BBDO’s Alternate Audio Track to Disney’s Pocahontas Tells Her Brutal True Story

“This project is in response to the calls for justice coming out of the National Inquiry into MMIWG, specifically female Indigenous representation in the media, and to ‘take proactive steps to break down the stereotypes that hypersexualize and demean Indigenous women and girls’,” says Derek Blais, executive creative director of BBDO Canada. Blais is also a member of Oneida Nation of the Thames.

“Since I work in the media industry and can apply my skills as an Indigenous creative director, and especially as an Indigenous male ally, it has been my honor to create and oversee this project from a creative perspective. The women in my family have been Through generations of trauma, from the ’60s scoop to residential school. To be able to bring the story of an Indigenous woman, Matoaka, to life in this way, and contribute to the correction of a stereotype using media, has been the most impactful project of my career.”

Blais has a personal connection to the events he cites: His grandmother attended a residential school, a series of government-wide efforts in Canada to separate native children from their families and “socialize” them. His mother was also taken away as an infant during the ’60s Scoop, which gave child welfare authorities in Canada the right to simply appropriate Indigenous children (there’s a class action lawsuit currently still playing out).

“Missing Matoaka” is a production by Indigenous creators, including Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee-Cree writers from Chippewas of the Thames, the Michel Band, Poundmaker Cree and Métis voice talent, and of course creative direction from Blais of Oneida Nation of the Thames. The new narrative begins, “This is not a story about the power of striking love. This is not a story about glory, God and gold. Nor a romance. This is a tragic tale of a woman who was assaulted and kidnapped from her people , from her identity.”

Watching the voiceover on top of the Disney film is a striking experience. From a production perspective, it often feels expository, but there isn’t much you can do when retelling over established video. Once you push past that sensation, it hits you how hard the animators worked to convey a different kind of reality—from making the dispute between Indigenous people and Europeans feel like a murky matter of “very fine people on both sides” (a current political quote that you might be familiar with), to depicting John Smith as a generous and heroic person.

At the start of the movie, for example, the ship is hit by a storm, and Smith is determining in helping save lives. Over that imagery, and of the real Smith, Matoaka observes, “He was such an outlaw that by the time the ships reached our lands, he’d become a prisoner.”

The name Pocahontas comes from Matoaka’s mother, who died in childbirth. Matoaka explains that she reminded her father so much of her mother that this is what he called her. She was just 10 years old when John Smith and his crew arrived, and did not abandon her people; she was instead held hostage. She was then sexually assaulted and forced to marry a captor as a condition of release … but in her case, this simply meant she was taken back to Europe and paraded there as an example of successful colonization. She was 20 when she died of disease, or possibly poisoning, while attempting to flee.

The Disney version of Pocahontas stems from John Smith’s own retelling of what happened. Like at least one guilty dude we can name, he wrote a book detailing his version of events, arguing that Indigenous people should be grateful to him.

As an aside, it’s useful to know that this conscious erasure of events is something that happened pretty often in our colonial story.

In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber spends a lot of time describing the many conversations Indigenous leaders had with colonizing forces and their religious authorities, critiquing the European way of life. Many of them were recorded in tracts that became huge reading in Europe, inspiring early Enlightenment thought so much that it became trendy for writers to invent “noble savage” characters as a vehicle for social critique. “In this way, theories of social evolution—now so familiar that we rarely dwell on their origins—first came to be articulated in Europe: as a direct response to the power of Indigenous critique,” Graeber writes.

This served as one form of erasure: These fake characters became a good way to argue that maybe all recorded Indigenous critiques of Europe were fake, designed by much cleverer European thinkers.

The elaborate case that Indigenous thinkers made for what freedom is, and what is wrong with the idea of ​​states as we understand them, shook Europe to its core. “Settlers adopted into Indigenous societies almost never wanted to go back,” Graeber adds, shedding light on how traumatic Matoaka’s forced indoctrination into European society was.

There were many contemporary reactions to all this, but basically, European thinkers, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, really couldn’t conceive of a way of living that didn’t include property holding, massive financial exchange, or forms of corporal punishment (frequent topics upon which Indigenous thinkers lobbied critique). They concluded their way of civilization was an inevitability in human progress. In short, says Graeber, they “[claimed] to be mere temporary vehicles to speed up their subjects’ march to civilization—at least those subjects who, unlike the Wendat, they hadn’t largely wiped off the map.”

The parading of “successful” colonization projects was also common. In 1907, the French designed the Paris Colonial Exposition, a literal human zoo composed of various people they had colonized “in habitat,” to highlight colonialism’s success to Parisians. The vestiges of these habitats remain in the Jardin de L’Agronomie Tropicale today.

All of this is to say that the stories we tell impact the way we think about reality, and how we perceive other people. Colonialism is not done. It’s an ongoing project; part of the war it wages is on what we understand reality to be, and who gets to narrate it.

In “Missing Matoaka,” Matoaka is voiced by Quinn Roffey-Antoine, a victim rights advocate at Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto. “Through my work, and as an Indigenous woman myself, I see the violence Indigenous women face at the hands of colonialism daily. This project is about reclaiming our stories,” she says.

Here’s screenwriter Lauren DeLeary discussing the project:

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