On Pocahontas and the Misrepresentation of Native Women

The following two tabs change content below.

Kachina Yeager

22-year old Minnesotan, Bdewakanthuwan Dakota, university student, mother of 2 cats and a dog, aspiring writer, and intersectional feminist.

If you’re a woman of Native background, chances are high that you’ve been called Pocahontas before. Be it in a “well-meaning” manner, such as a little kid pointing to your mother with her long black hair and turquoise jewelry exclaiming “you look exactly like Pocahontas!” or be it in an “I’m-your-white-friend-just-poking-fun-at-you” way, you probably felt some sort of discomfort at the name. It’s understandable, too—while the dominant story surrounding Pocahontas is the Disney-fied, colonial romance, peace-keeping, young woman who is fully capable of making her own choices version, most Native people know the real version of Pocahontas’s life story.

For those of you who don’t know, Pocahontas was merely a nickname. Her real name was Matoaka, and at the time the Disney movie is set in (the early 1600’s), Matoaka would actually only have been about 10 or 11 years old. Nevertheless, the story of her “saving” John Smith is only legend, with the truth of it never really proven. What we do know about Matoaka for sure is that at the age of 17, she was held captive at Jamestown for over a year before being married to John Rolfe, an Englishman, who not only renamed her “Rebecca,” but also then took her to England. There, she had his son and upon trying to return to what had become the state of ‘Virginia,’ she died of illness in Gravesend, England at the young age of 21.

Not only was her life short, but it was laced with lots of pain, hardship, and violence. Beyond this, the way her character has been reconstructed for mass consumption Disney-style perpetuates violence on Native women. Currently, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Native American and Alaskan Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely than women in the USA in general to be sexually assaulted or raped. This is absolutely unacceptable, and there are many factors that add up to these numbers: for example, Native communities still are unable to prosecute non-natives who commit crimes on a reservation. Nevertheless, representations of Native women like Pocahontas play a large, subconscious role in the societal and cultural perpetuation of this type of violence.

Pocahontas is portrayed in the Disney film as a young woman on the brink of adulthood—tall, full-breasted, large lips with her long, dark, flowing hair. She is defiant of her father and thus her community, looking “for something more.” Viewers experience her as part of the “virgin” landscape she’s from. Her physical surrounding landscape is “The New World”; untouched, pure, and wholesome in a way the “Old World” isn’t — unconquered yet by “men” but ready for the taking of its resources — “virgin”-like. We see this blurring of Pocahontas and her landscape through her relationship with grandmother Willow, painting with all the colors of the wind, and singing to her animal relatives. Now, don’t get me wrong here – many Indigenous peoples do see themselves as relatives to all Creation (including willows, animals, and the land), but we, as moviegoers, uniquely see only Pocahontas’ connection to it, presenting her as a mere part of her environment through giving solely her the ability to “paint with the wind” and talk to animals and trees, while the rest of her tribal community seem to be separate from this connection. We see John Smith as the noble, notable, and near-legendary conqueror of this “New World” and its land. As such, we are expecting John Smith to also conquer Pocahontas and tame her wild spirit which he ultimately does with her flinging her own body onto his to take the violence meant for him. Pocahontas becomes the embodiment of Manifest Destiny through female bodies, “becoming civilized” by falling in love with the White hero as she’s finally ready to lead her people, and subsequently erasing the reality of the horror and hardship endured by Matoaka.

Narratives like Disney’s Pocahontas present us, Native women, as naïve, young, impressionable, and essentially “ready for the taking.” This representation and the subsequent portrait it depicts of Native women bleeds into the master narrative of Western society, and leaves the wound of those aforementioned violent statistics. Furthermore, it begs the question: how often do we see representations of Native women in the mainstream that are not Pocahontas? What message is this lack of non-sexualized Native female role models sending young Native women and girls?

We are more than just part of our landscapes, we are more than “uncivilized” Princesses waiting to be taken under the wing of a White hero. We are leaders, educators, creators, caretakers, artists, activists, and scholars. We deserve to see accurate representations of our lives as Native women. We deserve to see our dreams enacted on screen and in the media, and moreover, we as a larger society owe those accurate representations to young Native girls who have been waiting their whole lives to see them.