Since Thanksgiving is coming up on Thursday, and the holiday season is upon us, I thought it would be fun to talk about spirituality – or more specifically, spirituality in Pocahontas. I’ve always been a very spiritual person, and the last time I watched Pocahontas, it really struck me how much that aspect is touched upon. So today, we’re going to talk about animism, spirituality and what exactly the colors of the wind really represent.
So, what is animism, and what does it have to do with Pocahontas? Well, if you Google the word, you’ll get two definitions.
The first definition is: the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.
This one’s the easiest to relate to Pocahontas. So much of Pocahontas’ culture and way of life is defined by animism. She and the rest of the Powhatan Tribe hold the spirits and the land sacred. Instead of trying to conquer and plunder the land, like Radcliffe and his men, the Powhatan Tribe works with the land, only taking what they need and respecting it.
As Pocahontas tells John Smith (and us) in Colors of the Wind:
But I know every rock and tree and creature
has a life, has a spirit, has a name
(Doesn’t that lyric sound a lot like the definition above? I certainly think it does.)
The word animism also reminds me of animals, and animals are pretty big in the Disney universe as a whole. We have animal-centric movies, like The Lion King, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp… And just look at all of the Disney princesses/princes with animal companions. Aladdin has Abu, and Jasmine has Rajah. Ariel has a whooping three animal BFFs (Flounder, Scuttle, Sebastian). Sleeping Beauty has an entire set of forest friends. Cinderella has her mice. The list goes on and on.
Pocahontas is no exception: she’s got two animal besties, Flit and Meeko, each with their own distinct personality and quirks. Meeko the raccoon is kind of a brat (but a lovable one) who enjoys stealing people’s food, and doesn’t always play nice with others. Despite all that, he’s adorably curious and ultimately a kind raccoon at heart.
Flit on the other hand is an adorable hummingbird: serious, stubborn, but also friendly and very curious about the world around him.
They’re as close of friends to her as Nakoma is, and the movie doesn’t trivialize them because they’re animals.
The animals in Pocahontas all have a life, a spirit, a name, just as Pocahontas tells us. The film also uses them as symbolism at times: for example, Meeko represents the settlers. Much like they pillage and steal from the land without regard for its citizens, Meeko steals food from John Smith and others. Percy, in contrast, represents the Powhatan tribe: he was entirely content with his position until Meeko came in and started stealing his food and harassing him, much like the settlers disrupt Pocahontas’ life.
And of course, just as the settlers and tribe make things right in the end, so do Percy and Meeko.
The world of Pocahontas is very bright and vibrant, full of life and spirit. One of the best examples of this is in Grandmother Willow. We’ll talk more about her later, but for now, I’ll just say that she’s one of the best examples of animism to offer. We don’t see any other talking trees, but I like to assume that’s because we follow Pocahontas’ view for most of the movie, so obviously we’d spend the most time with HER tree grandmother rather than the relatives of others. There are also more general spirits to consider, like rocks, the sky, the Earth itself…which ties into the natural phenomena aspect of the world. The Powhatan tribe prays to and respects the spirits deeply.
Definition two, according to Google, is “the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.”
Most of the songs in Pocahontas, at least the ones surrounding Pocahontas and her tribe, relate back to the spirits (and animism). They look to the spirits for guidance and for food. Steady as the Beating Drum illustrates this really well:
Plant the squash and reap the bean
All the earth our mother gives
O Great Spirit, hear our song
Help us keep the ancient ways
Keep the sacred fire strong
Walk in balance all our days
The spirits all hold a sacred place in their lives. The Earth is their mother, the Great Spirit that they look not only for food and shelter, but also for guidance. They appeal to her to remind them to “keep the ancient ways” (keep with tradition), and to “walk in balance all our days” (to stay in balance with the land, and never take more than is needed). They also look to her in times of great turmoil, like when they’re forced to deal with new, unexplained phenomena, like gun shots and frightening pale-skinned men that shoot first and ask questions never for the most part.
