Now that Moana has been released and Lindsey Ellis, formally known as the Nostalgia Chick, did a video essay comparing it to Pocahontas and talking about cultural appropriation, I’ve been thinking a lot more about Disney’s 1995 Pocahontas movie. I absolutely don’t want to defend Pocahontas because, well… it’s bad. It’s really bad and racist, but this movie did have a lot of positive effects on me and my understanding of the genocide white people waged on Native Americans. And even nowadays, over twenty years later, it once again indirectly managed to help me come to terms with a personal trauma. Lindsey Ellis’s video does a really good job deconstructing everything that’s wrong with this movie and I wholeheartedly recommend everyone watch it, because Pocahontas is on the whole a really awful movie. Despite my love for it and the positive influence it had on my life, those things do not erase the negatives.
Trigger warning for sexual abuse up ahead.
I suspect most of you are familiar with the plot of Pocahontas, but for those of you who aren’t, the movie is about a bunch of white settlers coming over to what is modern-day Virginia and getting into a conflict with the Powhatan people. Pocahontas, our main character and the daughter of the Powhatan chief, isn’t put off by these invaders and is instead intrigued by them. She meets and falls in love with a man named John Smith and ends up being able to create a peace between the Natives and the white people. The movie ends hopefully—due to an injury, John Smith has to go back to London, and even though he and Pocahontas cannot be together, the Natives and the white people have come to an understanding.
I’m sure you can see some of the problems people had with this movie. There are so many issues that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin, so let’s just start with Pocahontas as a historical figure.
Pocahontas was born in 1596 and died around the age of twenty-one in 1617. Pocahontas is also only one of her names. She was also known by Matoaka and Amonute, and while the exact cultural significance of these multiple names continues to escape me, I’ve mostly seen Native American people refer to her as Matoaka, so that’s what I’m going to call her. After Pocahontas first came out, I was obsessed with Matoaka—I had my mother buy me a whole bunch of historical books meant for children about her and within a year I could name just about every historical inaccuracy in the movie. Her character design was off, the setting didn’t look the way actual Virginia did at the time, and the conflicts between the Natives and us white people were not that easily solved. But even then, the books I read were very sanitized.
Matoaka first met John Smith when she was about ten and he was a frumpy middle-aged man. This was really off-putting at first, and so my seven-year-old self knew right away that there was no real-life romance. Instead, my naïve younger self assumed they were just friends. The historical John Smith liked to say that Matoaka was in love with him and that she saved his life—this is something Native people have been refuting for ages. There is no actual proof she saved his life and in all likelihood, John Smith sexually abused her. She was a child and not in love with him.
This is a really big issue for me, because I was sexually assaulted when I was about five, two years before Pocahontas’s release, and it’s something that I wasn’t dealing with at the time. I had suppressed my emotions regarding it until just last year, so learning that my childhood idol Matoaka had been through something similar would have been very helpful to me and anyone else like me. And just to be clear, what I went through and what Matoaka went through do not compare. Yes, sexism and sexual assault affect me as a woman, but I am white, and Matoaka’s assault by John Smith and other white people was continuous and also related to her being a Native American. Her culture was stripped from her and she was dehumanized. According to Wikipedia, at one point she was captured and held for ransom. During that time, she took on the name Rebecca and “converted” to Christianity. As much as I hope her conversion was a genuine desire on her part, it would be irresponsible to ignore the historical context in which many Native and other non-white people were converted. “Converted” in this case tends to mean “forced”. At this time, she also married John Rolfe, a man at least ten years her senior. She would have been around sixteen or seventeen. The marriage was rushed, and was more than likely a way to cover up the fact that she was pregnant through rape. In Rolfe’s private letters, he refused to called her a “woman” and instead called her a “creature”.
This is something that infuriates me when thinking about Pocahontas and its godawful sequel. The first movie gives us a love story between Matoaka and John Smith, while the second gives us a love story between her and John Rolfe. The love stories these movies present are absolutely irresponsible. It is insulting to sexual assault victims to create a love story between an abuse victim and her abuser, but even more so, it’s insulting to the Native American people. It erases the trauma that they went through and their history. When I finally did start dealing with what happened to me and working my way through my PTSD, Matoaka was there for me and being able to read and learn more about her really helped, and I hope she can help anyone else who struggles with sexual abuse. I’m grateful to Pocahontas for introducing me to Matoaka, but I am disappointed in the movie for so many other things.
And that’s not to say Pocahontas didn’t do some things right, because it did. There’s a scene early on in the movie where a bunch of white people sing gleefully about murdering Native Americans, and while the movie also ruins that by presenting the conflict as mutual and racist on both sides (it wasn’t), there’s something to be said about a children’s movie that straight-up tells its audience that white people did commit those murders. And not only did they murder Native Americans, they did so happily. That one scene helped fill holes in my education, because I had plenty of teachers who just skipped over what we did and continue to still do to the Native American people.
At best, I can say that, as a white person, Pocahontas helped put into perspective that white people were in the wrong, that we committed atrocious acts, and the movie’s existence did help to create a discussion and interest in Native American cultures, which many white people very much needed to have. But as I said earlier, the positives don’t erase the negatives. Pocahontas sanitized history, glorified an abusive relationship, and played into multiple offensive and dangerous stereotypes. Matoaka deserved better.