Friday, March 2, 2012

Savage Devils: The Native American Stereotype in Disney’s Pocahontas

We’ve all seen them, we’ve all grown to love them. Disney movies are classic and timeless, forever in the hearts and minds of the American public as generation upon generation passes. While we’ve become enamored of the characters, fairytales, storylines and messages that the Disney movie brings, many often forget just how racist and offensive some of them can be. One such is example is the 1995 cartoon version of Pocahontas. In this film, the Native Americans are portrayed as second-class citizens, stupid and barbaric as well as fearsome and mystical—characteristics which have, for too long, plagued the community. This portrayal also corresponds with Michael Omi’s ideas about racial stereotype in his article “In Living Color: Race and American Culture.”
Omi’s ideas about the stereotype of Native Americans in Western films as stated within his article can most certainly be applied to Pocahontas. From the very beginning of the film it is evident to an almost obscene degree what the white characters of the film think about the Native American characters; remarks such as “I’m gonna get me a big house and if any Injun tries to stop me, I’ll blast ‘em” and “We’ll kill ourselves an Injun, or maybe two or three!” (as expressed in one of the first musical numbers, sung in jovial merriment by Governer Radcliffe’s white, English crew).
“Injun” is such a derogatory term for Native Americans and the way that they are expressed in this beginning sequence (as well as throughout the film, in general) they are made out to be like cattle or deer—ready to be shot for sport, for fun, for sadistic enjoyment. The English characters also refer to the Native Americans as savages (i.e. “Do you think we’ll meet some savages?”) and Governer Radcliffe, himself, refers to the tribe he meets as “filthy heathens”.
 This directly relates to Omi’s thoughts on the Western where the Native Americans are thought of as scary barbarians. Omi states: “[In the Western], [t]he classic scenario involved the encircled wagon train or surrounded fort from which whites bravely fight off fierce bands of Native American Indians…the representatives of ‘civilization’… valiantly attempt to ward off the forces of barbarism.”  In Pocahontas, there is a scene where the Native Americans of Pocahontas’ tribe observe the English settlers digging for gold on their land not out of spite, but out of clear curiosity. Upon being discovered by the settlers, the Native Americans are immediately shot at without initiating any attack whatsoever. Why is this? Simply because of the fear of the “barbaric” Indian. The settlers initiated the attack because they expected the Native Americans to, even though the Native Americans were not there to fight. A stereotype, not a reality, caused this event to occur.


When the English’s ship arrives on the shores of West Virginia, Pocahontas is the first one to notice. Perhaps because she is a “stupid barbarian” she thinks the sails of the ship are “strange clouds”.  In an encounter with Pocahontas, John Smith expresses just how stupid he thinks Pocahontas and her tribe are. In this exchange, John teaches Pocahontas how the English say ‘hello’ and Pocahontas teaches Smith how her people say ‘hello’. Upon learning the Native American way, John concludes “I like ‘hello’, better,” as if to indicate that the white way is always superior. Further into the encounter, Smith and Pocahontas have the following exchanges:

                “Pocahontas: Our houses are fine!
John Smith: Only because you don’t know any better!”


“John Smith: We’ve improved the lives of savages all over the world
 Pocahontas: What’s a savage?
 John Smith: Savage…is a term for people who are uncivilized.”

This is all said and done completely overlooking the fact that the Native Americans of the exploration age were developed in areas of housing; they had longhouses and roundhouses, not simply teepees. In Pocahontas, though the tribe of the area would have been the Powhatans who did not use teepees (teepees were exclusive to the Plains Indians), they are portrayed as utilizing these structures. This inaccuracy shows plain ignorance. Indians of the time also had a spiritual practice, a tribal hierarchy, the chief being the head of the “government”; they had medicine and even used hallucinogenic drugs; they made clothes out of the hides of animals and crafted bow and arrows; they grew corn and harvested other foods as well as hunting their meat. How can a culture that has accomplished all this possibly be classified as “stupid”? The portrayal is thus inaccurate and subsequently a stereotype.
A stereotype not touched upon by Omi is the concept of the “Mystical Native American”; that is, that all Native Americans are shamans or magicians. I myself being half-Seneca have experienced this stereotype and it most definitely exists; even modern-day Native Americans are thought of by many to have certain supernatural abilities not limited to anyone in the race. In Pocahontas, the title character herself talks to animals, like her friend Miko the raccoon and a nameless hummingbird. Additionally, she talks to a tree called “Grandmother Willow”. Throughout the film, Pocahontas is troubled by a dream she had about a “spinning arrow”. The dream turns out to be prophetic as the “spinning arrow” refers to John Smith’s own compass. A further scenario involves members of Pocahontas’ tribe conjuring the images of future events to come out of the fire—seemingly out of nothing. Though this could be attributed to drugs, none were present through the scene, yet all the tribe members saw the images play out. The only explanation for that is mysticism. Native Americans do not have mystical powers. Additionally, a question arises to contradict an earlier assumption that Native Americans are stupid: If we are so stupid and uncivilized as many people say, how then could we have acquired so much magic?

In conclusion, the stereotype of the Native American as a scary savage, uncivilized barbarian and idiotic mystic has its place in popular culture. Though there are others, Pocahontas is one of the most obvious examples. Michael Omi discusses certain aspects of this stereotype in his article and it is not hard to see where and how these principles apply. 

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