Roanoke Times Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: FRIDAY, May 26, 1995 TAG: 9505260096 SECTION: NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL PAGE: A-1 EDITION: METRO SOURCE: ANTHONY FAIOLA THE WASHINGTON POST DATELINE: WEST POINT, VA. LENGTH: Long
``She was a child of respect and honor,'' said Custolow, a village storyteller in one of the last surviving tribes descending from Pocahontas, the 17th-century child ambassador of an Indian nation. ``Respect and honor were as great a part of her life as food and air. She used them as a tool to bridge the gap between peoples with different languages and different cultures.''
Custolow, daughter of a Powhatan chief, recalls her dying grandfather calling her to his bedside when she was 5, commanding her to spread the tales of Pocahontas and her people ``like seeds upon the four winds.'' That mission has consumed her. For the past 30 years - since she was a teenager - she has journeyed to schools, museums and folklore festivals to tell the tales, often six days a week, and often for free.
It was on one of those missions - to Colonial Williamsburg in 1992 - that researchers for Walt Disney Studios spotted Custolow. Struck by her intimate knowledge of the tale and her strong Indian facial features, they brought her to California as a model and consultant for Disney's epic ``Pocahontas,'' the animated successor to its blockbuster ``The Lion King.'' Custolow hoped that, through the 78-minute animated feature premiering June 10, she could share with the world the tales told by her grandfather.
But when Disney flew her to California three weeks ago to preview the film, her hopes were dashed. ``I wish they would take the name of Pocahontas off that movie,'' she sighed.
Disney's portrayal of Pocahontas, she says, is a severe departure from history. Her disappointment is being echoed by historians and Indian activists nationwide. For Custolow's people, whose ancestors spoke Algonquian - a language with no written form - the oral tradition of storytelling is considered a vital link to their past. So, by reinventing Pocahontas - the tribe's most celebrated figure - Disney in effect is reinventing and distorting their culture for future generations, they maintain.
Perhaps there are no people more sensitive to the story of Pocahontas than her tribal descendants, who now live in a region of rural Central Virginia that stretches from the Chesapeake Bay to Richmond. About 1,000 strong, they make up the remnants of the Powhatan Nation - a confederacy of 34 tribes that once stretched from present-day North Carolina to southern Maryland, and were named after their ruler, Chief Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas.
Disney, which labored to avoid ethnic stereotyping by hiring a host of Indians on the four-year project, argues that the exact details of the Pocahontas legend remain vague at best - making it a perfect piece of history to mold.
``We set out to do something inspired by the legend, not to make a documentary,'' said Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Studios' animation division. ``But you've got to remember something important: The history of Pocahontas is, in and of itself, a source of much controversy. Nobody knows the truth of her legend. We simply set out to make a beautiful movie about the Native American experience.''
The conflict underscores the pressure that moviemakers in the 1990s face in accurately portraying ethnic or other minorities in films. Indeed, Disney, an image-conscious company, still carries scars from the wrath of Arab Americans stemming from ``Aladdin,'' which was retooled after those criticisms, as well as the uproar over the company's approach to history at its proposed Disney's America theme park in Virginia, which has been shelved.
To authenticate Pocahontas, Indians were used as screen voices and as consultants for the film's elaborate dance and music scenes.
Many of the Indians who worked on the project, including activist Russell Means, who provides the voice of Chief Powhatan, applaud Disney for taking the tale of a young Indian girl to the big screen.
After all, they say, at its heart, Disney's ``Pocahontas'' is an entertaining child's film.
``It is the finest feature film ever done in Hollywood on the Native American experience,'' said Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement who in 1973 helped lead the 71-day takeover of the Pine Ridge Reservation town of Wounded Knee, S.D.
But for Custolow, and many others, the soul of the legend has been compromised.
Throughout the Disney film, she says, Pocahontas is depicted not as an innocent child, but as a woman of 20, clad in form-fitting buckskin and involved in a fictitious romance with Capt. John Smith. While many facts about Pocahontas remain in dispute, most historians agree that Pocahontas was about 11 when she first met the Europeans - and while she later married a white man, they say, she never romanced Smith.
Custolow says that early sketches of Pocahontas made her appear a child of 11. But later, Disney changed her appearance. Disney executives say that's not true. ``Of course there were changes during the development of the process, but we never set out to make her look 12 years old,'' Schneider said.
Disney's film, Custolow says, also ignores significant events such as the kidnapping of Pocahontas by British settlers - a kidnapping that later led to her conversion to Christianity and her marriage to British settler John Rolfe.
Disney's film ``may not be a feather-and-loincloth depiction of Indians as savages and heathens, but it is a disrespect for what we believe are the facts about Pocahontas,'' said Sonny Skyhawk, a Hollywood consultant on movies including Columbia Pictures' ``Geronimo, an American Legend.''