Discovering Pocahontas

            Like many kids, summer was always my favorite time of year in Oklahoma. No school, lots of swimming, plenty of time to read—what wasn’t to love? Every summer, my sister and I would spend a week alone in Pryor, with our aunt. This gave each of us a week of quality alone time with our Mom, and a week of quality alone time with our aunt and grandparents.
            Our aunt lived in an adorable, quaint yellow house. She had a lot of pets, from dogs and cats to birds and even a turtle. As an animal lover, I loved visiting and playing with all the animals. I also loved eating out all the time, as she and my grandparents rarely cooked. One summer, the week I spent with her included a daily Blue Coconut slushy from Sonic. One of our traditions was going to see a movie together at the Allred theatre.
            Pryor is a small town, about the same size as the one I currently live in. The Allred is an institution in this town and has the same old-timey look as when it was first built—in 1917. It has the old-fashioned outdoor marquee, the blazing lights, and–until recently—the same decorations inside. It’s played everything from silent films to modern 3D. It’s my favorite place in Pryor. Anytime I visit Oklahoma, I have to at least drive by the Allred.

The Allred theatre, in Pryor, OK.

            There’s always at least one day a week during Oklahoma summers that is too hot to do anything. It’s too hot to go swimming, too hot to drive anywhere. The heat permeates everything until even your hair is sweating. On days like these, all you can do is escape into a nice, cool movie theatre. The lights go down, the air is frigid, and the only thing sweating is your Coke in the cup holder. I also hold a special place in my heart for the Allred because it’s where I’ve seen some of my favorite animated movies. The summer of 1994, my aunt took me to see The Lion Kingthere. The following summer, she took me to see Pocahontas there.
            The summer of Pocahontas was the summer I decided I’d be the best roller skater in Oklahoma. Due to my proclivity for injuring myself in the most mundane of activities (compound fracture of my elbow on the playground the previous year), my mom was very justifiably over protective. So when I started roller skating, every time I put those skates on I was first outfitted with a helmet, wrist guards, elbow pads and knee pads. Once I was all wrapped up in that bubble wrap of padding, someone else had to put my skates on for me. I looked like that kid from A Christmas Story, but in an Oklahoma summer heat wave. I took all this equipment with me to my aunt’s house, prepared to roller skate up and down the sidewalk all day long every day. Day one, I put on all my padding and set out only to return soaking wet, drenched in sweat, ten minutes later. The bees and wasps were crazy with heat stroke and flying all zig-zaggy around the neighborhood. Heat and potential bee stings? No, thank you. I’ll just stay inside (my lack of having ever been stung by anything makes me absolutely terrified of stinging insects. It would be comical if it wasn’t so scary).
            At some point during that week, Pocahontas came to the Allred and we followed her. Everything about that experience is so vivid to me. Having lived with an overactive imagination my entire life, I was used to thinking about all sorts of things during movies. But as I sank into my not-that-cushy theatre seat and rested my sweaty forearms on the ice-cold plastic armrest, the moment the movie started my mind was thinking about only one thing: Pocahontas.I watched this magnificent story unfold beautifully on the large screen in front of me; I didn’t notice when people walked up the aisle—for all I know, there was a triple homicide that day but I didn’t notice, simply because this film drew me in and captivated me.
            The Lion King has my heart and is, of course, my favorite movie. But Pocahontas meant the world to me. As a proud member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, I love my culture. I love the history and learning more and more about this part of my genealogy. But that part of history is rarely explored in public schools. It doesn’t paint the good ol’ USA in very positive light, and so it often gets glossed over. As a Native American child, I was aware that I belonged to something special. I got special math tutoring, for one thing. I was friends with the other Cherokee girl at my school. We talked about our heritage and how cool it was. But we didn’t really have a role model; our culture wasn’t really a popular topic for fictional characters.
            That all changed with the release of Pocahontas. She was strong and smart, but still beautiful and sensitive. She was graceful, but she also went white-water rafting in a canoe. She taught me that not only was my heritage just as awesome as I always thought, but that I could be whoever I wanted to be: I didn’t have to be confined by what other people thought of me. I could be adventurous and feminine. I could be brave, but still be frightened sometimes. I could make myself into whomever I chose to be.
            Now, I know Pocahontas isn’t Cherokee, and I don’t want to allude that she is. But a Native American role model was revolutionary for me. Pop culture had failed to supply me with a positive Native American figure; the only Native Americans I saw were in Western films or cigarette commercials. Rarely in those cases were they portrayed positively. Pocahontas was mature and focused on finding peaceful solutions to the problems. She was spiritual and cared about what happened to her people as well as their land. She wasn’t afraid to see the world in a way that was different from everyone else.
            Historically speaking, the film isn’t particularly accurate—nor is it particularly inaccurate. The only written accounts we have of the actual Pocahontas and John Smith are written by English colonists; obviously they’re views are biased. With gossip what it is now, imagine what it was 400 years ago, when they were isolated from their culture and lacked diversions to occupy their minds. Pocahontas and her people weren’t yet recording their history in writing; oral traditions passed down history, which often leads to history becoming legends. Pocahontas’ story most likely had the same path. Her people told her story over generations orally, such that when it became a written history it had grown and become a legend. She was known to be both peaceful and playful; Disney portrays that well. I would venture so far as to say they captured her spirit well.

