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This is not history
on September 21, 2012
Bad enough that my six year old found a copy of the Disney Pocohantas history mash-up somewhere, and that she is obsessed with long-haired princesses. Disney we know about. But this lamentably-lauded book was granted automatic credibility from living in her school's library.
One star is one too many. A quick glance is enough to see that it is full of derogatory depictions, as well as imprecision and straight-up lies (which is ironic, given Pocahontas is reported to have confronted John Smith about the lie of his "death," and to recognize it as a common trait among "his countrymen").
Worse than its factual distortion, in my opinion (although also via it), this book reinforces negative self-image for non-white children and, perhaps unintentionally, bolsters white supremacy. To whit: "The other Indian girls all envied Pocahontas her beautiful beads. But to her nothing seemed much fun after her white friends had left." The Indians are depicted as (eerily identical in a Wonka-remake kind of way) fierce, unsmiling, magic-wielding savages, with both text and illustrations demonstrating the authors' (European/American society's) utter disrespect for indigenous religious ceremonies and practices. And of course, there is the ubiquitous, self-congratulatory rebuke of indigenous labor division, with the "squaws" (yes, they actually use that word) being worked like mules from childhood while little boys get to swim and make merry (as if there was/is somehow gender equity in current/historical Western societies).
The text also implies throughout that the Indians are all (with the exception of Pocahontas post-encounter) idiotic, materialistic, and superficial. The "ugly" and "fierce" Powhatan, a leader skilled enough to unite 30 tribes into a confederacy, supposedly claims John Smith as his "son" because Smith impresses him with reports of vast British wealth, rather than because Powhatan was attempting to broker some peace or even just secure an ally among people who were invading his lands. Those who betrayed Pocahontas to the British settlers who took her prisoner are made to seem foolish as well as avaricious, supposedly selling her for a shiny (!) copper kettle (a familiar story to those of us who grew up with textbooks claiming Indians traded their land and sovereignty away for shells), when historical resources reveal that these supposedly individual betrayers were representatives of another tribe attempting to strengthen their ties to the British as a way to improve their political/strategic position in relation to the Powhatan. As were the British who held her captive and demanded that Powhatan return their prisoners of war (hardly the minor material goods implied by "all he has taken from us") in exchange for her release.
Powhatan is described as unwilling to fulfill settler demands to give them (more) corn when the people he led were also going hungry, but miraculously moved to generosity through the proffering of royal gifts and flattery. Even in its supposed advancement of "true" nobility, the book rhetorically betrays its bias: Pocahontas "held her head as high as though she had been born in a snow-white palace" and is "proud" of being the daughter of a man elsewhere in the book revealed as having been unwilling to "buy her back" from the settlers who had kidnapped her.
Enough said. This book is enough to make one vomit. In an age when quality books compete for space on the shrinking real estate of library (especially school library) shelves, librarians should make way for more history-as-history, less myth-as-history. Send this one to the dustbin.