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Disney movies are well-known for their adorable creatures, sappy romance stories, and happy endings. Disney’s first film based on a Native American heroine was churned out just like any other: it overlooks as much of the bad stuff as possible to create a happy, romantic, love-filled story. The movie Pocahontas is loosely inspired by the arrival of the English settlers who created the Jamestown colony in 1307. While there are a few proper depictions of the story, the movie is chock-full of historical inaccuracies. Disney may have made a movie that’s fun to watch, but it is lacking in the history department.
One of the most blatant inaccuracies is actually the main plot of the entire movie, the romance between Pocahontas and John Smith. Pocahontas was only about 10 years old when 27-year-old Smith arrived in the New World. In the movie, Pocahontas is portrayed as a fully-grown woman who is close in age to John. Pocahontas and John Smith were never romantically involved. In fact, at about the age of 14, evidence suggests that Pocahontas married a lower ranking man named Kocoum out of love, although in the movie her father seems to be trying to force her into the marriage. Disney obviously chose to overlook these things to create their usual love-at-first-sight enchanting story. Not only was Disney’s depiction of John and Pocahontas’s relationship way off-key, but Disney also completely altered the circumstances under which the pair met. While in the movie Pocahontas meets Smith almost immediately after he lands in the ‘new world’, in actuality her tribe did not encounter any Englishmen until John Smith was captured by her uncle (the Powhatan’s brother) and brought to the Powhatan’s home. This encounter leads to the next inaccuracy in the film: the so-called ‘saving’ of John Smith’s life.
According to John Smith’s personal accounts, right before his head was about to get bashed in, Pocahontas threw herself on top of him and begged the Powhatan to give him mercy. This is also what we see pictured in the movie. Many historians question whether this event really happened. As reported by oral and contemporary history from the Mattaponi tribe, the Powhatan had grown to like John Smith and the ceremony in which Smith claimed he was about to be killed was actually meant to honor and accept him into a leadership position. There was no reason for someone to kill a man who was honored by the chief. Another reason Pocahontas probably did not save Smith’s life is that if he was indeed in a ceremony, children were not allowed to attend such important events, meaning that young Pocahontas could not have been there to save him in the first place.
The movie promotes the dangerous idea that after a short war the English see their wrongdoings and both sides make friends and live happily ever after. The truth is, even while the Mattaponi tribe did help the Jamestown colony survive by bringing food, there was still hostility from the colonists. In fact, most of the strife between the two cultures was created and provoked by the settlers. Although it was not shown in the movie, over 80 percent of the indigenous population was wiped out as a result of mass genocide and because of infectious diseases that were caught from the colonizers.
Pocahontas herself did not receive the serene ending depicted in the movie. When she was around the age of 16, she was kidnapped and taught English customs and religion. While she was in captivity, Mattaponi oral history says that she was raped. She was converted to Christianity and, according to all English accounts, married to a man named John Rolfe for love, but this is uncertain as after she was captured Pocahontas never saw her Mattaponi family again. Disney leaving these important things out of the film is harmful because it is an erasure of the affliction of the indigenous people. Many Native Americans suffered.
Something Disney portrayed correctly was the racist opinions of the colonists. In the movie when they were on their way to the new world, they sang songs about how they were going to ‘kill some injuns’. The white men saw Indians as uncivilized and barbaric. The saw them as savages who were less human than themselves. They automatically wished to kill any Indian they saw, and the way that they acted about it kind of seemed like it was similar to hunting or killing an animal to them. Colonists probably thought this because they thought any divergence from their culture was primitive. Even in the film, when John was talking to Pocahontas, we insulted her culture by calling it uncivilized.
The movie Pocahontas did attempt to convey a lesson, though it was not a historical one. The message of the movie was telling you to be true to your own heart, and we see this as Pocahontas takes bold actions, defies her father, and falls in love with a man whom she shouldn’t have. Of course, for it to have been a children’s movie, it’s an unspoken rule that the message must be one that teaches you to be kind to yourself and others.
In conclusion, Disney’s wish to create a light-hearted movie with a happy ending ended up masking the historical aspects of the movie. They based the entire plot around a romance that didn’t happen, and the peak of the movie was centered on the unsupported legend of Pocahontas saving John Smith. The movie skipped over many crucial elements that would have made it accurate.
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