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Disney’s History Lesson : ‘Pocahontas’ Has Its Share of Supporters, Detractors

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the Walt Disney Co. incurred the wrath of Arab Americans angered at their portrayal in “Aladdin,” the studio seems to have played it safe when it comes to the depiction of Native Americans in its upcoming animated movie, “Pocahontas.” While the film has yet to be viewed in its entirety, those who have seen snippets suggest that the portrait gives new meaning to the phrase “politically correct.”

The studio hired Native Americans to record all the Native American roles, most notably activist Russell Means as Pocahontas’ father, Powhatan. And, to ensure accuracy, Disney consulted with historians and the primary Native American organization in Virginia, where the story is set.

Though Disney denies any link, the studio’s approach seems intent on avoiding the brouhaha that erupted in 1993 over “Aladdin.” Following protests by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Disney changed two lines in the opening song of the film’s home video version--a move that only partly mollified the group.

The aim of “Pocahontas,” says Disney animation president Peter Schneider, is to “celebrate” Native American society.

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“We wanted to offer an ennobling and empowering view of Native Americans that hadn’t been provided in cinema before,” he says of the 78-minute feature that is scheduled for release June 23. “This is a stupendous reaffirmation of a culture and language that’s been lost.”

Still, some Native Americans have bones to pick. “This is a nice film--if it didn’t carry the name ‘Pocahontas,’ ” says Shirley Little Dove Custalow McGowan, a key consultant on the movie who teaches Native American education at schools, including the University of Virginia. “Disney promised me historical accuracy, but there will be a lot to correct when I go into the classrooms.”

Sonny Skyhawk, founder of the Pasadena-based American Indians in Film, is peeved that the film’s producer ignored his offer of help. “With few exceptions, the movie industry hasn’t got it right,” he explains. “And Hollywood has a long track record of not letting us see the product until it’s too late to make a difference.”

“Pocahontas” producer Jim Pentecost says he spoke briefly with Skyhawk and was under the impression that using Native American actors was the concern.

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In the minds of many, filmmaking has in some ways become a no-win proposition--a morass of conflicting agendas. “I don’t care what you do . . . someone will be offended,” admits Raymond Adams, past chairman of the United Indians of Virginia, which served as a consultant on the film. “Some of us even have problems seeing feathers--or for that matter, naming a baseball team the Braves.”

Dick Cook, president of domestic distribution and worldwide marketing for the studio, takes a philosophical approach. “Everything’s under a microscope these days,” he says. “But that’s part of the deal. This was our first animated feature based on a historical figure--and the ‘Pocahontas’ legend is open to interpretation.”

The movie, directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, tells the story of the Native American maiden Pocahontas who achieved “heroine” status by rescuing Capt. John Smith, whom her father was about to behead. She served as a peacekeeper during the early 1600s, warning the English settlers of impending hostility.

The filmmakers took pains to incorporate suggestions of Native American actors. Rather than “thanking” her father for her wedding gift as she did in an early version of the script, Pocahontas now says she felt “honored” to be given her dead mother’s necklace. Instead of referring to Pocahontas by her proper name, Powhatan calls her “my daughter,” as Native Americans do.

“Though this country is supposed to be a big soup made up of different peoples, it’s only in the past 15 to 20 years that we’ve gotten over the notion that we’re not all related to Barbie (dolls),” observes Native American Irene Bedard, the voice of Pocahontas.

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Means calls “Pocahontas” a vast improvement over the “savage” portrayals in Walter Hill’s “Geronimo"--not to mention Bruce Beresford’s “Black Robe,” at which his American Indian Movement took aim.

“ ‘Pocahontas’ presents a host of lousy settlers . . . and there’s not a bad Indian in sight,” Means says. “But there’s nothing wrong with telling the truth.”

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Not everyone buys into the same definition of “truth,” however. Disney was on track when it approached her, claims Shirley Little Dove Custalow McGowan, but mid-course, it lost its way.

“Disney originally told the story of Pocahontas as we know her--a child between the age of 10 and 12 who showed reverence, but certainly no love, for John Smith,” maintains McGowan. “By making her older and creating a romance you lose the notion of children as our future--a way of bridging the gap between cultures.”

McGowan raised some objections last August, but was told by the studio that the project was too far along. “Disney left out the most interesting part,” she says. “Before dying in England at the age of 21, Pocahontas was kidnaped, baptized into Christianity and married John Rolfe--a man far more appropriate than John Smith, who was a barbarian and a troublemaker. My people are concerned because our story has already been changed so much.”

“Pocahontas” producer Pentecost admits the movie is more love story than history lesson--and that the relationship between the heroine and John Smith (whom Disney graced with the voice of Mel Gibson) has never been clear.

“People are still arguing about who killed Kennedy and Lincoln,” he says. “The further back you go, the more complicated it gets. We never say that the two end up together . . . but, as in all great romances, the implication is there.”

That’s exactly what veteran actor Sonny Skyhawk was hoping to avoid. “In the name of creative license, we lose historical truth,” he maintains. “When a young Indian child roots for the cowboys something’s wrong with this picture. Hollywood gets bothered when we exert some control because they can’t go about business as usual.”

Working as the choreography consultant on “Pocahontas” gave Hanay Geiogamah--artistic director of the American Indian Dance Theater--an inside perspective.

“Though Disney rearranged history, the thrust is authentic,” he says. “And since Russell Means is a tough cookie, they ain’t going to be profaning or defaming too much. Sonny Skyhawk is a self-appointed monitor of Indian purity whose job is to see to it that the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. But the movie business can’t involve everyone at the slightest hint of protest.”

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While UCLA’s Angela Aleiss is not a Native American, as the instructor of a course titled “American Indian Images in Film,” she has strong feelings on the subject.

“Judging from the trailer, ‘Pocahontas’ looks like another rehash of the ‘noble savage’ image,” she says. And if ‘Peter Pan’ depicted Indians with exaggerated features, ‘Pocahontas’ is the opposite extreme. She’s a latter-day Snow White--much more ‘Disney’ than Indian.”

The studio asks that judgment be reserved until early May when the movie--four years in the making--will be completed and screened.

“This is entertainment, not a documentary,” Pentecost says.


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