Pocahontas: Why is This Page Here?

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  • There has been much discussion among Indian people--on the Internet, in the Indian press, even at summer powwows--about the Disney feature cartoon Pocahontas. In midsummer, I came across non-Indian teachers on education newsgroups discussing how and why to use the film to motivate non-Indian students' studies of American history, involving the early invasion period of the U.S. I felt (and feel) this movie has a lot of value for that purpose for Indian youth, too. Our young people's consideration of it will be different, I believe-- It's not impossible some youths or adults will refuse to see this film because they consider it exploitative, profiteering from the Indian past-- --in the film and countless "Pocahontas products" that are already beginning to appear less than a month after the film premiered.

  • But I also have to admit the idea of doing a "Disney page" was attractive. As a very little girl, I loved Bambi when it first reached my hometown in 1943 (I loved the Felix Salten book, with the Disney illustrations, too.) Later, I adored Snow White. One of my all-time favorite films is Disney's Fantasia. My young teen "eyelid movies" recollection of it is much better than dreary low-quality music and visuals on TV or videotape or cut narrow with blurriness and color-loss for wide-screen film showings. So the idea of making this web page was a kick.

  • It was helpful that the Disney company provides a web-based Pocahontas Press Kit that contains color screen shots (I used a few, heavily reduced so they would load much faster) and much info from all the main people involved in making this film. There has also been lots of discussion and USENET Reviews: Pocahontas (1995) of the film on InterNet--most of it by non-Indians, who are mostly accepting it as a kind of "politically corrected" true history. This bothers me quite a bit.

  • Yet it also bothers me that there are some Indian people who are so super-Indian politically that they can't see the fun, the beauty, and the partial correction of our early history. This "corrective" idea has been stated by a well-known early leader of the struggle for sovereignty and freedom, Lakota Russell Means--see main page--who invisibly stars as the voice of Pocahontas's dad, Powhattan. Still, he has a stake in that view here. He got paid highly for it, after all. Then too I personally never considered his political views as very solid, at least when I knew him years ago. He tended to say whatever he felt like at the moment, "too Hollywood" before ever being in his first movie. Yet he's paid a lot of heavy dues--injuries, imprisonments--for his role in the struggle for Native National sovereignty and freedom, he's no sell-out.

  • What I think about it doesn't matter. What's important is not even what our young people think, but why--their reasons! So I've gathered a lot of info here, including quite a few Quiktime Movies you can download and show locally on either Macs or PC's.

  • Researching the real history of these people and that time would be a good project for young people.....I will post their reports as well as opinions, reviews, and drawings, here.

AFTER A WEEK...Well, some Indian opinions are in and posted. One, which was prepared by non-Indians but signed by a few Indians (and one who thoughtfully explained why he refused to sign) annoyed me so much I've decided to express not my 2-cents-worth, but my $10 million opinion here. That one is the "Open Letter to Parents" which is on the Opinions page.

I was annoyed by most of it--though the reading list is good, calling attention to a couple of Indian schools who need money was good, but it's their ignorant, prejudiced, stereotypical and, well, idiotic attitude that's most annoying. Here's the heart of my annoyance:

The movie contains scenes and lyrics 
 that promote racist and sexist
 stereotypes.  The most disturbing of these are 
 the following lyrics, from the song, "Savages":

"What can you expect from filthy little heathens?
 Their whole disgusting race is like a curse.
 Their skin's a hellish red.
 They're only good when they are dead!"

Regardless of the context of these lyrics, they are just as
offensive to  members of this community as "nigger" is to
African-Americans and Nazi  propaganda is to the 
Jewish community....

Oh, is that so, "regardless of the context" indeed. What a tiresome bunch of fools these people are who drafted that "protest". This is the theme song of Governor Ratcliffe, the evil racist villain of the film. He represents the power of the invading white empire, a power driven by greed and hatred, unwilling to learn or to soften in any way. He is a cartoon but he's real. A real representation of a certain historical force. What would really be racist is if they made him a nice guy, or even wishy-washy, had him reform. The real force, no cartoon, did not soften, nor flinch from countless murders and genocides. You can't portray that nice, as the fools who drafted that thing seem to want! They are actually members of a "community" of American citizens who wish their history were not racist and "offensive" and criticize those who show that it is. Ratcliffe's a bad guy. That's shown in his songs, as well as his actions.

