The Pocahontas Narrative and Disney's Interpretation

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Pocahontas: Origin and Creation of a Myth

3. Roy Disney’s Pocahontas (1995)
a) European societas vs. Native American communitas
b) Smith and Pocahontas as the New World’s Adam and Eve
c) The Perception of the Other
d) Pocahontas as a Teacher of Philanthropy and Respect

4. Pocahontas and its Critics

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Ever since the colonization of the American continent, the Native Americans and their culture have concerned and often fascinated the Euro-American population. This is shown clearly by the facts that the Indian captivity narrative became the first truly popular genre of American literature and that by the beginning of the 19th century Indian American characters had become central characters in theatrical plays and on American stages throughout the country.[1] After the invention of motion picture in 1895, North American Indian characters made an entrance into plenty of American movies. Unfortunately, in most cases it was not of great concern to the producers to depict the Native Indians in a realistic way, but rather to appeal to a broad audience, which was best to be achieved by using popular stereotypes, which had been around for 200 years.[2] Up till today, stereotypical conceptions have dominated American motion picture, and only very few movies have tried to depict Native Americans in a more realistic and sensitive way.[3]

Keeping this history of American Indian movies in mind, it becomes apparent that Walt Disney’s animated movie Pocahontas, released in 1995, stood in a long tradition of movies, of which only in the recent past a few had broken with the traditional stereotypes. The Disney Company, too, was severely criticized for reusing stereotypical conceptions in their depiction of Pocahontas and her tribe and for being historically inaccurate and insensitive to the Native Americans’ past.

The following paper will first give a brief summary of the historic Pocahontas’ life, which is necessary in order to understand in how far Disney kept or changed historic facts, and then depict the origins of the Pocahontas myth. Afterwards, the most important aspects of the movie will be described and analyzed with special regard to the depiction of colonists and colonized.[4] The final chapter will deal with the criticism on the movie and try to conclude whether Disney has indeed failed to be sensitive to Native American culture or if the critics have been too hard on an, after all, animated children’s movie.

2. Pocahontas: Origin and Creation of a Myth

Although plenty of books and films have dealt with Pocahontas, we do in fact not know much about the historic person. Only some facts may be taken for granted: Pocahontas (originally named “Matoaka”) was born around 1595 as the daughter of chief Powhatan in the Chesapeake region in Virginia. After the foundation of Jamestown in 1607, she came into contact with the English settlers, especially with the governor Captain John Smith, who named her “Pocahontas” (‘Little Mischief’). In 1612, the colonists took her hostage for ransom and kept her after it was partly paid in Jamestown. In 1613, she converted to Christian faith, was baptized “Rebecca” and married the English settler John Rolfe one year later. In 1615, their only son Thomas was born. In the following year, Pocahontas and her family traveled to England, where they were received at the court of King James I and where the Dutch artist Simon van de Passe portrayed Pocahontas, creating the only visual representation of her produced during her lifetime. In 1617, she died from tuberculosis or pneumonia and was buried in Gravesend.[5]

Pocahontas remained silent throughout her life and never produced her own narrative, as Karen Robertson points out.[6] The central descriptions of the historic Pocahontas appear in stories by the Virginia colonists John Rolfe, Ralph Hamor and John Smith.[7] Smith claimed in his Generall Historie of Virginia (1624) that Pocahontas saved his life after he had been captured by the Powhatan tribe.

„[...] As many as could laid hands on him [...] and being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the King’s dearest daughter [...] got his head in her arms and laid her own upon his to save him from death.“[8]

Even though it is still not certain whether Smith’s story, since he did not tell it until seven years after Pocahontas’ death, was maybe just a product of his imagination[9] or, in case the event actually took place, whether Pocahontas’ rescue act was only part of an Indian ritual and the British colonist was actually never supposed to be killed[10], Smith’s lines about the princess’ behavior made a strong impression on the following generations of writers, who again and again picked up the Pocahontas narrative to retell it. During the centuries after the publication of Smith’s Generall History of Virginia, the story about the Indian princess sacrificing herself for the British captain became deeply embedded into the foundational stories about America as a nation.[11] In the 18th century, the Virginia historian Robert Beverly was the first to try to reconstruct the Pocahontas narrative. At that time, it was the marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe that fascinated both authors and readers and which was thus emphasized in the retellings. Knowing this historic example of a functioning intermarriage even producing offspring, people realized that a harmonious relationship between Europeans and Native Americans was indeed possible and that hence the ongoing conflict between the native population and the colonizers could have been avoided.[12] This retrospective theory developed into the fantasy that the established native peoples could maybe after all still be integrated into the Euro-American culture.[13] In the post-Revolutionary War period, the narrative’s romantic potential was discovered and in many retellings the marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe was more and more subordinated to her relationship to Smith. The first to do this was John Davis, who claimed in his book Captain Smith and Princess Pocahontas, an Indian Tale (1805) that Pocahontas’ love affair with John Smith had accounted for her rescue act. Since the historic facts known about Pocahontas do not allow for this conclusion, Davis was the first to create a mytho-literary life of Pocahontas. The focus of the retellings shifted from trying to be historically accurate to deliberately distorting history, to deliberately creating a myth.[14]


[1] Marsden, Michael/Nachbar, Jack. „The Indian in the Movies“. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 4: History of Indian-White Relations. ed. William C. Sturtevant. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988, 608.

[2] For a detailed description of the three different stereotypes see Marsden, „The Indian in the Movies“, 607

[3] Marsden, „The Indian in the Movies“, 616

[4] As a source for this part will be used: Pocahontas. Dir. Mike Gabriela and Eric Goldberg. Animated Voices: Irene Bedard, Judy Kuhn, Mel Gibson, David Odgen Stiers. Walt Disney Pictures, 1995.

[5] Tilton, Robert S. Pocahontas. The Evolution of an American Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 3.

[6] Robertson, Karen: “Pocahontas at the Masque.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 21. Chicago: University Press, 1996, 567.

[7] Robertson , “Pocahontas at the Masque”, 554.

[8] Smith, John. “The Generall History of Virginia, the Summer Isle, and New England, with the names of the Adventurers and their Adventures (…)”. In: The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Volume A: American Literature to 1820. 6th Edition. ed. Nina Baym et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003, 112.

[9] Preda, Roxana. „The Angel in the Ecosystem Revisited: Disney’s Pocahontas and Postmodern Ethics.“From Virgin Land to Disney World. Nature and its Discontents in the USA of Yesterday and Today. ed. Bernd Herzogenrath. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2001, 318.

[10] Tilton, Pocahontas, 5.

[11] Tilton, Pocahontas, 1.

[12] Ironically, as Theweleit points out, Pocahontas’ son Thomas later married a white woman and fought on the British side against the native population. Obviously, his British roots were stronger than his native ones. For details see Theweleit, Klaus. Pocahontas in Wonderland, Shakespeare on Tour. Frankfurt am Main/Basel: Stroemfeld/RoterStern, 1999, 74.

[13] Tilton, Pocahontas, 3.

[14] Tilton, Pocahontas, 3

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The Pocahontas Narrative and Disney's Interpretation
University of Heidelberg
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Pocahontas, Disney, Interpretation, film
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Rebecca Blum (Author), 2004, The Pocahontas Narrative and Disney's Interpretation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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