Disney's 'Pocahontas': Is It Fact Or Fiction? What Did She Wear? Did She Style Her Hair? Were She And John Smith A Pair?

Posted: June 18, 1995

They scoured museums, hunting for warclubs and ritual necklaces. They paged through drawings by 16th-century explorer John White to learn how British settlers and Native Americans carried themselves. They convened tribal powwows to solicit input on how the chief's daughter and the Powhatan confederacy should be represented in Pocahontas.

Then they hired Irene Bedard, daughter of a Cree and an Inupiat Eskimo, to be Pocahontas' voice and the model for their animation.

"The worst thing that could happen is (for Pocahontas to look) like a bunch of white guys from the Valley made it," says Mike Gabriel.

Gabriel (born in Long Beach, Calif.) and Eric Goldberg (Levittown, Pa.) co- directed the animated Disney feature that opens in Philadelphia on Friday. They sweated the details, and the results are - for the most part - an eye- popping success.

But despite efforts to authenticate what Pocahontas wore, how her tribe lived, and how Native American and English attitudes toward the land differed, the directors did not make a movie that is critic-proof.

The arrows are poised. Historians question Pocahontas' authenticity, Native Americans its cultural implications, and almost everyone else the politics of the cartoon, aimed at the pre-teen set.

Questions, questions, so many questions. Did Pocahontas really have a crush on John Smith? Was she the first diplomat to bring Native Americans and settlers together? And was she a dish?

In the interest of intellectual debate - not to mention consumer protection - we asked filmmakers, historians and American Indians about Pocahontas, real and animated, and about John Smith, the Virginia settler she rescued from execution.

OK, did Pocahontas really wear that one-shouldered doeskin that looks as if it came from Wilma Flintstone's closet?

"Everyone was wearing some form of hides, but I doubt the one-shoulder look was popular then," says Rayna Green, director of American Indian Programs at Washington's National Museum of American History, as she stifles a laugh.

"They had to put clothes on the characters for the movie," explains Mark Custalow, a Mattaponi, tribal descendants of the Powhatan Indians. "Let's just say that tops weren't a big fashion statement then."

"It's an authentic Powhatan look," asserts co-director Gabriel. "You go to the Jamestown (Virginia) museums and you see that kind of dress."

Perhaps for modesty's sake the museums draped the female figures in such garb?

Those fabulous black tresses! Who does Pocahontas' hair?

Irene Bedard. Pocahontas' voice and model - who studied drama at Philadelphia's University of the Arts - has the waist-length, silky mane of a My Little Pony doll (except it's not pink). The only thing the animators added is a riffling effect, kind of like a wind machine blowing at all times.

In all likelihood, the real Pocahontas looked more like Punka-hontas. According to Karen Robertson, a Pocahontas authority who teaches at Vassar, ''young Indian women of her tribe shaved their heads and left a long braid in the center. The older women had longer hairstyles but none of them had that hair you see in the movie."

Robertson surmises that in the film, Pocahontas is given her ever-flowing cascade because "hair is the secondary sexual characteristic that marks a woman."

So, was Pocahontas a babe?

"We don't know a lot about Pocahontas, but we know that she wasn't a brown Barbie," says Green, of the National Museum of American History, adding that she was surprised to see the historic figure Disney-ized with "nipped-in waist and torpedo boobs."

"We don't know much about her stature either," says Leo Lemay, a University of Delaware professor and author of Did Pocahontas Save John Smith? ''But chances are that she was as tall as John Smith because corn was a better food than the English were accustomed to eating. And we know that Smith regarded the Susquehanna Indians as near-giants."

And did Pocahontas save John Smith?

"Yes," says Lemay, although he's not sure whether she saved Smith from being executed by her father because she was acting as a diplomat, because she liked the settlers, or because the "rescue" was staged as part of a tribal ritual that symbolized Smith's kinship with the Powhatans.

Lemay points out that later in life Pocahontas also saved settlers Richard Whiffen and Henry Spellman. "As far as the settlers were concerned," he says, "she was a pretty nice woman."

What did John Smith think of Pocahontas?

In 1624, 17 years after they met, Smith wrote that, at the time of their meeting, Pocahontas was "a child of 10 years old, which not only for feature, countenance and proportion much exceedeth any of the rest of his (Chief Powhatan's) people, but for wit and spirit the only nonpareil of his country." In other words, she was fun. Plus, he thought she was cute.

