This is a difficult post.
As many of you know, my children have been involved with Christian Youth Theater for the last couple years. They participated in many exciting productions like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the Wizard of Oz, Schoolhouse Rock, Peter Pan, and others. More importantly, CYT has given my children many intangible blessings like positive friendships and improved confidence. We are very thankful for our association with Christian Youth Theater.
But this spring, CYT produced the Legend of Pocahontas.
When I first heard that CYT intended to perform a version of the Pocahontas story, I expressed serious misgivings. More than anything, I didn't want my children to participate in anything that reinforced negative stereotypes about Native Americans. Several people at CYT seemed to understand my concerns, but others defended the production. "This is not like Disney," they said, "This is the real story of Pocahontas."
I almost prevented my children from auditioning for the play, but I decided to keep an open mind. We would discuss the issues and allow the children to make their own decisions.
And then before the audition, CYT asked me to join the creative team as a cultural consultant to the directors. This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to educate the CYT community regarding Native issues and to strengthen relationships. One of the directors made a grand gesture of cooperation by saying, "If anything in this play offends you, we won't do it." Sadly, these words would prove unattainable.
As soon as I joined the creative team I made two essential recommendations:
Nothing in the play should promote or reinforce the stereotype of angry, "savage" Indians on the warpath.
The Pocahontas character should wear culturally appropriate clothing and not the skin-tight, sexually provocative clothing from the Disney version.
Everyone seemed to agree with my recommendations. They even gave me a copy of the script and asked me to re-write anything else that might be seen as inaccurate or offensive.
Reading the script was a disaster.
The first act told the story of Pocahontas as a child, and was filled with too many negative stereotypes to number. But just as I feared, the Indians were portrayed as violent, angry, and bloodthirsty. The first act made reference to sacrificing human beings to a supposed war god, killing eagles for clothing, and people acting "crazy" because of smoking the peace pipe. The play also made direct reference to the so-called romance between Pocahontas and John Smith. Several lines had Pocahontas speaking of her supposed love for the stranger, and an entire song was dedicated to a dreamy, pre-teen Pocahontas swooning over the blue "sapphire eyes" of the benevolent John Smith. Finally, the play reinforced the dubious story of Pocahontas rescuing Smith from being sacrificed to the war god of the Powhatan.
The script was fatally flawed. I could not correct the inaccuracies without re-writing the entire show, but I did my best to remove the most egregious errors. Unfortunately, most of my recommendations would eventually fall by the wayside.
My children auditioned for the play but were immediately offended by the negative portrayal of Native Americans. The boys who auditioned for the male leads were encouraged to yell and speak in angry tones. My son was hurt and walked away from the audition. All three children received parts, but decided of their own volition that they didn't wish to participate in the play.
Things continued to get worse.
One of the directors thanked me for re-writing major portions of the play, but then informed me that copyright issues prevented them from making changes. I wondered why no one mentioned this before I spent several hours re-making the script. Then I found out that the dress to be worn by Pocahontas was almost an exact duplicate of the Disney version. She would even wear the same tattoo on her upper arm.
Finally I had to withdraw. The proverbial last straw happened when several parents called and expressed their own concerns regarding the inaccuracies and the immodest dress worn by Pocahontas. "CYT said you endorsed these things as culturally accurate."
I wrote a letter formally withdrawing from the creative name and demanded that my name be removed from any association with the play.
I would have let bygones be bygones, but the Inlander published a review of Pocahontas and praised its cultural "authenticity." To its credit, CYT later apologized for the Inlander article, but I wonder how many people in Spokane read the article and still believe I had something to do with the misrepresentation of Native people. What is worse, many of the children still believe they participated in an accurate, respectful portrayal of Native Americans. They did a wonderful job in terms of acting and singing, but most continue to believe something that was not true.
In the end, I decided to tell the truth for the children.
In the end, CYT removed the reference to Pocahontas as an Indian princess and any direct mention of romantic feelings toward John Smith. The song and other misrepresentations remained in the final production.
Why does the story present such a problem?
The so-called legend of Pocahontas is exactly that: a legend. It was already a falsehood during the lifetime of the real Pocahontas. And it seems everyone had a motive to embellish the story. Many scholars believe that John Smith invented the rescue story to serve his own purposes. Likewise, the Virginia Company created the myth of an "Indian Princess" as part of a propaganda campaign to lure English settlers to the new colony. They used Pocahontas as a living prop to show wary investors that the Indian "savages" could be civilized. In essence, she became a tool to encourage the further invasion of the American continent.
In later years, Pocahontas became something of a cultural icon within the greater American myth. She has been idealized as the "good Indian" who submitted to White authority and expansion.
The CYT version of Pocahontas offers some passing mention of the political and financial motives behind the myth, but it continues to promote many of the same stereotypes and inaccuracies of the past. I'm saddened to think of the opportunity that was missed to correct past errors and create greater cultural understanding. Instead, yet another generation will carry this falsehood into the future.