In which I respond to the lyrics of ‘Colors of the Wind’ from Disney’s Pocahontas. A song supposedly written from the perspective of a Powhatan woman but actually written by two Jewish men. Disney typically isn’t concerned with following the source material it plunders for films — especially when history comes into it. Disney is hardly the only guilty party here as it has become a trope to portray the American Indians as peaceful people, living in harmony with nature as seen in other films like Dances with Wolves and 2005’s incredibly boring The New World (which was also focused on Pocahontas and John Smith). Though there were certainly tribes of American Indians that were more placid; the Powhatan were certainly not.
To disabuse people from fanciful lies, I will respond to these trite lyrics with the reality.
You think I’m an ignorant savage
And you’ve been so many places I guess it must be so
But still I can not see
If the savage one is me
How can there be so much that you don’t know?
You don’t know
The fate of John Ratcliffe, the film’s mostly ahistorical antagonist:
“He was tied naked to a tree, then a group of Indian women used mussel shells to scrape the flesh from his body. They threw the bloody pulp into a fire before his eyes for as long as he lived, which mercifully was not for long.”
From Chapter 13 of A Man Most Driven by Peter Firstbrook
Even the notoriously grizzly methods of execution of England at the time, pale in comparison to this and at least had some due process involved before being carried out — and certainly not by women. The Europeans had very good reasons for describing the Indians as “savages”.
You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name
John Smith and the English were merely acting according to their own religion and cultural beliefs:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Genesis, Chapter 1: 26-7, King James Version (which suits the time period)
Further, as the empire of Pocahontas’ own father attests, the Powhatan were hardly above the behaviour she is decrying in John Smith’s culture. In reality, the Christian religion showed a far more sophisticated relationship with and knowledge of the natural world.
You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew
The only reason the colonists at Jamestown weren’t immediately attacked and driven into the sea was so the Powhatan could see what use they could be in dealing with their neighbours — with whom they were hardly friends. The idea that Pocahontas’ people were somehow more tolerant and worldly than the arriving Europeans is completely absurd.
Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon,
Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned?
Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains?
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?
Hearing a wolf howl at the moon is not an achievement.
Indians can’t talk to animals.
European music was objectively more sophisticated.
European art was objectively more sophisticated.
Even English art was far more sophisticated.
Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest
Come taste the sun sweet berries of the Earth
Come roll in all the riches all around you
And for once, never wonder what they’re worth
The Powhatan were very interested in trading for the colourful beads, baubles and other trinkets the English brought. Pocahontas’ father was especially interested in acquiring European tools and especially firearms and other weapons. They had little in the way of metals — precious or otherwise and this was more to do with the region they lived than actual material desire. They were not spiritualists or above seeking enrichment.
The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends
Did your tribe not mind when your brothers periodically washed away your crops?
Did your friends not mind being eaten and turned into clothing?
How high does the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down, then you’ll never know
The Powhatan had wooden tools, weapons and lived in wooden structures. The Powhatan were also fascinated with the structures built by the English and at one stage had them begin building such a structure in exchange for food. The sycamore trees didn’t grow tall because the Indians wanted to see how high they would go.
And you’ll never hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon
For whether we are white or copper-skinned
We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains
We need to paint with all the colors of the wind
You can own the Earth and still
All you’ll own is Earth until
You can paint with all the colors of the wind
Pocahontas was so above European civilisation that she became a baptised Christian and was renamed Rebecca. She married an Englishman and declined the freely given opportunity to return to her people when offered. This knowledge is readily available and as far from disputable as anything in history. Every line of this song is a lie.