#12: The Disney Version of American History in “Pocahontas”

Pocahontas was one of the first films that I saw in theaters growing up. I owned the VHS tape and really enjoyed the “Romeo and Juliet” narrative style. Unfortunately for most of America’s 90s youth, we were all in for quite a shock when 4th grade came upon us and quashed all of our preconceived notions of Native Americans and love and a phrase that we became all too familiar with: artistic liberties through historical inaccuracies.

My impressionable brain had seen the founding of our country through a very skewed view. While putting history into songs makes it easier to learn, it doesn’t always mean the history is accurate.

“The film is the first animated feature Disney film to be based on a real historic character, the known history, and the folklore and legend that surrounds the Native American woman Pocahontas, and features a fictionalized account of her encounter with Englishman John Smith and the settlers that arrived from the Virginia Company,” (Wikipedia.com).

Pocahontas whitewashes American history in an attempt to make a family-friendly movie that would break the bank at the box office. Ironically enough, critics weren’t as spellbound as the children. Pocahontas has the lowest score on RottenTomatoes.com out of all of the Disney Renaissance films (1989-1999). Most critics cite the dubious history the film presents and it’s frequent emphasis on romance over accuracy in their harsh criticisms.

Besides the critics, Pocahontas didn’t sit too well with current Native American leaders either. “The film was harshly criticized by Chief Roy Crazy Horse as historically inaccurate and offensive for glossing over more negative treatment of Pocahontas and her tribe by the English. He claims that Roy Disney refused the tribe’s offers to help create a more culturally and historically accurate film,” (Wikipedia.com).

The most glaring inaccuracy, in terms of visual representation, is the fake geography the film portrays as Jamestown. That particular area of Virginia is very swampy and most definitely does not have mountains and waterfalls for many miles in any other direction.

I’ve gathered and listed below some of the other prominent allegations against the film’s accuracy, collected from multiple sources and made available through Wikipedia.com.

-“Kocoum and John Smith go head to head fighting for Pocahontas’ affection. Critics argue that Smith’s victory over Kocoum in this arena is symbolic of the West’s domination over the East and the white man’s domination over men of color.”

-“Pocahontas is initially portrayed as the heroine when she saves John Smith from being killed by her father, Powhatan. Later in the film though, Smith jumps in front of a bullet being fired at Powhatan. By comparing these two acts of heroism, critics argue that the focus of the film shifts from Pocahontas to Smith. Critics claim that comparing these two acts means that the film, which was originally intended to be about a brave female heroine becomes more about the triumph of a male hero, John Smith.”

-“Pocahontas’ real name was Matoaka. ‘Pocahontas’ was only a nickname, and it means ‘the naughty one’.”

-“Many argue that the visual appearance of Pocahontas reproduces gender stereotypes. They claim that the animated character is dark skinned with Asian facial features, yet her body type is undeniably Caucasian. Thus, critics contend that visually, Pocahontas reproduces stereotypes of the ideal exotic beauty, according to white males.”

-“In the Disney film, Pocahontas is a young adult; in reality, she was around 10 or 11 at the time John Smith arrived with the Virginia Company in 1607.”

-“Historically, there is no evidence of a romantic relationship emerging between Pocahontas and John Smith.”

-“Grandmother Willow is depicted as a weeping willow, which is native to Asia and would not have been found in Virginia in 1607. Native willows have an upright growth habit.”

-“Meeko, a raccoon, is depicted as Pocahontas’ sidekick, and is around at all time, even in the daytime. However, raccoons are nocturnal, and are mostly active at night.”

When you read all of those in a row it starts to dramatically shift your perspective on the movie. For many viewers, these inaccuracies permanently damage the movie for them. Unfortunately, those who still seem to enjoy it are also the uninformed and impressionable children who will continue to think Pocahontas is scripture until they too have their day of reckoning.

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1 Comment

  1. Knowing what I do about Virginia and Jamestown’s history this film ruins life for me. I am not a fan of completely bastardizing a story for theatrical purposes. But I am also not a fan of making it too historical, as Don Bluth did with Fievel. That is too deep for any kid or non student of history to understand. A nice blend of middling history with faux facets of life is appropriate and sufficient in my opinion.

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