Not your Pocahontas: 3 Indigenous filmmakers on representation in media

A still from Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998).
A still from Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998). Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Company.

Many young girls have grown up with dreams of princesses and magical fairy godmothers dancing in their impressionable minds. This whimsical idealism contributed to countless birthday party themes and Halloween costumes featuring every Disney princess under the sun, fulfilling a childhood ripe with bright-eyed fascination and imagination.

Although this universally-known media company may appear as a model for expressing individuality, the influence that the Walt Disney Company has had on youth in terms of on-screen representation is not all faith, trust and pixie dust.  

Decolonizing Disney: An inaccurate portrayal of Indigneous peoples

With the film’s release in 1995, Pocahontas was one of the first Disney princesses introduced in the cinematic universe and one of only two Indigenous female leads to date in Disney’s nearly century old existence,the other being Moana, a princess of Polynesian descent.

Pocahontas, known for its problematic portrayals of Indigenous peoples, follows a group of English colonists in search of the “new world” in Virginia circa 1607. As the colonists begin to claim the land as their own, John Smith, characterized as a dashing explorer, ventures off and meets Pocahontas.

Like many Disney storylines, a love story blossoms and when war tensions rise between their respective communities, they fight together for harmony. Overall, the Disney film is heavily filled with inaccurate depictions of the history of Indigenous peoples and the colonizers of the “new world”, in order to appeal to the Disney demographic by emphasizing typical tropes like true love and discovering your path.

Not only does the film include song lyrics plagued with the word “injun”, a highly derogatory term for Indigneous peoples, but the list of problematic inaccuracies run a mile-long. While the film portrays Pocahontas as a young woman, according to an article by Smithsonian Magazine, she was barely in her teen years, a significant flaw in the depiction of a romantic relationship between her and Smith.

The misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in mainstream media and on-screen has been a recurring issue in Hollywood and the film industry for decades and Disney is not exempt from the inaccurate portrayals of Indigenous peoples in Pocahontas.

Disney merely wanted to produce a comforting and palatable story for their viewers so that the film could be considered “fun for the entire family,” although, inevitably fuelling misrepresentation.

Although the filmmakers may not have intended to inaccurately portray Indigenous peoples, the need for education of such issues are crucial, especially when Disney’s target audience is generally youth.

As the film industry grows, representation is finding its way on-screen more fluidly – giving way to important stories with strong voices. Perhaps, Disney may eventually redeem itself from the harsh shadow Pocahontas casts on the company’s past and create a more accurate portrayal of an Indigenous woman.

There are many perspectives on the issue of Indigenous representation in film, especially when it comes down to the concept of female empowerment of characters, roles and positions in the film industry.

Ryerson Folio digs deeper into exploring the viewpoints of Indigenous female film figures who use their influence by ways of establishing representation, truth and power.

Reel talk: Raven Sinclair on why representation is important

Raven Sinclair, a member of Gordon First Nation of the Treaty 4 area of southern Saskatchewan and an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Regina, shares her experience as a new filmmaker and what representation means to her.

Sinclair believes that there is a tremendous issue of misrepresentation and stereotypical depictions of Indigenous people in the film industry and stresses how crucial it is to see filmmakers and artists becoming more vocal on the issue.

“That discourse of misrepresentation has sort of trickled out into mainstream media so that people are becoming more and more aware,” says Sinclair.

After working with Roz Owen, a director and writer who also teaches film production at Ryerson University, on 2018 film Trouble in the Garden Sinclair had the opportunity to give her input as executive producer alongside Owen, who Sinclair is “protective of due to her approach” to Indigenous films. Sinclair elaborates that it is crucial to include Indigenous peoples in films when tackling Indigenous issues.

Raven, played by Cara Gee in Trouble in the Garden (2018). Photo courtesy of @troubleinthegardenthefilm on Instagram.

She believes that educators like Owen and others need to focus on these issues and shed light on them in learning environments. Sinclair also comments on how discussion will give students the opportunity to explore the issue of representation and misrepresentation through a critical lens.

Through Owen and Sinclair’s collaboration on Trouble in the Garden, a film about an Indigenous protestor who is taken in by her estranged brother, there were two perspectives being put to work. This was essential in order to create an accurate story that would be meaningful to those who have experienced the effects of the Sixties Scoop, as well informing others about the issues outlined in the plot.

The Sixties Scoop refers to the removal of Indigenous children from their families, who were then non-consensually placed into the child welfare system. Although the Sixties Scoop mainly occurred through the 60s – 80s, the practice of removing Indigenous children from their homes pre-existed with the residential school system and followed well into modern day foster care systems.

“The story is a cross cultural story and so it makes sense to me that both of us were involved because it gave me an opportunity to consider the impact on the adoptive families as well as my own adoptive family and to me, that’s really valuable,” says Sinclair.

Sinclair is also currently working with another non-Indigenous director to produce a film about race relations in rural Canada. She is using her voice as an educator to raise awareness through the influence she has on these films as a part of the filmmaking process.

“You know, the two most important ones are the Indigenous perspective and the non-Indigenous perspective and finding a way to sort of make them work in the creative process,” says Sinclair when addressing how her involvement in Trouble in the Garden was a true collaboration in order to promote representation of Indigenous peoples.

