The Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of The Year was “post-truth,” which describes “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals from emotion and personal belief.” While particularly salient in the past year, the idea of using emotion and personal value systems in media and politics to influence public opinion has been prevalent throughout American History. The discrepancies between the Disney production of Pocahontas and historical account of the life of Matoaka/Pocahontas are abundant, but it is only one case in a long line of modified accounts of her life. These age-old cultural representations not only form a warped and somewhat political idea of what “Indianness” is. They also subjugate a whole group of people, making them cultural, political, and economic outcasts.
One of the most evocative examples of this is the collection of portraits painted of Pocahontas. The differences in facial structure, as well as overall appearance between the portrait of her from her actual life and the posthumous portraits show how her “appearance” has changed over time as it grew into the great American myth. While the later portraits make her face and complexion look more like that of someone of European descent, they also depict her wearing “traditional” American Indian clothing. This both reaffirms Western beauty standards while also depicting her as a “traditional” American Indian. In many of the photos, she is the “whitest” Indian depicted. Whitening is a dominant feature in each and every portrait of her.
These pieces of media become representations of Indians and “our” relation to them in the American mind. One example of this is the representation of American Indian men in the pieces of media assigned. In most of the pictures and in the movie, the majority of males shown are muscular, brutish-looking men toting primitive tools. This depiction of “noble savagery” is the mainstream view of American Indian men and broader American Indian values. These representations reaffirm greater American myths of white Americans as saviors, and that they were vessels of enlightenment for the “savage” Natives. As a result of strengthening these myths and the messages encoded in them, American cultural, social, and economic power structures are reaffirmed. So, when confronted with the decision between running a pipeline through Bismarck, North Dakota, a predominantly white city, or by a river on an Indian reservation, the choice is clear.
A society dominated by white males sought to subjugate Native Americans under the guise of “civilizing” them, so depictions show these Native Americans as cruel, unforgiving, and savage. Native American women were thought to be in need of Europeanizing saviors, so they are depicted as lighter skinned with more European features. Images of Native Americans by European/Anglo Americans say as much or more about the artists as they do about the subjects.
For further reading:
- Daniel Lehman
Endnote: Modified from an essay written for Benjamin Lisle.