            As to the actual events, there is much dispute in the historical community over what actually happened. John Smith’s journals say she saved him, placing her head over his, willing to sacrifice herself. He felt he was in very real danger. Her people’s oral history tells us he was not in any real danger and she wasn’t even there; it was merely a ceremony to welcome him to the tribe. It was an adoption ceremony of sorts.
            Both accounts detail how close of a relationship Pocahontas and her father had. While he would have had many children, and many wives, Pocahontas was his favorite. Their love and respect for one another is clearly portrayed in the film. Her relationship with John Smith is disputed; granted, she was much younger in history when the English arrived than she was in the film. She was between ten and thirteen when they first arrived, but was a symbol of peace to them. She often accompanied her tribes-people when they brought food to the English during that first brutal winter.
            Disney also expedited the time frame for the film. The English arrive and have a terrible relationship from the get-go as opposed to arriving, having a positive relationship, demanding too much years later, and deteriorate the relationship further by kidnapping Pocahontas years later. Had they painted a historically accurate depiction, she would have been completely naked as a child. I doubt the MPAA would have let them keep their G-rating had that occurred.
            Disney expedited the timing, changed Pocahontas’ age to make her romance with John Smith more appropriate, and created a villain out of Governor Ratcliffe, as opposed to having the entire English colony be the villain. Historians can’t decide whether or not she married Kokoum after John Smith departed; oral tradition says she did, the English journals don’t mention it. Oral tradition also states that Kokoum was killed when Pocahontas was kidnapped, years after John Smith left.
             The John Smith-Pocahontas romance is disputed; they dealt with each other frequently, but no one knows for sure what the feelings were. His journals lead the reader to believe he had feelings for her, but who knows if he acted on them. If he had, would he have wanted to record them for posterity? He was 30-40 when she was an adolescent and teenager. Disney certainly couldn’t portray that, now could they? It is a children’s movie, after all.
            Or is it? They initially cut the “If I never knew you” song and sequence because children found it boring; it occurs in a climactic spot, after John Smith has been captured and is awaiting a dawn execution. The concepts of the film are very adult issues: finding a middle ground between different cultures, not assuming something is bad simply because it is different, fighting for what is right, even if that means going against everyone you know and love. Pocahontas loved and respected her father deeply, yet she still stood up to him when she felt he was doing the wrong thing. She put her life on the line to stand up for what she believed in.
            I can’t talk about this movie without talking about the music. I love Alan Menken’s compositions. If you had asked me five years ago who my favorite composer was, I’d have given you a blank look. Now I can tell you immediately: Alan Menken. He writes the most beautiful movie scores I’ve ever heard; they are full of meaning, regardless if you’ve seen the film. I liked the lyrics in this film as well, but because of how well they worked with the music. I still sing “colors of the wind”, “if I never knew you”, “Listen with your heart”, and “just around the river bend”. Basically every song that has absolutely anything to do with the title character. I’m so thankful they put the “if I never knew you” sequence back in the 10th anniversary edition DVD; it’s such a beautiful song, and it really shows how much they love each other.
           Everything about Pocahontas is beautiful. The animation, the backgrounds, the music; all meld so well together. It’s just lovely to watch. The play of shadows on faces, facial expressions and even just the way people carry themselves speaks volumes. James was surprised by the ending, plot wise. He wasn’t expecting John Smith and Pocahontas to not end up together. Perhaps this is why I love this movie so much: it’s so real and so unreal at the same time. They can’t be together, and that’s heartbreaking; but they weren’t, and they stay true to that. Sometimes in life, there is heartbreak. It’s heartbreaking when Kokoum dies, because he was largely innocent. But it’s also heartbreaking when these two people, who fought so hard for what was right, still can’t be together. It shows that they weren’t just fighting so they could be together; they truly care about their people and want everyone to live peacefully. It’s a wonderful message: to fight for what is right, even when you can’t benefit from it.

            Shortly after school started in the fall of ’95, I came home to find a very excited mother and sister. They led me up to my room, made me close my eyes, and led me inside. When I opened my eyes, I was astounded. They had gone and bought Pocahontas window curtains, bedspread, pillows. The whole nine yards. Meeko and Flit adorned the curtains, along with the stylized leaves from the film. My sheets, pillow shams and bedskirt were all Pocahontas themed. I loved it. I was embarrassed, because that same day I had said I hadn’t liked the movie because my friend didn’t. Standing in that room, surrounded by Pocahontas, I remembered what she stood for. I may not have said I liked the movie, but I didn’t say I didn’t like anymore either. Courage doesn’t grow overnight; it takes time. Now I am a courageous person who stands up for what she believes in. I will always cherish the memory of being led to my bedroom and seeing it, in all its Pocahontas clad glory and the love I have for the two women who created that memory for me.


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