The Harmful Effects of ‘Pocahontas Chic’ on Indigenous Women

By Elena Chiaruttini 

How much do you think you know about the story of Pocahontas? 

On Thursday, Mar. 7, Dr. Cristina Azocar gave an informative lecture on cultural appropriation to a packed audience of students, in the auditorium of San Francisco State University’s Humanities building.

Dr. Azocar is a citizen of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, a professor of journalism at San Francisco State University and the author of News Media and the Indigenous Fight for Federal Recognition. Dr. Azocar’s research focuses on the media coverage of Indigenous people throughout history.

She started her talk addressing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement, which advocates for the end of violence against Native people. “There’s a significant number of missing and murdered Indigenous people, especially women, each year, compared to other groups,” she said. 

Dr. Azocar also illustrated how a distorted version of the story of Pocahontas has been perpetuated in the media, including books, comics, advertisements, journalism and social media, for more than 400 years. 

“All media are responsible for immortalizing Pocahontas as a hypersexual child who betrayed her people for the love of a white man,” she said.

To describe this shallow, sexualized and fashion-oriented way to portray Pocahontas, Dr. Azocar uses the term ‘Pocahontas Chic.’ 

In 1606, the English arrived in Virginia, invading the area of the Powhatan tribe, later named Jamestown after King James I. Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan’s daughter, was only 10 or 11 years old when she met John Smith. She was becoming a gifted medicine woman and was spiritually important to the tribe. 

Dr. Azocar explained how John Smith, 27 at that time, had a fragile status. He needed to gain the confidence of the English royalty to continue financing his expedition. He did not tell the story of Pocahontas saving him from being murdered for 17 years.

She explained that Pocahontas was later held captive, forcibly baptized and married to an Englishman, John Rolfe.

Afterward, Pocahontas was taken to England in 1616 and presented as an example of a “civilized” Native American. She became Lady Rebecca, and many portraits of her showed her skin as white as if she had become fully English.

In 1617, at age 19 or 20, she was murdered, potentially by poison. “And then, in 1624, Smith retells the story that led to the reduction of Pocahontas as an American myth,” Dr. Azocar said.

She mentioned the Disney movie (1995) and the film The New World (2010) as examples of narratives influenced by white colonization.

Dr. Azocar dwelled longer on the second movie, listing its disrespectful representations. “My people are portrayed as animal-like, and in fact, they actually act like dogs in the film.”

She said that the actress who played Pocahontas has very few speaking lines, and none of the Powatans’ lines are captioned.

However, she thinks the most disturbing aspect of the movie is that Colin Farrell, who back then was 29, and Christian Bale, 31, had some extremely intimate sexual scenes with Q’orianka Kilcher, who was only 14 years old at the time.

“I do not think that a 14-year-old would have been allowed to do these scenes with adults. It would have been called pedophilia,” she said. 

According to her, all these films and so many images that mass media portray are dangerous. Because Pocahontas chic is a child, dressed up as a woman, that distorts the concepts of Indigenous women who in the media are depicted as sexy and submissive. 

Dr. Azocar said there is a new wave of indigenous filmmakers, indigenous journalists, and fashion designers who have been creating content to counter the 400 years of misrepresentations.

“I’ve made it my goal to decolonize Matoaka’s story,” Dr. Azocar said, explaining that “Pocahontas” was a nickname given to her by her tribe. “I became very protective of her. She is my relative, and she has my history. Now that you know, I expect you all to protect that history too.”

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