The 16-year-old Mark Wang (Opinion page review-essay) got it right. But these people--signatories included a lot of professorial types, I noticed--got it plain wrong. If you want to broadly characterize an unsubtle, evil villain, you give him evil things to do, say--and sing. If he's a racist, he walks like a racist, talks like a racist, acts like a racist--and sings like one. In reality, the real Ratcliffe was no "Disney singer", but we do have documents like the 19th-century General Philip Sheridan, who wrote of the Plains Indians "Kill them all, great and small. Nits breed lice," meaning children too should be massacred as if killing bugs. Does it promote racism -- or record its historical existence? -- to repeat that in this context? Context is everything.

Context is all, it is everything to do with meanings, not nothing, and those who prepared that letter don't even know that. I think that "support" like those with their letter gives Indian people -- whose apprehensions, care, and thoughtfulness are actually well represented on the rest of the Opinions page -- a bad name. It accomplishes nothing, it looks plain dumb. Busy -- or maybe even slightly intimidated -- Indian people sign the foolish thing without reading it, seeing the movie, or thinking about it. One Indian man actually seems to agonize and appologise as he explains at length to these fools why he cannot sign it, having actually gone to a lot of effort to evaluate the movie and think over what it means to himself, his kids.

That's my 2-cents worth. Nobody pays any attention to people like those who drafted that letter, anyway, but it annoyed me. Now for the $10 million part. Doubtless Disney will pay no attention to that, though I'm serious about it.


In its first month, Pocahontas grossed over $100 million. It is reportedly continuing to score high, running between $5 and $10 million per week in gross receipts. The cartoon will have a long run; it will be released later as a videotape, and as a CDROM, aside from all the merchandise, much of which isn't Disney's (though they may have licensed its manufacture). The soundtrack, released as a disk, is a hot-seller now. I think one can predict that over its lifetime or say 10 years Pocahontas will gross between $500 million and $1 billion. That's a lot of money, not much of a percentage will go to the 6 Indian people who were involved -- as voices for Powhatan (Russell Means), Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), Kocoum (Jimmy Fall), Nakoma (Michelle St. John), a Medicine Man (Gordon TooTootsis), and Michael Horse (other native male voices).

So here's my $10 million opinion. On the main page here, I made a few remarks about the artistic style of the film -- typical Disney -- and said wistfully I'd sure love to see a cartoon feature by Indian artists in the styles of northern Woodland Medicine Painting, Northwest Coast, Southwest -- all of which would well fit the "outlined" figures of cartoons. But, I said, the large studio resources and money involved to do such a project make that unlikely.

I propose that Disney set aside and place in interest-bearing trust $10 million of the picture's receipts earmarked for the purpose of assembling a crew of Indian artists, writers, musicians, producer, director, and providing them technical, studio, equipment and skills-tutorial assistance to in fact make such a film. Once the money has been sequestered for this purpose, groups may assemble themselves and present their proposals, concepts, treatments, and storyboard art workups. Since it is a large effort, several groups competing might decide to merge instead of competing for the production contract.

$4 million of the sequestered money plus accrued interest shall be spent on promotion and distribution, which shall be through Disney's subsidiary, Buena Vista Films, which exists and has theatre chain contracts for the purpose of distributing Disney films. Indian talent involved in making the film shall receive participation points for percentages of the receipts of their film in accordance with contracts negotiated for them by a competent and experienced Hollywood agency. At least 2 spinoff products shall be part of the deal: Computer software versions for schools and homes, and 3 books by Indian writer(s) illustrator(s): one of the story suitable for young children; one suitable for highschoolers and young adults, and one (hopefully not scandalous!) of "the making of our film" for adult, general interest booklist.

Don't hold your breath for it to happen folks, but that would be something worth working for. Artistically, historically, educationally, and for some of our talented people, financially. And that's my $10 million opinion of it all. I know about Hollywood "creative bookkeeping" such that when the dust settles, Disney will be able to claim perhaps even a loss on this film. I say in reality it's a minimum half-billion gross fershirr, and I say $10 million -- 2% --is a fair amount for re-investment, this time in all-Indian artists and an original Indian story and animated feature-length film..

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CREDITS: Iroquois False-face mask was drawn by Rokwaho, Wolf Clan Mohawk, for Akwesasne Notes when he was art editor, in 1975. It was scanned and traced in FreeHand by Paula Giese in 1993, colored and rasterized for this page in 1995. The graphic of Governor Ratcliffe adjacent to his song was cut from a Disney screen shot (press kit), illustrating Ratcliffe's command to his men to dig up all the land.

Copyright 1995, Paula Giese

Last updated: Wednesday, February 21, 1996 - 5:17:07 PM