Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Native Response to Sophie Gilbert's Article "In Defense of Pocahontas"

Yesterday (June 23, 2015), I read Sophie Gilbert's article in The Atlantic, "In Defense of Pocahontas: Disney's Most Radical Heroine."

My first reaction to Gilbert's article was anger. I was incensed at her because she said this:
The main problem with Pocahontas--as expressed by several Native American groups, including the Powhatan Nation, which traces its origins back to Pocahontas herself--is that over time, she's come to embody the trope of the "Good Indian," or one who offers her own life to help save a white settler.
In short, Gilbert dismissed Native views. In her article, she quotes from the Powhatan Nation's statement on the film. I trust that she read the second paragraph, which says:
Our efforts to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred.
She's done the same thing Disney did. The thrust of her article is "in defense" of the film. To her, it doesn't matter what the Powhatan Nation said. She doesn't say who the other "Native American groups" she referenced are, or what they said about the film. But again, whatever they said doesn't matter, because she sees fit to write "in defense" of Disney.

I tweeted at her about that dismissal. She replied. Here's a screen capture of that exchange:

And then she followed up with "I was talking about the narrative of the movie, just to clarify." I don't understand her clarification, because the narrative in the movie is what the Powhatan Nation was talking about, too. At the end of their statement is this:
It is unfortunate that this sad story, which Euro-Americans should find embarrassing, Disney makes "entertainment" and perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation. 
Gilbert is doing the same thing Disney did. She is promoting this dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation and all the people who are led astray by the narrative of that film.

By focusing on "female agency" and an "environmentalist message," Gilbert is throwing millions of people under the bus. She's not alone in doing that, though. It happens a lot in literature, with people defending books like Touching Spirit Bear. It has inaccuracies, too, but people think its message about bullying is more important that those inaccuracies. Or, Brother Eagle Sister Sky, which has problems, too, but people think its environmentalist message is more important than its inaccuracies.

Something else is always more important than getting the facts right when Native people are being misrepresented. That's where Gilbert stands. She's getting called out by people for the article. Take a look at her Twitter account: Sophie Gilbert.

One thing she was criticized for was her use of 'tundra' to describe the setting for The Lion King. In response, she changed it to 'savanna' and said "sorry for the embarrassing lack of geographical knowledge."

Based on her response to others who criticized her defense of the movie, I doubt that we're going to see a tweet from her that says "sorry for the embarrassing lack of respect for Native voices."

Gilbert objected to one person's tweet that suggested she was speaking from within a white privilege space. She called that a personal attack. What, I wonder, shall we call her dismissal of Native voices?


For further reading:
Pocahontas' First Marriage: The Powhatan Side of the Story, by Phoebe Farris
The Pocahontas Paradox: A Cautionary Tale for Educators, by Cornel Pewewardy.
Who Was Pocahontas: Frightened Child or Exotic Sexual Fantasy?, by Steve Russell.

Update, 5:14, 6/24/2015: The complete name of the Powhatan Nation is "Powhatan Renape Nation." It is recognized by the state of New Jersey.

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