In Camilla Townsend’s book, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, Townsend points out that there are many historical inaccuracies and myths that are associated with the story of Pocahontas. Using historical evidence to support the story of Pocahontas, Townsend attempted to create an accurate timeline bringing the past to the present. At the same time, the Disney film Pocahontas attempted to depict Algonquian culture accurately, however, according to history, much of the material presented in the film is full of misconceptions and is historically imprecise. In fact, Disney’s Pocahontas epitomizes John Smith and Pocahontas as heroes who prevented a war between the Algonquian Native American tribes and the colonists who were living in Jamestown. However, historical evidence proves that at the time John Smith came into contact with Powhatan, Pocahontas was only a young child around the age of ten and, thus had very little influence over her father. Additionally, the film depicts John Smith as a leader who was looked up to by the other colonists, while historical records prove that he “had made many enemies by the time he had left Jamestown.”1 Disney inaccurately portrayed particular pieces of the Native American experience with the European colonists, specifically regarding Pocahontas, yet, it is important to consider the audience that this part of history was being presented to. One of the biggest historical inaccuracies presented in the Disney film Pocahontas is the love story between John Smith and Pocahontas. The film exhibited John Smith and Pocahontas as falling madly in love at first sight. This love is represented in the film through the “colors of the wind” which can often be seen circling Smith or Pocahontas. In the book, Townsend provides evidence of a relationship between the two that included only friendship, laughter, and education, but not love. A demonstration of this relationship would be when Pocahontas “participated in a class of mutual language instruction with John Smith.”2 In fact, it is from these lessons that Smith was able to write down the only full Powhatan sentences to ever be recorded. While there was no love between Smith and Pocahontas, historical evidence has shown that Smith thought about Pocahontas in sexual ways. Actually, “council investigation openly acknowledged that he made lewd comments about her – or having even done things to her – in jokes, or in moments of sexual arousal.”3 The true love story in Pocahontas occurred between John Rolfe and Pocahontas at the Jamestown settlement a few years after Smith had made contact with the Algonquian tribe. Unfortunately, Rolfe was not even represented in the first Pocahontas film.
Another historical inaccuracy that can be seen in the Disney film is the physical depiction of both John Smith and Pocahontas. The film portrays Smith as a young, tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed colonist who is charming and interested in protecting the Native Americans after coming into contact with Pocahontas. In contrast, historical evidence mentions that he was interested in control, and his intent was to subjugate the Native Americans so that “they could be made to work for their conquerors.”4 Smith was particularly interested in power and control over the Native Americans to further the cause in the New World for the English, which “unfortunately had passed the English by for at least a century.”5 Interestingly, Smith is portrayed in the film as being a young adult, of similar age to Pocahontas; however, in reality he was a middle-aged man with a large beard, and much older than Pocahontas.6 Smith is not the only person who was represented inaccurately by Disney in the film. Pocahontas is portrayed in the film as being a tall, beautiful, young adult who is free-spirited and passionate about nature. The most serious inaccuracy regarding Pocahontas is undoubtedly the fact that she is represented as a young adult, most likely around the age of twenty. According to historical records, Pocahontas, at the time of Smith’s arrival to the New World, was only ten years old.7 Additionally, the film depicts Pocahontas as being shocked and in awe of the English, however, evidence shows that “at no point did Powhatan, Pocahontas, or any of their people look on the strangers with wide-mouthed awe or consider them gods.”8 In fact, it is because of her young age that Townsend believes that “Powhatan and his advisors were hardly under her influence” when it came to policy decisions. Thus, her representation as a young adult is historically inaccurate and was clearly put in place to support the imaginary love story between her and John Smith and make this fairy tale seem more believable.
