontas, a baptized Christian who totally conformed to the English ways.  Yet Disney saw the legend as a story that promoted living together in harmony.  They believed in the concept, but they did not relate how that concept did not pertain to the actual life of Pocahontas and the English and, more importantly, John Smith.

[16]     Historians also feel that throughout the ages racial intolerance has been and always will be an issue.  Arthur Schlesinger would probably say that it is impossible to watch a movie like Pocahontas that promotes racial tolerance and to believe that that would have actually occurred.  He asserts that, “What happens when people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographic locality and live under the same political sovereignty?  Unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal hostilities will drive them apart” (10).  It is clear that according to Schlesinger there is no way that the English and the Native Americans would have gotten along without a common purpose.  And it is clear in Disney’s version that the only purpose the English had was their quest for gold.


[17]     It is clear that Disney’s Pocahontas was not meant, at least as far as Disney is concerned, to portray, and therefore to teach history.  Furthermore, it is also  clear why Disney had received a lot of flak about the historical inaccuracies that exist in the film.  The question remains whether a movie can promote racial tolerance when the issue is built on false history, history that if was told accurately would depict the exact opposite?

[18]     Many argue that the point is the teaching of a false history.  After all, don’t our children have the right to know the truth about our country and its earliest forms of history?  But it is that kind of racial honesty that has gotten Disney into trouble before.  Historian Arthur Schlesinger argues that “Even if history is sanitized in order to make people feel good, there is no evidence that feel-good history promotes ethnic self-esteem and equips students to grapple with their lives” (93).   I do not go as far as to say that Disney should have promoted a movie aimed at young children that promoted racial intolerance; however, many feel that there must be a common ground.

[19]     Another historian, William Bennett, believes that it should be left up to our children to decide what we should be proud of as a nation and what we should be regretful of as a nation.  This point is most clear when he claims,  “Let it be said that we told our children their story, and the whole story, the long record of our glories, of our failures, of our aspirations, our sins, our achievements and our victories.  Then let us leave them to determine their view of it all: America in the totality of its acts” (166).  He believes that we, citizens of the United States, including our children, have the right to determine this for ourselves.  However, his theory may not work for a large corporation like Disney who has a responsibility to please all the parents in the world who may not feel that same way.  And their duty is what caused them, in the first place, to try to pick a film and a story that related to today and promoted a positive message to our children.  They were trying to teach morality not history.

[20]     In this paper I intended to show exactly what Disney’s intentions were in making the film Pocahontas.  I also intended to contend that Disney provided enough historical information to question whether or not they were trying to teach history, while also portraying the real story of Pocahontas to show that it was not about racial tolerance at all.  Ultimately, the issue is whether or not the film Pocahontas was trying to teach history or racial tolerance, and the result is quite clear.  Disney constructed a movie, partially out of history, and partially out of fantasy, but they depicted a movie that portrayed Indians in a positive light and that advocated racial tolerance.  They may not have told the story accurately, and they may have chose to broadcast that message based on false history, but the message is still clear.  And in the real world is it better to have a child who understands the true story of Pocahontas and John Smith, or is it better to have a child who understands that all races can live together in harmony?  And after all "this is a movie—a cartoon, for goodness’ sake!”  (Corliss 59)

List of Works Consulted

Bennett, William.  Our Children and Our Country: Improving America’s Schools and Affirming the Common Culture.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Buescher, Derek T., and Kent A. Ono.  “Civilized Colonization: Pocahontas as Neocolonial Rhetoric.”  Women’s Studies in Communication 19.2 (1996): 127-53.

Corliss, Richard.  “Princess of the Spirit.” Time 19 June 1995: 59.

Cortes, Carlos E.  "Them and Us: Immigration as Social Barometer and Social Educator in American Film."  Hollywood As Mirror: Changing Views of "Outsiders" and "Enemies" in American Movies.  Ed. Robert Brent Toplin.  Westport: Greenwood P, 1993.  53-74.

d’Entremont, John.  “Pocahontas.”  Journal of American History 82.3 (1995): 1302-5.

Edgerton, Gary, and Kathy Merlock Jackson.  “Redesigning Pocahontas.”  Journal of Popular Film and Television  2.2 (1996): 90-98
Fitzgerald, Frances.  America Revisited: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century.  New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Maslin, Janet.  “History as Buckskin-Clad Fairy Tale.” New York Times 11 June 1995: 46.

Muldoon, Paul.  “Barbie, but no Bimbo.”  Times Literary Supplement 13 October 1995: 21.

Pocahontas: Press Kit.”  Burbank: Walt Disney Pictures, 1995.

Rasmussen, William, and Robert S. Tilton.  Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend. Charlottesville: Virginia Historical Society, 1994.

Rollins, Peter C., and John E. O’Connor, eds. Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film.  Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1998.

Rosenstone, Robert A.  Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr.  The Disuniting of America.  New York: Norton, 1992.

Turan, Kenneth.  “Disney Tries Again to Find the Magic; The Kids May Like it but the Adult Viewers May Feel that Pocahontas is More By-The-Numbers than Inspired.”  Los Angeles Times 16 June 1995: 1.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Jennifer Lori Lackner, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.

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