Pocahontas and the Mythical Indian Woman

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POCAHONTAS AND THE MYTHICAL INDIAN WOMAN: REFORMING THE IMAGE THROUGH NATIVE AMERICAN FICTION Pocahontas. Americans know her as the beautiful, Indian woman who fell in love with the white settler John Smith and then threw her body upon the poor white captive to protect him from being brutally executed by her own savage tribe. The magical world of Walt Disney came out with their own movie version several years ago portraying Pocahontas as a tan, sexy Barbie doll figure and John Smith as a blond-haired, blue-eyed muscular Ken doll. Although Disney attempts to instill racial tolerance, inter-racial friendship, and nonviolent resolutions in Pocahontas, they contribute to the inaccurate Indian woman stereotype that has evolved from such stories. While it can be argued that Disney has liberties to change a story to suit their movie needs, or that they as producers only mirror popular beliefs, Pocahontas reflects the Americanized concept of an Indian woman, which, although fortunately unsavage, hinders the comprehension of Native American women then and now. One may think that Pocahontas is only a child's story created for entertainment and that children outgrow the image of the Indian princess or realize there are women that do not fit the other category of Indian squaw. However, once logic and reason begin to develop, the childhood Indian vision remains mythical. As Rayna Green explains in "The Pocahontas Perplex," "we cannot ignore the impact the story has had on the American imagination" (183). Instead of mentally revising our perceptions of Indians and Pocahontas, we have based an American culture on a fairytale, told to suit white consumption. Evidence that Americans have not outgrown the fantasy image of Pocahontas is revealed in that few Anglo adults know the true story of Pocahontas and can only associate her with the Americanized, Disney-like image. Americans are obsessed with the notion of a Native woman saving a white man. According to Louise Barnett, author of The Ignoble Savage, in stories, poems, and songs from the past, Indians often identify themselves as being intellectually inferior to whites and are noble because of their desire to die for whites which conveniently makes them, as inferiors, the sacrifice in a tragic romance (94). In fact, Disney falls for this portrayal of female Natives when the animated Pocahontas heroically covers Smith's body with her own, defying her father the chief, by suggesting he should kill them both if he is determined to kill Smith. Sadly, Pocahontas is not alone in her famed status due to her willingness to sacrifice herself to save a white man. Barnett explains, "a number of unlucky Pocahontas figures populate the frontier romance, saving white beloveds only at the cost of their own lives" (93). Fortunately, Pocahontas's life was spared despite her willingness to sacrifice, although her later affiliations with a white man and Europe led to her death from disease. The notion of females rescuing white men and assimilating with their culture have traditionally been connected, which resulted in greater Indian deaths due to their exposure to a foreign culture from which they had not yet learned to protect themselves. On the other hand, these new Native women are not always the primary characters of the fiction, but their presence is necessary for the text to evolve. Although similarities exist between the mythical Indian woman and the characters developed in modern fiction, the new portrait being painted of Native women shows them as strong, spiritual, and powerful, even if they choose to use their power in a destructive manner. Keeping with tradition, Indian women are still caretakers and healers but while they keep their positions as saviors of men, Indian women are illustrated saving Indian men rather than white males. Whereas the Indian women previously saved white men from the savages of their own tribe, they are now saving their own race from...
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