Pocahontas, From Fiction to Fact: Using Disney's Film to Teach the True Story

Christine Y. House

In recent years there have been numerous movies which have shown American Indians in a positive light. Kevin Costner, in Dances with Wolves (1990), attempted to show the innocence, foresight and acquiescence of the Sioux in the face of the white man's encroachment upon their land and their way of life. His is one of the few modern "Indian" movies which has found wide acceptance. Films such as Black Robe (1991), Thunderheart (1992), and Pow Wow Highway (1989) are considered cult films and are not widely known. All of these films present an accurate portrayal of Indian life whether it be from a modern or historical perspective, but are rarely seen on television or enjoy significant financial success. Their audience seems to be limited to people with a strong interest in Indian culture or to American Indians themselves.

Children from the inner city have even less of a chance to see these films. Many are too sophisticated to hold a child's interest. Further, they are not available through the traditional avenues. As a result, the image that most children get of the American Indian is one of a primitive, war-like or simple people. It comes from old movies and cartoons which run constantly on the myriad cable television channels. As educators, it is our responsibility to try to correct this misinformation by whatever means will accomplish the task.

Walt Disney Studios has recently offered another source of misinformation in the form of the animated film Pocahontas. Disney has used its "Hollywood" license to convey a collection of misinformation to the American public. In addition to exaggerating parts of the tale and embellishing the legend of a romance between Pocahontas and John Smith, the setting of this movie is very much unlike the coastal plain of Virginia which the Powhatan people called home. In my unit of study, I will use this popular movie as well as two other versions as tools for extracting the truth about Pocahontas, the Powhatans and their encounters with the English in 1607. It will be an interdisciplinary unit encompassing all areas of the curriculum.

This unit will be used with fifth grade students as part of their study of American history. The basic plan will be to pique the children's interest with the showing of the Disney film and then begin the process of correcting the inaccuracies. For instance, in this version Pocahontas is portrayed as a young adult woman when she met a young John Smith. In fact, the Powhatan princess was a mere child, about eleven or twelve years old, when she met Smith who was 27, more than twice her age. Whether or not there was more than a friendship is pure speculation. Women, even young ones, were in control of their own bodies among the Powhatans according to Helen C. Rountree, author of two recent scholarly volumes about this tribe. It is, therefore, entirely conceivable that there was some attraction between them. It is supposed that it was during this time that John Smith and Pocahontas learned enough of each other's language to be able to communicate with each other. In his memoirs which were published in 1624, he included a brief dictionary of Powhatan words. Their fascination with each other may have been as innocent as learning each other's languages. Whatever their relationship, it suffered when Smith left Virginia. It was further damaged when he failed to visit her until she had been in England for some time.

The actual events of Smith's rescue by Pocahontas are questionable, at best, as they have never been corroborated by any other source. Many of the English who came to Virginia in 1607 recorded their adventures either in journals or in letters sent back to their homelands. Several were artists and left drawings of the Indians they encountered or of their villages. The only mention of this famous rescue came in a letter from Smith himself to England's Queen Anne in 1624, more than ten years after the alleged event. Since then, historians have picked apart his account as inconsistent with the behaviors and traditions of the Powhatan Indians. Some historians have suggested that the "rescue" was part of a Powhatan ceremony or ritual in which a stranger is adopted into the tribe. In John Smith's account of this event, he reported that it was proceeded by a great feast. While it was common practice among the Powhatans to torture their male captives before killing them, it was not their custom to celebrate such acts of cruelty by feasting beforehand. Both the A& E documentary about Pocahontas and the live action movie support this point of view. After some discussion of the Disney version, the children will be sho Nwn the live action movie, Pocahontas: the legend and then asked to compare and contrast various elements of these two fictionalized versions.

While the focus of this unit is to correct the misinformation about Indians, the movie Pocahontas: the legend provides an opportunity for a study of the geography and climate of the state of Virginia. This live action film takes a number of liberties with the actual events but it does incorporate many historically accurate scenes which lend credibility to it. For instance, it makes a concerted effort to make the point that John Smith's rescue is part of a ritual and not a real threat on his life. One drawback is that this particular event takes up a great deal of this movie, along with the building of the friendship between Smith and the young Pocahontas.

The Powhatan people lived in ` eastern Virginia, and occupied a region that corresponds roughly to the coastal plain of modern Virginia, extending about one hundred miles from east to west (including both shores of the Chesapeake Bay) and one hundred miles from north to south. While the area is indeed lush and beautiful, it does not have the high waterfalls from which Disney's Pocahontas dove. They were put in for visual and dramatic effect. Travelogues of Virginia as well as the A & E Biography Pocahontas will provide an accurate portrait of this tidewater area.

The climate of eastern Virginia is considerably milder than that of coastal Connecticut although there are some similarities in that the tidal waters tend to moderate the effects of winter. Virginia's really cold season lasts only three months and there are fresh fruits and berries available for better than half of the year. We will discover what kinds of trees and bushes are native to this area, compare them to that of our area and discuss their value as food. We can also bring in a discussion of food and nutrition in general and food preparation and preservation in particular.

