“Beyond the Riverbend”: Examining Colonialism and Cultural Sensitivity in POCAHONTAS

The media I chose to cover for my final project is the animated film Pocahontas, released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1995. The film is based on the historical figure Pocahontas, a Powhatan woman who happens to be the daughter of the tribe’s chieftain. This musical historical drama also demonstrates Pocahontas’s reaction to the arrival of the English settlers, the Virginia Company. Despite being a film of immense color and magnificent musical scores, I believe the most important aspect of the film is what it has to teach about colonialism. Walt Disney Pictures does a masterful job covering the topic of cultural differences and the historical significance behind these two worlds colliding.

At the beginning, the Native Americans are curious about the strangers invading their land. On the other hand, the same cannot be said about the men of the Virginia Company. From the opening scene, the Native Americans are referred to as “savages” and “uncivilized” by the English settlers. Here is an example of how people are quick to fear or hate what they do not understand. This is the story of most situations involving colonialism.

Disney sets the tone by portraying the English in this way. As an audience member, you can feel that a fight is inevitable. Only when John meets Pocahontas does he understand that her people are a proud, simple, and spiritual civilization, not savages. Unfortunately, there is no peace to be had until it is too late. Blood had already been spilled on both sides, which fueled the war.

Before the battle, Disney plugs one of the darkest songs I’ve heard in a Disney film. Both the Native Americans and Virginia Company are heard singing separate songs amongst their own men about wanting to destroy the opposition. While the Native Americans were calling the English “white devils,” the English called them “beasts.” It wasn’t until I rewatched the film that I realized how depressing and sinister this song was. Colonizers at this time in history rarely empathized with their victims. The portrayal of this closed mindedness is significant to the film because it is based on the sad reality of its presence. Even today, we see these issues between merely divided nations.

Heroically, Pocahontas brings John Smith’s execution and the possibility of war to an end. Her compassion, bravery, and hope for peace changes her father’s mind about the invading colonizers. At the end of the film, you see the Powhatan villagers present food and gifts to the English to make peace before the men leave to go back to London.

This movie’s message of colonialism is relevant throughout the time of man’s reign and should be discussed in class. The topic of colonialism was something that we barely covered over the course of this semester and is something that I’d add to the curriculum. With that being said, I would make this movie a mandatory watch in week ten of the semester, which is also the same week that we were assigned to watch Disney’s Mulan. Not only does the media placement make sense chronologically, but the aspect of colonialism is crucial to the plot of Mulan as well. Before the release of Pocahontas, I cannot recall any films that pointed towards these philosophical ideas about colonialism. Disney released two films within a span of three years that specifically identify colonialism as the main issue. After this realization, I find it imperative that these films should be shown in unison in week ten.


The Reading Lesson

This lesson wouldn’t be complete without a reading assignment, and I found the perfect academic essay for the class to read. A study by Leire San Jose Monton perfectly ties into what I have covered about Pocahontas and colonialism. The paper is titled “Pocahontas: A Study of Disney’s Approach to Colonialism.” This educational essay does a fantastic job of covering materials needed to better understand the English colonization of America, as well as the differences between the historically documented events of Pocahontas’s life and Disney’s animated adaptation.

Monton begins the essay by telling the reader about the historical and cultural differences between Pocahontas and the English settlers. This also includes great insight into John Smith and his relationship with the natives upon arrival. Monton quotes historian David Price in his essay, in reference to Smith: “Smith managed to compose a list of ethnographic writings which were beneficial for his trading and strategies on dealing with natives, and which are valuable now for our contemporary understanding of their language and culture” (Price, as quoted in Monton 6). I was surprised to learn that Smith and Pocahontas did not even have a romance when they met. Pocahontas was said to only be the age of ten at this time. It is unlikely that such romance was taking place, in contrast to Disney’s adaptation. Monton claims that Disney is notorious for presenting falsehoods and historically inaccurate representations of their stories and characters. After reading pages three to twelve of this essay, I had a new perspective on this film and its authenticity.

Pages twelve to sixteen of Monton’s essay are where the film finally gets analyzed in more depth. This portion of text can provide you with many interesting talking points for class, when it is time to discuss the film. However, the movie analysis is far from the only topic covered. I read on page twelve that the reasoning for John Smith’s execution was not for the reason depicted in the film. Monton quotes Price again, stating that “an ancient prophecy foreseeing that an emerging nation would take over his land, which alarmed the Chief” (Price, as quoted in Monton 13-14). For this reason, Smith was sentenced to death. Disney’s reasoning for Smith’s execution was for the death of Kocoum, caused by a bullet shot from a different Englishman. The differences between the film and reality continue to expand the more you read.

The essay often refers to the Disney movie as historically inaccurate. Not only is Disney inaccurate, but at times insensitive and possibly “psychologically damaging” to the young audience. On pages sixteen and seventeen, Monton explains in various ways how Disney romanticized and idealized Pocahontas, not only by illustrating her as a beautiful woman in her twenties, but also by giving her a charismatic and free-spirited mindset. Monton states that this type of character, who is looked up to by children, can be seen as harmful. Posing a risk of severe psychological damage seems possible, but not likely. I understand this movie to be more empowering than destructive, but I respect Monton’s opinion. Smith is also seen as a typical idealized Disney prince. However, Smith is nearly opposite in every way when it comes to his appearance. What an interesting conversation starter would this be in class.

Furthermore, the topic of colonialism and racial issues rise to the surface yet again, when Morton talks about the song “Savages,” a tune that I referred to earlier. The song is about the English’s hatred for the natives; it is very intense. The tension between the colonizers and the Native Americans may be one of the most significant truths that Disney displayed in the film, other than the names. Despite the accuracies, Disney received backlash for basically being racist and disrespectful. I can understand this point as well; however, we’re not responsible for our forefathers’ sins. It is historically documented that this sort of hatred and racism was common among the colonizers, and Disney stayed true to it. This is how Smith stands apart from the rest of the Virginia Company. He is the only one who does not see the face of a savage when looking upon a native.

In class, if we had the time to cover this movie, this reading would enhance the learners’ experience—not only by engaging in intellectual thoughts about colonization, but also understanding the reality from fiction in this extraordinary true tale of the legend Pocahontas. The movie is significant to world history, the history of Disney, and how we can shape our history as we live and breathe today.


Works Cited

Monton, Leire San Jose. “Pocahontas: A Study of Disney’s Approach to English Colonialism.” Trabajos Académicos-Facultad de Letras, 2020. https://addi.ehu.es/bitstream/handle/10810/48524/TFG_SanJos%C3%A9.pdf?sequence=1.

Price, David A. Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation. Vintage, 2007. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.es/Love-Hate-Jamestown-Pocahontas-Nationebook/dp/B000XUBG64/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=