“I’ll be involved in the filming, so that I can really ensure that the Indigenous voice, as much as I can, represents all Indigenous voices. Although I am just one person, that’s one of the gifts of being a Scoop survivor; having a pretty panoptical perspective of things, because I’ve lived so many lives in one life, so that’s valuable in my mind,” says Sinclair.

Not only has her experience with Owen on Trouble in the Garden inspired Sinclair to start working on her own feature film, it also has been a “vehicle through which she feels represented” in the film industry.

“I was cast as the black sheep and the problem child and cast as the bad, evil, slutty woman that’s so typical of the adoptee experience, that so many of us were cast in that light and so that, you know, that’s a representation,” says Sinclair, describing how her personal experience with her adoptive family was a struggle for acceptance.

“I got to witness my family and my siblings in particular, try to reconcile with themselves after perceiving me as the bad child with what they were seeing in terms of my success. Once I got my PhD and I started to publish, started doing films, and worked on the national and international stage, they struggled with it,” she says. “They didn’t have any sort of understanding of who I was as an Indigenous person, beyond being this adopted child who was rescued from a life of horror and then not conforming to exactly what it was they that they wanted.”

Sinclair also discusses how the main character in Trouble in the Garden was able to resolve her pain on her own and resolve the problems and struggles she had been battling with her family. Sinclair particularly felt represented through the film when the character speaks her truth to the family.

“That’s a representation of me, because in my own life, that’s what I’ve had to do. I had to basically say, forget everybody else, I’m going to take care of myself and heal myself and then I’m going to focus on what’s important to me and the rest will take care of itself,” says Sinclair.

“You speak your truth and you stand your ground, you lay out your boundaries. You honor yourself, and then you move forward, even if you don’t know what will happen, you protect yourself and go forward to see how things unfold,” she says

Sinclair asserts that no matter what racism or sexism she faces, that won’t stop her from spreading her truth if it will impact even one person.

Reel talk: Michelle Thrush on spreading truth

Michelle Thrush, a Cree actress and activist, well-known for her work on Canadian T.V series Blackstone (2009-2015), expands on how acting has given her an outlet to speak her truth as an Indigenous woman.

A scene from season 5 of Blackstone featuring Michelle Thrush (left), Carmen Moore (middle) and Jordyn White (right). Photo courtesy of the Edmonton Journal.

Thrush grew up without positive role models on television or film, explaining that there were only a handful of Indigenous peoples actually playing Indigenous peoples. She states that before that, there were many non-Indigenous people playing these roles and “turning women into victims that constantly had to be saved by white people.”

Thrush has been an advocate for Indigenous voices for years and believes that there is a lot of heavy lifting involved when it comes to the education of Indigenous peoples and issues and that needs to be addressed.

She explains that non-Indigenous peoples need to also participate in their own research in order to understand why the issues are important in today’s society.

“Truth is the biggest thing that we need to have in film and television, and just showing the different aspects of who we are as women that, you know, we’re human.”

Reel talk: Sonya Ballantyne on creating and redefining heroes

 Sonya Ballantyne, a Cree filmmaker originally from Misipawistik Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, grew up without seeing characters portrayed on-screen that resembled herself.

“When I was starting to grow up, I realized that there still wasn’t anything like me out there and that I would have to make it myself,” says Ballantyne.

Ballantyne’s films put Indigenous girls and women in genres such as horror, sci-fi, fantasy and superhero – genres where they are not traditionally included.

She wants to create content that people can connect with that features Indigenous role models, such as Crash Site, a film about a young girl who discovers an Indigenous superhero while adjusting to a new life with her sister and an unwelcoming school environment.

A poster of Ballantyne’s short film Crash Site. Photo courtesy of Sonya Ballantyne via CBC Radio.

“With Crash Site, I did something with it that I didn’t care if I was being over earnest. I didn’t care if I was being so hopeful and I didn’t care if I was making mistakes. I noticed that people really connected with the heart I put behind that story and I am really overwhelmed to show it all the time now just because of how people connect with it,” Ballantyne says.

Ballantyne is also currently working on her first feature film, a coming-of-age comedy drama about a young girl who starts up a wrestling team on her reserve.

“It came out of my love of pro wrestling and specifically how I wanted to be a wrestler when I was a kid. What stopped me was a lot of racism, a lot of sexism and many of these invisible barriers that people don’t see, but are obvious when you start to try and climb that ladder,” says Ballantyne.

Through her films, Ballantyne hopes to encourage young girls to try out for things, even if they are scared to try.

“I really want to perpetuate in the stories I tell to these little girls who watch my movies, who see girls like them and realize that they can make these choices for themselves so they don’t need to be ready to take on the world. They can do it right now,” she says.

Ballantyne considers the impact her characters have on youth and by changing the narratives of representation, how her work has the opportunity to spark meaningful discussions on inclusivity.

“For me, that’s the ultimate goal of the stuff I do and I believe the world is changeable,” says Ballantyne, who is hopeful for the narrative on Indigenous people to be redefined in a positive light.

As more Indigenous storytellers are featured within the film industry and properly portrayed in film and television, the importance of representation and recognition will continue to spread throughout mainstream media in order to amplify Indigenous voices and stories.

Through this progression, young children will grow up with a renewed sense of inclusivity and validation through positive Indigenous influences on-screen. As for those who will remember Pocahontas and the films that provoked misrepresentation, it will bring an air of acceptance through proper portrayal of strong Indigenous individuals, no longer a reminder of what Disney deems a perfect Indigenous princess.