In Disney’s Pocahontas, it is evident that Powhatan desires Pocahontas to marry a Native American. In fact, the film even depicts Powhatan selecting Kocoom, one of his strongest warriors, to be Pocahontas’ future husband. However, Townsend shines light on the idea that Powhatan did not have a strong preference about who Pocahontas married because Pocahontas’ mother lacked “political significance.”9 For this reason, any male child that Pocahontas was to bear would have not been placed in a seat of power, so it was not particularly necessary that she marry at all. As a result, she was given the choice of whom she wanted to marry. Interestingly, historical records indicate that Pocahontas “married a man named Kocoom, around the age of twelve or thirteen” and that “she must have liked him very much indeed.”10 So while the Disney film inaccurately portrayed Powhatan’s interest in Pocahontas’ love life, the film was able to successfully introduce Kocoom as a great warrior who had love for Pocahontas. Unfortunately, the film also inaccurately depicted a skirmish between Smith and Kocoom, which ultimately led to Kocoom’s death after being shot in the back. One thing historians are certain about is that Kocoom was the first husband of Pocahontas, however, “within a few years Kocoom seems to have disappeared.”11 The true story behind what exactly happened to Kocoom is up for debate, although many believe that he could have been killed in war, as he was a warrior for Powhatan. Another historical inaccuracy in Pocahontas is the portrayal of Powhatan as a person who practices monogamy. In fact, there are slight references in the film that Pocahontas’ mother had died, thus, making Powhatan a widow. While it is possible that Pocahontas’ mother died, historians know that Powhatan practiced polygamy regardless, due to the numerous amount of children he had. Through this system, “whole clans of brothers and sisters had an obvious shared interest in remaining united and maintaining their family’s power.”12 In Townsend’s book, it is stated that in order to maintain rule over the tribes he conquered, Powhatan would “simply marry a woman of their royal family” because “a son conceived by her would grow up with loyalty to both his father and to his mother’s people.”13 To be ensured of this loyalty, the children were to be raised by Powhatan himself.
The film also portrayed the inaccurate idea that Powhatan was interested in killing all of the colonists. In fact, what Powhatan really wanted was to gain metal tools as well as technology in the form of guns, knives, hatchets and pans; this is the reason why he made a deal John Smith.14 Townsend even included the fact that Powhatan was interested in “establishing kinship ties as a means of ensuring his expanding control.”15 While Disney portrayed the story of Pocahontas inaccurately in many ways, some of the historical information was displayed in a correct manner. At the beginning of the film, the women of the tribe can be seen working in the fields. This, from the study of history, is accurate because we know that every member of the tribe worked in the village, even the royal family.16 Women could be seen dividing into groups in the morning; some would work the field, some would pick up firewood, and others would gather Tuckahoe to make flour.17 The film also depicted the Native Americans’ telling of great stories that included the European conquests of parts of the New World. Being that Native American culture is passed down orally, historians can easily accept this idea that historical tales were told around campfires. Townsend explains that on an “ordinary evening, Pocahontas might have sat in the flickering light of torches and the central fire…listening to the older people tell stories.”18 While historians will never know exactly what Pocahontas was taught about her ancestry, it is safe to assume that there were many stories about the prior attempts of colonization that the “coat-wearers” had on their land. When analyzing the historical inaccuracies of the Disney film Pocahontas, it is important to keep in mind the audience that the film was created for. Disney undoubtedly created the film as a way to introduce the concept of Native Americans to children. In fact, one could argue that the primary audience that this film was intended for is between the ages of six and nine. As a result, Disney would not want to create a film that portrays all Europeans as power-hungry and eager to conquer the world in violent ways. After all, American children are more than likely living on land that belonged to the Native Americans at one time. It would not be favorable for Disney to illustrate the people around these children as a group who is interested in stealing from others. Disney hopes to teach kids about the importance of giving to others and keeping those you love close. Thus, this is why we see John Smith and Pocahontas as attractive role models who fall madly in love. Pocahontas was created to be a fairytale that portrayed the idea of ultimate love and happiness, not to show the utter destruction that the Native Americans and their land suffered from after contact with the Europeans.
One could argue that Pocahontas was created to depict a peaceful transfer of lands from the Native Americans to the European colonists through mutual agreement, an example of how inaccuracies about the true occurrence still persist today. Disney attempted to develop a film that introduced the history of Native Americans and the New World to young children through a simplistic story with a happy ending. However, this could become dangerous if the children who view the film do not receive proper education about the subject and continuously base facts off the film. In general, making a fictitious representation of true events could pass as unobjectionable in order to make a story more interesting for film. In the case of Pocahontas, when a story works to make the group that was truly at fault look innocent, issues arise in terms of proper education and the reinforcement of unjust myths. The film, Pocahontas, was undoubtedly filled with many historical inaccuracies, which have caused confusion about the realistic story of Pocahontas, but it did provide truthful, basic background information about Native American lifestyle at the time of the European conquest. I agree with Townsend that Pocahontas deserves for her true story to be known. However, I believe that creating a Disney film was not the best way to accomplish this, nor was it the goal of the company. Introducing the true interactions and agreements made between the Algonquian Native Americans and the European conquerors was not possible to do through an animated Disney film due to the typical audience of the film and the simplistic, family-oriented themes that Disney incorporates. American History classes provided in American schools, particularly in areas that have a strong historical Native American presence, are doing a better job of teaching students about the truthful atrocities that the European settlers created for the Native Americans. It is clear, however, that pop-culture may not be at the same level of educating society.
Townsend, Camilla. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.
Pocahontas. Dir. Mike Gabriel. 1995. DVD.
Courtney from Study Moose
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