SHE BEGAN TO TAKE SHAPE FOUR YEARS AGO WHEN MOVIE director Mike Gabriel was searching for a subject for a new animated feature—a love story, perhaps, maybe set in the Wild West. “Buffalo Bill?” he thought. “Annie Oakley? Nah, already been done.” Then inspiration struck. Gabriel, 40, pulled a drawing of Princess Tigerlily, a character in the film Peter Pan, from his wall and penciled a buckskin dress over her slender figure. He wrote three words above her head—”Walt Disney’s Pocahontas”—and a new heroine was born.
So was a new controversy. Native Americans have protested the accuracy of the hit film, saying it mixes fact and fancy in a way disrespectful to the real Pocahontas. A second flap—this one over her burial place—has arisen as well. Singer Wayne Newton, who claims to be a descendant of Pocahontas’s family, wants to bring her bones back to Virginia, where she was born around 1595. “It’s a travesty she’s buried in England. It’s like George Washington being buried in Russia,” says the entertainer, who is offering to pay to move the bones. But the Rev. David Willey, rector of St. George’s Church in Gravesend, where Pocahontas is buried 21 miles east of London, calls the plan a pipe dream. The church burned down and was rebuilt in the 1700s, and “we don’t know exactly where she’s buried,” he says. “She could be under this church, but equally she could be under the road outside.”
Despite what you may have been taught in elementary school, very little is known about Pocahontas’s real life—and Disney moviemakers ignored most of that. “I tried to think of it as a love story,” says Gabriel, “not as a historical character.” Such liberties infuriate scholars. “I wish they would take the name of Pocahontas off that movie,” complained Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow-McGowan, a Powhatan native who has taught about Pocahontas in Virginia schools for 30 years. Others are not concerned. “The problem with Pocahontas—and the wonderful thing from a storyteller’s perspective—is that we don’t know much about her,” says Robert S. Tilton, author of Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. “We know she was a favorite of her father’s and that she has some relationship with the English settlers and John Smith, but that’s about all.”
On this much, most historians agree: Pocahontas, whose name means “little playful one,” was no more than 12 in 1607, the year Capt. John Smith landed at Chesapeake Bay to establish a colony for the Virginia Company. Physically she was probably a far cry from Disney’s bosomy, raven-maned supermodel, says Helen Rountree, a Powhatan scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. “Pocahontas was not a beautiful, svelte figure,” she says. “Her head would have been shaved. There was probably a little rat’s tail at the end, but otherwise she had a head full of stubble.” And no clothes. “She would have been naked,” says painter Mary Ellen Howe, who spent six years researching a portrait of Pocahontas that hangs at the Virginia Historical Society. “Later, at puberty, she would have gotten a deerskin apron.”
Whatever Pocahontas did or didn’t wear, Smith was taken with the young woman, described by one colonist as “well-featured but wanton.” It’s far from clear just how Pocahontas, who as the chiefs daughter was almost certainly not allowed to approach the settlers without an escort, managed to befriend the rugged, 28-year-old captain and his company. According to Smith, she saved his life in 1608, after he was captured along the Chickahominy River. Led back to Powhatan’s village, Smith wrote that Pocahontas stopped her father’s men from dashing his head against sacrificial stones, but since the page-turning episode is missing in earlier accounts written by Smith, some historians of the colonial period dismiss it as fiction.
Smith left Virginia in 1609. Four years later, Pocahontas was lured aboard an English ship and held hostage. She was converted to Christianity and baptized Rebecca. Soon she aroused the attention of John Rolfe, a tobacco planter. In a letter to the governor of Virginia, Rolfe wrote that he was “entangled and enthralled” by a woman “whose education hath been rude, her manners barbarous, her [breeding] accursed.”
Three years later the couple, by then married, sailed for England on a trip paid for by the Virginia Company, sponsors of the Jamestown settlement, as a means of attracting investors. Billed as an Indian princess and dressed like an English lady, Pocahontas was presented at the court of James I and reputedly met Sir Walter Raleigh, who had already made his own voyage to America. But Pocahontas was never to return; she became ill, possibly with tuberculosis, and died in March 1617, at the age of about 22.
Disney’s Pocahontas ends with Smith’s return to England, leaving out the kidnapping and conversion yet playing up the historically dubious romance with Smith. That, to some Native American activists, cheapens a cherished chapter in their history. But Eric Goldberg, who codirected the film with Mike Gabriel, insists that the story of her whole life “would have been a miniseries,” not an animated fantasy for children based on a girl born 400 years ago. “We took a little history and a little legend,” he says, “and presented her in the true spirit of who she was.”
SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington, ANNE-MARIE OTEY in Los Angeles and ELLIN STEIN in Gravesend