Pocahontas Essay Introduction

Pocahontas Essay


[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...

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Pocahontas. The most familiar Indian woman in American history, and maybe the most familiar of all Indians. But who is she, and why is she so familiar? To Paula Gunn Allen, one of her latest biographers, Pocahontas is medicine woman, spy, entrepreneur, and diplomat. To the previous generation's Charles Larson, she's "Every Indian, the archetypal Noble Savage." In the popular mind — think of Terrence Malick's 2005 film The New World — Pocahontas is still linked romantically, and erroneously, with John Smith. She's been glorified as the "the first lady of Virginia," "Our Lady of the James," "the Virgin Queen of the West," "a daughter of Eve," "an angel of peace," "the Indian Ceres," and, most tellingly, "the mother of us all."

In truth, she's been all things to all people. Used and abused. Since the beginning of the 18th century, Pocahontas has been the subject of a cultural industry. In many ways, this woman, about whom so very little is actually known, and who has left not one word undeniably her own on the historical record, is a complete product of the American imagination.

And what does she stand for? The story of her deliverance of John Smith, itself contested because of the discrepancy between Smith's 1608 and 1624 accounts, is one of our most cherished creation myths. If she had not saved Smith, himself the savior of Jamestown, "we" would not be here today. Leslie Fiedler sees Pocahontas as the "symbol of the White man's reconciliation with our land and its first inhabitants." The painting of her baptism that hangs in our nation's holy of holies, the United States Capitol rotunda, is a sign, though the act of a hostage, of Indian acknowledgment of White superiority. But perhaps Melville captures her cultural function best in The Confidence Man, and we should not miss the irony of the source: "When I think of Pocahontas, I am ready to love Indians." Pocahontas good, ugh!

If ever an historical figure needs to be put on trial, it's Pocahontas. And, in fact, Custalow and Daniels' 2007 The True Story of Pocahontas, based on the oral history of the Mattaponi, is a stark witness for the prosecution. But the debunking controversy began as far back as 1662 before hitting full stride with Charles Deane and Henry Adams in the mid-19th century.

The Pocahontas Archive provides the basis for such a trial. It is an ever-growing collection of materials relating to the study of Pocahontas (and, by association, John Smith, Jamestown, and early Virginia) from early America to the present day: histories, biographies, poems, plays, fiction, textbooks, movies, music, essays, dissertations, newspaper articles, children's books, paintings, sculpture, recordings, genealogies -- whatever has contributed to the shaping of the Pocahontas figure in our culture.

The History section of the Archive contains three parts: a timeline, an annotated list of all the texts in which Pocahontas figured or should have figured in and just after her lifetime, and a list of the legion of memorable epithets bestowed on her.

The Controversy section contains an annotated bibliography on the debunking of the Smith-Pocahontas relationship as well as clippings about crucial contested episodes of her life from the counter-narrative in the Mattaponi sacred history.

The entries in the bibliography (over 2000 as of 2015) are listed chronologically because my initial purpose for studying Pocahontas, influenced by the excellent work of Robert S. Tilton (Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative) and Anne Uhry Abrams (The Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths of American Origin), had to do with tracing representations of her over time.

The bibliography is fully searchable by any word in the citations and annotations, and there is a drop-down list of over thirty search categories of especial interest. As of 2015, annotation of entries and links to full-text documents online is mainly complete through 1860. The many links to full-text online documents is one of the distinguishing and most useful features of this project. Work on finishing the annotations and linking continues.

Eventually (though we seem to be entering a world in which everything will soon be available online!) I hope to house all the photocopies of text documents I have collected in an appropriate library, providing a convenient one-stop resource for students and scholars researching Pocahontas. For now, people should contact me directly in regard to documents that are not online or available through their library channels.

The image gallery currently contains over 150 images of Pocahontas, and, like the text documents, this part of the archive will continue to grow over time, especially as more works in the past century pass out of copyright.

The Essay section is broken into four parts: On Texts, On Images, On Films, and On the Rescue. We invite contributions for the Essay section as well as for the Teaching section.

The Clippings section contains a large and ever-growing collection of quotes from primary and secondary sources that provides a kind of oral history of Pocahontas representation as well as a rich, practical, and useful research resource.

Especially in the early stages of development, the Pocahontas Archive would not have been possible without the energetic collaboration of Lehigh University's Interlibrary Loan staff, and a very special thanks is due Patricia Ward -- truly an unsung but much appreciated partner on this long road.  Rob Weidman, Lehigh University Senior Library Technologist, did the web design.

No project like this can be complete or without error. In the spirit of scholarly community that web technology encourages, I invite others to help make this list of Pocahontas materials ultimately as comprehensive and as accurate as possible by sending me additions, corrections, suggestions.

Edward J. Gallagher
Dept. of English
Lehigh University
May 2015

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