Sunday, December 29, 2019

Pocahontas and the Powhatan Legacy, part 2

If you recall from Part 1, many aspects of Pocahontas’s life continue to be debated and are relegated to innocuous data but her historical importance can’t be overstated. Many modern Powhatans felt her story had never been properly told and thought, in time, they would see the myths and misconceptions surrounding the life of Pocahontas dispelled and resolutely corrected. Instead they got Disney’s 1995 animated Pocahontas feature that represented an idealized version of what had become an already widely accepted myth.

To its credit, it was the latest in the studio’s ‘renaissance’ series of films and showcased impressive animation with at least some considerable attention to historic detail. But it was, concurrently, the first in their new assembly line of self-consciously ‘PC’ musical adventure-dramas presenting safe storybook portrayals of multicultural heroines(After complaints that the Arabian characters in their 1992 movie Aladdin were too light, the callow producers were literally adding extra shades to subsequent characters’ skin tones out of fears of denunciations or protests).

Most glaring was the obvious age difference of Pocahontas as she meets John Smith and experiences the events in her life. The writers stated that they “chose they socially responsible side” of depicting her as an adult romancing Smith and excluding John Rolfe, the man she actually loved, altogether.

The feature’s release was inevitably met with disappointment from many Powhatans. A notable objection was voiced by Chief Roy Crazy Horse, executive administrative director of the Powhatan Indians of Delaware Valley, New Jersey. Crazy Horse, an author, speaker, veteran and tribal leader felt the film’s historical inaccuracies were too numerous and that a disservice had been done to the Powhatan Nation. He claimed the tribe reached out to the studio to assist in their research and was ignored.

No doubt, Disney’s Pocahontas is a far cry from that of history and ultimately dwells on themes aimed at elite contemporary American fixations such as ethnocentrism, environmental concerns and schmaltzy songs with pet raccoons; and that’s not to mention tree spirits! Chief Crazy Horse was understandably concerned about the misrepresentation of his culture, but did he really expect the entertainment conglomerate to create an animated children’s musical out of the famed figure’s complex and turbulent life story?

In the early 1990s I interviewed Chief Crazy Horse as part of a paper I was writing for a college course. My instructor had asked me to interview an Indian, an aggravating task as I had no idea how to find someone of considerable American Indian descent. I also had reservations about doing so, as I didn’t think it would be appropriate to bother people with questions regarding their heritage for the purpose of some stranger’s term paper.

As luck would have it, though, I came across a news article on Chief Roy Crazy Horse, the tribal chief among chiefs at the Rankokus reservation, who had recently undergone heart surgery. I contacted the Chief and he was generous enough to agree to an interview where I asked some basic questions about his everyday life experiences, his religion and his attitudes on the current state of Indian affairs.

For some reason he responded bitterly and instead of entertaining any questions, complained about negative past experiences and petty grudges he held against a few people who had stereotyped him. I can’t say I really blame him for his feelings, knowing how immersed he was in his peoples’ often tumultuous and upsetting history.

“I have a car phone just like other people!” he remarked at one point. I don’t think I had ever seen a car phone at the time, let alone know anyone who had one. At one point, I casually used the term ‘Native American’, which he emphatically rejected.

“I’m an Indian!” he reminded me. That was something I found interesting. It’s yet another instance that obviates the ineptitude of political correctness. Too often we cling to these academia-manufactured terms, all the while forgetting that those in question should have the final say on what they are called. Indigenous people in the U.S. prefer the technical misnomer “Indian” to one forced upon us all which stresses our fears of not being inclusive and gives no connotation of their status as a proudly unique and independent people.

The Rankokus reservation, situated on 350 acres of land in Westampton, New Jersey was rented to the Powhatan Renape by the state in 1982. Leased to the tribe for free by the Department of Environmental Protection, the contract was met on a monthly basis, providing they could keep up with maintenance and insurance, building and fire code and environmental issues. Eventually inspectors found Chief Crazy Horse in violation of the lease’s terms after building, paving and cutting down trees without state consent.

After Crazy Horse’s years with Rankokus, the reservation fell into neglect and inactivity and the lease was not renewed. Today it remains a state park but tribal members continue to fight for state recognition for tribal rights to healthcare, education grants, scholarships and other member programs. For a time there was ongoing litigation from similar Indian nations and this led to the Powhatan Renape’s legal matters being ignored.

The Nanitoke Leni Lenape, a neighboring tribe, received benefits for 30 years until the state claimed on a federal survey that there were no official tribes in the state. It had been alleged that concerns over potential gaming and casino competition had hindered that progress. Now the state has settled to recognize both groups as official American Indian tribes. But weren’t they always?

Despite systematic attempts to destroy our confederation and our culture, the Powhatans have endured, proving our peoples’ strong will to preserve our heritage. Tribal affinities remain strong, distinctive religious beliefs and economic traditions continue to be practiced, and in spite of efforts to force our people to speak only English, the Powhatan language is still alive! -Chief Roy Crazy Horse

Chief Crazy Horse believed the Powhatan people survived and will always survive. In light of all the misfortune they have persevered through, that is a fair assessment. I learned of the Chief’s passing about a decade later in 2004 and I may have missed an opportunity to meet with him and talk again when I stopped by the reservation sometime in the mid-nineties. I would have liked to have heard his thoughts on the Disney issue. What is resolutely important is the opportunity to celebrate what remains, namely, a culture, a history and generations who will write the next chapter.

In Conclusion, the Chief’s unwavering loyalty to his heritage and his proud willingness to share his stories and culture through his teachings and writings is inspirational in itself. All tribes, nations and communities need those values reinforced even more than they need official recognition from governments or accurate depictions from the movie industry. In a hectic, political and technology-driven world, they can be the easiest values to forget.

Happy Holidays!
Christopher Robinson

> To read part 1: Click Here!

For those who love to hear western movies up close!
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