This morning while multitasking parenting and a group project meeting at my house, my daughter asked if she could watch the Disney movie, Pocahontas. I wavered, not wanting to cave in to screen-as-babysitter so early in the day, but then I remembered that Pocahontas is tattooed. “Hey Eleanor,” I queried, “do you remember that Pocahontas has a tattoo?” Eleanor gave me one of those “duh, mom” looks and proceeded to tell me all about Pocahontas’s tattoo: “She has a tattoo on her arm, and it’s red, and it looks like fire.” (Proud mom moment…she’s just 4…a good interpretation of an abstract image!) Now Disney’s rendition of Pocahontas and her story is fraught with problems (the story of “Pocahontas” in general is fraught with problems), but one thing they did sort of get right was the tattoo (although her tattooing is not as extensive as what Pocahontas probably had).
Disney will probably get mad at me for using these images here, but here’s how they envisioned her tattooing:
(A cover from one of the DVD issues.)
(A still from the film)
After my meeting was over, I watched the last bit of the film with my daughter, and since we were already sitting in front of my computer, I offered to show her some historical images that the Disney animators used as reference for designing Pocahontas’s tattoo. Which got me thinking about sharing them with you. Clearly someone at Disney, at the very least, looked at one particular engraving based on John White’s drawings and printed in Theodore de Bry’s Americae Pars I (1590) to accompany the account of Native Americans in what is now North Carolina:
(Front and back of a Secotan woman.)
The arm band tattoos clearly seem to have inspired Disney’s Pocahontas’s single arm band tattoo, and I might hazard a guess that the pose from behind might have planted the seeds to have Pocahontas sport just a single design:
(Detail of the upper torso from behind)
The Disney folks probably didn’t take the time to search for White’s original drawings, which show far more extensive tattooing, including facial tattooing. (Although, to be fair, they were not anywhere near as easily accessible in the 1990s as they are now.) I don’t have time to arrange for permission to post those here, but the Powhatan Museum of Indigenous Arts and Culture did a nice series of details from those images. You can view the original drawings in full at the British Museum website here and here. (And as I note on Tattoo History Daily, these same images were influential to White in drafting his fantasy images of what Picts might have looked like).
[ETA: on further reflection, and perusal of the White manuscript images on the BL site, I think actually the Disney folks might have looked at those too. The design of the Disney Pocahontas tattoo does mimic the manuscript drawings more than the printed one, although I still think the print version is what made some animator think to just do one armband instead of two.]
Of course, all of these White drawings and the engravings from them were of the Secotans not the Powhatans. As far as I know, there are no Powhatan images from Pocahontas’s time extant (although if you know of any, let me know!), but given that both groups belong to the Algonquian family, it’s possible that these are along the lines of what Pocahontas’s tattoos might have looked like. Possible…not definitive. Tattoos can vary significantly from one group to another even when allied, geographically adjacent, or otherwise affiliated.
However, in 1606, John Smith did verbally describe the tattoos of the Powhatan women in his travel narrative. Sadly his general language lacks ekphrastic specificity. He relates: “their women, some have their legs, hands, breasts and face cunningly imbrodered with divers workes, as beasts, serpents, artificially wrought into their flesh with blacke spots.” (Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, 1624) To me, this does not evoke tattoos at all like the White Secotan images but perhaps…
And just to wrap up this quick round-up of sources and other things related to Pocahontas’s tattoos, my random internet browsing for images of Disney’s Pocahontas turned up this gem: a much more authentic (and clearly carefully researched) version of Pocahontas. Check it out!
Regardless, I give Disney a lot of credit for making one of their star princesses tattooed and at least trying to be faithful to history. In 1995 when they released Pocahontas, tattoos were only beginning to be destigmatized in the public’s mind and to gain popularity. I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason so many people today have tattoos might be traced to having watched Pocahontas as a child or parent and seeing them as desirable and acceptable.