Clothing as shown in the Disney animation and live action version will also be examined. The clothing worn by the English was somewhat true to period but that which was worn by Pocahontas and her family and friends is a concession to American dress codes. Especially in a movie made for children, nudity is unacceptable. Sketches made by early English explorers show the Powhatan and other Virginia Indians wearing very little clothing except in colder weather. Men wore a fringed, buckskin breechcloth and women, a fringed buckskin apron and strings of shell beads or fresh water pearls. Both sexes wore leggings and moccasins when they went into the woods and buckskin mant les or matchcoats for warmth in winter. The live action film Pocahontas: the legend makes a serious attempt to recreate the clothing worn by the Powhatan men. They also recreated the mantle or match coat which is supposed to have belonged to the Chief Powhatan. It is made of buckskin and decorated with shell beads. The designs are of a man and two animals surrounded by many circles of shells. This will provide an opportunity to discuss and understand the purpose of clothing and to examine our own attitudes toward nudity. We can also bring in an examination of the way Indians in general conserved their resources. We can look at how the deer, for instance, was used in its entirety, for clothing, tools, weapons and storage.

There is a brief glimpse of the daily lives of the Powhatan in each of the three films. Clearly, the Disney offering is the most fanciful, but all offer views of their homes which >were like traditional Woodland Indian longhouses. They were well adapted to the climate, providing an airiness in the summers and with extra mat coverings, warmth in winter. They were a settled people, that is, their villages remained in the same basic area and their gardens were nearby. Because of overplanting, sometimes gardens were abandoned for richer soil. The food they grew was the traditional corn, squash and beans. No one owned the land as we own land today. Instead, land belonged to the tribe and was available to those who would work it or use it for hunting. Sometimes there was an overlap of hunting grounds, but demarcation lines were understood between tribes.

Disney doesn't tell all of the Pocahontas story. The animated version doesn't show how Pocahontas helped the English settlement at Jamest Oown. Were it not for her compassion and support, many more of the residents of that community would have died. The live action version does show the young princess bringing food to the English fort, but ends with her waving goodbye to Smith's ship as it leaves for his homeland. In fact, as we learn in A & E Biography, Pocahontas is told that Smith has died on his return to England from a serious burn he received at the fort. This unit provides an opportunity for the students to learn about what happened to Pocahontas after John Smith left Virginia. It also offers an occasion to examine the reasons for the conflicts between the Powhatan and the Jamestown colonists. Her life did continue. She remained friendly with the English settlers, continuing to befriend them and intervene in an effort to keep the peace. Eventually she was taken prisoner by the English as they attempted to stem some of Powhatan's power. This was done while she was away from home visiting friends. During this time, she learned about English customs and further studied the language. She became Christianized and changed her name to Rebecca. She later, with her father's approval, married an English widower, John Rolfe in April of 1614. A year later she bore a son, Thomas. Rolfe was experimenting with the use and growing of tobacco. In the spring of 1616. the Rolfe family went to London where Pocahontas was widely and popularly received. An artist of the period did an etching of her which has survived, so we have an idea of what she actually looked like. She wanted to return to her land and people, but contracted typhus, tuberculosis or small pox before she could make the journey. She died in March of 1617 at the age of 21 or 22. WJohn Rolfe left his infant son in the care of relatives in England and returned to Virginia where he expanded his land holdings which were ultimately passed on to his son. Thomas Rolfe returned to Virginia in 1635, when he was twenty years old. He claimed his inheritance of land from his father as well a large parcel of land from his grandfather, Powhatan.

In 1625, John Smith published his memoirs of his life and times in Virginia. He never married and died in England at the age of 51 in 1631.

In the course of separating fiction from fact in the study of Pocahontas with the students, I hope to establish some guidelines by which anyone, especially children, can judge the inaccuracies found in the movies and cartoons they view. If the children learn techniques for critically viewing the portrayal of Indians in movies and cartoons, th >ey should be able to transfer that skill to other types of movies and make them into more discriminating viewers.

This unit will be used with fifth grade students. It is hoped that they will be sophisticated enough to comprehend the ideas of scant clothing and conservation of resources. Students will first view the Disney version of Pocahontas . They will be asked to record their impressions of the movie as well as speculations as to what may have happened during the rest of her life. After some discussion of our impressions from the Disney version, we will then view the live action movie Pocahontas: the legend . Again students will be asked to record their impressions. We will compare and contrast these impressions and then leave room to correct or adjust them after viewing the A & E Biography of Pocahonta s. This video is quite a bit more sophisticated than the other two films and somewhat dry, but I think it can be used successfully when presented as a follow up to the other two. Ironically, it uses some footage from the live action film Pocahontas: the legend showing the arrival of the ships from England as well as a few other scenes.

Fifth grade social studies focuses on American history. The earliest continuous English settlement was founded at Jamestown in 1607 by Sir Edward Wingfield, Captain Christopher Newport and Captain John Smith. This unit sets the stage for studying that which followed and establishes early in the school year that the Indians of North America were here first, there are other Indians than those who on the Great Plains and that there are many ways any one subject can be interpreted.


Content retrieved from:
http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/1996/3/96.03.06.x.html


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