In the summer of 1995, Pocahontas became Disney’s 33rd animated feature film; the first mainstream Disney film with a Native American heroine. Due to numerous verifiable historical inaccuracies insulting to native communities, Disney’s Pocahontas was surrounded by controversy.
Here are several examples of why Disney’s Pocahontas isn’t just offensive and historically inaccurate, but harmful.
Disney knew that the original Pocahontas was a child
The Disney company consulted with historians yet admit that they drew inspiration from the folklore and fable of the legend of Pocahontas instead of historical accounts. In the feature The Making of Pocahontas, Roy Disney, then Vice Chairman of the Board of the Walt Disney Company, made this unsettling statement:
“The story is really Pocahontas’s story although we have taken some liberties with it. We knew that she was a bit younger when she met John Smith than we show her in the film, but on the other hand we felt like the relationship that developed by way of a love story in addition to the relationship of two people from different civilizations just added an emotional impact to what finally happens that makes it, I think, a more dramatic telling of the story.”
This is disturbing when according to Mattaponi scared oral historian Dr. Linwood ‘Little Bear’ Custalow, a direct descendant of Pocahontas, “Pocahontas was about ten years old when the English colonists arrived (including John Smith) in 1607.”
In several early concept artwork, Pocahontas is depicted as a child or a young teenager. However, supervising animator Glen Keane described her as “more of a woman than a teenager” in the behind-the-scenes special. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Keane added about Disney’s Pocahontas, ”We’re doing a mature love story here, and we’ve got to draw her as such. She has to be sexy.”
The excessive use of anti-Native Terminology
The screenplay for Disney’s Pocahontas is muddled with offensive content. Several Native tropes appear in the film as well as a subtle “Indian giver” joke between animal characters, Meeko and Percy.
The word savage(s) is spoken 46 times by settlers and derogatory terms such as heathens, devils, dirty and uncivilized are used 24 times against Native characters. Additionally, threats of violence through speech and action (including the murder of Kocoum) occurred 43 times throughout the film.
In total there were 113 examples of violent anti-Native racism in a children’s film with a run time of one hour and thirty-one minutes.
Kocoum was not Pocahontas’s suitor; he was her husband
Kocoum is a warrior admired by Pocahontas’s father Wahunseneca in both the film and in history. While his romance is unrequited in the film, he did marry Pocahontas. When rumors circulated that the English intended on kidnapping Pocahontas, she went to live with him in his village. It is there that she became pregnant and had his child.
When Kocoum sees John Smith kissing Pocahontas in the film, he fights him and is killed by Thomas. Historically, a group of his men attacked Kocoum’s home and killed him shortly after the English kidnapped Pocahontas.
The child of Kocoum and Pocahontas survived and was cared for by the women of Kocoum’s village.
John Smith didn’t take a bullet to save Wahunseneca … or any Native
During the Colors of the Wind sequence in Disney’s Pocahontas, Pocahontas teaches John Smith the error of his ways. He tries to seek a peaceful solution between the natives and his own people and is met with resistance, especially from Governor Ratcliffe. At the end of the film, Smith risks his life to save Pocahontas’s father when Ratcliffe shoots at him. Smith must be taken back to England to recover from his injury, resulting in the film’s bittersweet ending.
In reality, John Smith terrorized several native villages for their food and resources by holding guns to the heads of village leaders. He was injured in a gunpowder accident and traveled back to England to recover. Pocahontas did not send him off like she does in the film; she was told that he died.
Disney admitted they knew Pocahontas never “saved” John Smith from being executed.
In The Making of Pocahontas, the film’s producer Jim Pentecost makes a comment about the film’s climax, where Pocahontas rescues John Smith:
“…there’s controversy among historians whether or not it really happened. So we felt that since historians among themselves can’t agree, that we had a certain amount of license to use what is known from the folklore to create this story.”
The “execution” was actually a four day ceremony that would initiate John Smith into becoming a werowance (secular chief). His life was never in danger and Smith acknowledges that he understood he would be released in four days.
Additionally, Custalow writes that “Smith’s accounts of the events surrounding Pocahontas allegedly saving his life were written years after her death. At that time, there was no one to attest to what he had written.”
Disney references the genocide of Native Americans visually and in song
After the colonists arrive in Virginia, the medicine man Kekata uses smoke and fire to warn his tribe about the dangers they will bring. Images appear of the colonists shooting and murdering Native people, including a woman holding a baby. This is echoed in the musical number Savages and its reprise, which includes the line “Destroy their evil race until there’s not a trace left.”
Historically, the violence between the colonists and the natives increased over time. This would only worsen over the centuries as more settlers occupied and stole Turtle Island from other Indigenous tribes. The end of Disney’s Pocahontas suggests that love and empathy can stop colonial violence even though Disney was fully aware that even Native women and their babies were not spared from it.
See Related Articles in ICMN:
The True Story of Pocahontas: Historical Myths Versus Sad Reality by Vincent Schilling
Pocahontas Death Day Celebrations in England by Lisa J. Ellwood