Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pocahontas & Pendletons

Like most little girls in my generation, and the ones growing up today, I loved Disney princesses. And while I enjoyed films starring the classic princesses - like Snow White and Cinderella - I was absolutely enchanted by the late 80s/early 90s Disney princess trifecta: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
I adored every Disney princess... Except for one.


As a ten year old girl growing up on the rez who had Jasmin and Belle Barbies (although I didn't like them as much as my other Barbies because they were larger; I'll save
that for another post), you think I would have been delighted that a new movie was coming out that featured a princess who was like me, right? Wrong!

To this day, I have never watched Pocahontas. In fact, the most I've seen of the movie are the scenes that make up the background of this feminist, spoken word poem, Once Tongue Tied*:

To be honest, from what I can remember of being that age, none of the other girls at school on the rez were that interested in Pocahontas either. I think there were one of two reasons for this lack of interest in Pocahontas:
  1. Pocahontas didn't actually reflect me or the girls my age. Yes, we had brown skin and long, dark hair; but, no, we didn't sing to the raccoons and wear teeny tiny buckskin dresses. While other little girls around the world might think Pocahontas a beautiful, exotic princess...
  2. We were more interested in the pale-skinned and blonde-haired princesses. The ones who far outnumber the two brown princesses in the photo above. From what we were taught by Disney and other media, they were the real beauties - not the princess who was supposed to represent us.
It's only been in recent years - I'd say since when I started grad school in 2007 - that I've begun to interrogate how this "Pocahontas complex" and other childhood images of Indians have affected me.

There seemed to be no end to my life on the rez in sight, until my mom got a job in the city and we moved. Although I would never go as far as to say I was "ashamed" of being one of only a handful of Anishinabekwe attending my high school in the Ottawa area, I also wasn't wearing my moccasins to class or a Native Pride cap. It felt that the easiest way to make it through high school was to go status quo, which for me meant being simply "Canadian" (whatever that is).

I noticed this unsettling ambivalence creep into my life again last year when I was asked, along with my fellow Word Warriors, to present Gerald Vizenor with a Pendleton blanket.

(Don't ask about my face.)
I was so excited to meet Vizenor and honoured to be honouring him, but I couldn't get as excited about the blanket itself as the audience who ooh-ed and ahh-ed.

My parents had a Pendleton blanket when I was growing up. I remember the day my parents brought my baby brother home from the hospital; we were in the midst of a heat wave and O.J. Simpson was running from the cops. My parents were lying on a bed in the basement, my eight pound brother between them. The Pendleton blanket they lay on was wrinkly so tried to fluff it out.

"Don't!" my parents both yelled, raising their arms to protect the baby.

"You can knock the air out of him," my dad warned. Oops.

And that's one of the memories that came to me the day I saw Gerald Vizenor's Pendleton blanket.

When you grow up Native, Pocahontas and Pendletons aren't just princesses and blankets. They carry memories, insecurities, familiarity and _______.

*I first heard of Once Tongue Tied on Sociological Images. When searching the site today, there was another interesting piece on masculinity and gender in Disney, check it out.