Wait, you're saying that Pocahontas was a kid?

"From what we know of the historical record, she was a child when they met, probably between 12 and 14, and Smith was about 27. If they had a love affair, he was a pedophile," says Thomasina Jordan, the head of the Virginia Council on Indians, and herself a Wampanoag.

"Their relationship was that of a young girl and an older man," explains Vassar's Robertson. Pocahontas' romances occurred later, around 1615, and with different men.

You mean there was no romance between Pocahontas and Smith?

Nope, says Robert Tilton, a University of Connecticut professor specializing in 17th-century America. "The rescue of John Smith occurs rather early in the story of Pocahontas, possibly at their first meeting."

Although it's not historically accurate, Tilton thinks that the way Disney structured the story "is ingenious. It enabled them to deliver a message on the danger of being suspicious of different cultures."

Who were Pocahontas' romantic interests?

"According to Jamestown historian William Strachey, Pocahontas was married to Kocoum, a member of her tribe, before she got kidnapped by white settlers in 1613," says Tilton.

"The story of Pocahontas' later life is very exciting," says co-director Gabriel. "After she was kidnapped by settlers at war with her father, she had a religious conversion, she got married, had a baby, went to England." In 1614, she married John Rolfe, the Virginia planter who made tobacco a cash crop. After converting to Christianity, Pocahontas was baptized Rebecca and bore a son, Thomas. She died in England in 1617.

So, how come in the movie Pocahontas and Smith are depicted as a romantic couple?

The story of Pocahontas and Rolfe was too complicated and violent for a youthful audience, says Gabriel. Instead, Disney took liberties with the story of Pocahontas' meeting of Smith and turned it into a musical romance/diversity seminar.

But if "Pocahontas" is supposed to be about cross-cultural understanding, how come Pocahontas and John Smith don't live happily ever after?

"Underneath Pocahontas' progressive gloss," says Vassar's Robertson, ''the message is deeply conservative: that two different cultures cannot meet and marry. But, in fact, what's so interesting about the real Pocahontas story is that she was able to move between and integrate two societies."

Why did Disney fiddle with Pocahontas' age in the movie? It's sort of, you know . . . icky.

"Dramatically, it makes sense playing her older," says actress Bedard. ''It makes her able to be more responsible for her choices." After all, the actress says, "this is the legend of Pocahontas."

But "what's wrong with a child female projected as a heroine?" asks Jordan of the Virginia Council on Indians. "Isn't it good to have our youths look at children of accomplishment?"

"I have to question, why is Disney making a prepubescent girl into a babe?" Robertson asks. "Why do they have to eroticize her for an audience of prepubescents?"

Significantly, Mike Gabriel's original drawings (as seen in The Art of Pocahontas, a coffee-table book published by Hyperion) depict Pocahontas as a wholesome, rosy-cheeked girl in a long, fringed dress.

The Little Mermaid only had a father, Belle only had a father, Jasmine only had a father and, now, Pocahontas only has a father. What's the deal?

"You notice in most Disney movies - except for Bambi and Dumbo (where the mothers die or are shipped off) - that the mother is dead and the villain is a middle-aged woman like the Wicked Stepmother, Cruella DeVil or Evil Queen," notes Katha Pollitt, an essayist whose collection Reasonable Creatures was recently published.

"Disney movies are patriarchal in the true meaning of the term; they are about young people wrestling with paternal authority."

"It's time we did a good-mother story," agrees co-director Gabriel. ''When I first read the story of Pocahontas, my first thought was 'This is perfect,' " he admits. "My second thought was, 'Uh-oh, no mom again.' "

Did the Powhatan war dance really resemble a bellicose chorus line?

According to Gabriel, "Native American Jim Great Elkwaters helped authenticate the dance, which starts with a Michael Jackson 'I'm bad' type of strut, then becomes a loose, foot-stomping circle and then forms into a murderous conga line."

Some Native Americans are conflicted about the Pocahontas legend. Was she a traitor to her tribe, a conciliator between warring cultures, a woman in love? How do her descendants regard Pocahontas?

"We do speak of her, we do respect her," muses Mark Custalow, the Mattaponi whose tribe is descended from the Powhatans. "It's just that not all of us agree about what she did. Not everyone walks the red path, not everyone observes the Native American way of life. She was 12 years old. She chose her path."

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