One of the most interesting scenes in the movie to me was when Kekata, the tribe’s shaman/medicine man, conjures images from the fire, ones that end up later predicting events from the film.
The wolves surrounding Kocoum represent his death, and Chief Powhatan stopping their path represents the final conflict, when Radcliffe attempts to kill him. I also found it interesting the way the tribe managed to find ways to explain the unexplained phenomena around them. For example, the settlers’ weapons and armor, things the tribe doesn’t understand, are explained in ways that make sense to them. Their armor gives them “bodies that shine like the sun” and their guns are described as “weapons that spout fire and thunder.”
There’s also the comparison of the settlers to wolves, and how both consume everything in their path. Considering that wolves have probably caused trouble for the tribe when it comes to hunting, it makes sense now that they would compare them to the settlers, who, just like the wolves, wind up ravaging the lands and consuming resources the tribe needs. They trust Kekata, with his connection to the spirits, and trust the spirits themselves to guide them through the conflict of the movie.
And much like the tribe, who believes in path of the spirits, and the power that organizes and animates the world, Pocahontas shares the same beliefs.
Listening With Your Heart: Pocahontas’ Spiritual Journey
Pocahontas’ journey isn’t just about bringing the two groups together. It’s a big part of it, but that’s a journey that everyone is a part of (well, except Radcliffe, but no one likes Radcliffe anyway). Pocahontas’ own personal journey, her spiritual journey, is about finding her path.
Her “I Want” song is Just Around the Riverbend, and like most Disney Princesses, it boils down to two important aspects: a longing for adventure and choice.
Like so many princesses, Pocahontas wants to chart her own course. Her father has charted one for her (a marriage with Kocoum), and while it’s a smooth course, one that would be easy to choose, Pocahontas has always been one to make her own way. The adventurous streak we see in Pocahontas from the beginning wants something more, or at least a chance at something more.
But she’s torn:
Should I choose the smoothest curve
Steady as the beating drum?
Should I marry Kocoum?
Is all my dreaming at an end?
When Pocahontas reaches the two paths at the end of the song and proceeds down the jagged course, rather than the smoothest course (the one her father implores her to take), it’s clear that she’s made her decision, and of course, soon after that, she meets John Smith for the first time and her story really swings into high gear. Part of Pocahontas’ journey is learning to trust in the spirits, but more importantly, trust her own heart and decide what it is that she needs to do in order to find the happiness she seeks.
In her quest, she has two helpful sources to guide her: a willow tree and the colors of the wind. And I’m going to talk about why exactly both are so important to her, and how they influence her final course by the end of the story.
Can I just talk about how amazing Grandmother Willow is? One of the things I’ve always loved about Disney is the fact that they aren’t afraid to make the powerful spiritual guides – aka the mystics of the universe – women.
Grandmother Willow is a great example of this. Without her mother there to guide her, and with Nakoma being too by the books (and too busy crushing on Kocoum) to be neutral, Pocahontas’ female guiding force in matters of the heart is Grandmother Willow. In fact, it’s her going to see Grandmother Willow about her dream that sparks off a lot of our plot, because it’s there that she sees the “strange clouds” (the ship sails) and the settlers come into play.
Now, let’s talk about that dream of Pocahontas’. Pocahontas has a recurring dream involving her running through the woods, and in front of her is an arrow. When she looks at it, it starts spinning faster and faster, and then it suddenly stops. Why is this important?
Well, first of all, the dream ties directly into Pocahontas’ quest. Whether it’s the spirits reaching out to her with this vision or it’s just her own mind trying to make sense of her path, it’s something that’s deeply important to her. It’s also important to see how the vision plays out, because while there’s a possibility the spinning arrow is a reference to John Smith’s compass, it’s also a reference to John Smith himself, and how he ties into Pocahontas’ journey. The arrow represents Pocahontas’ uncertain path, made even more uncertain by the appearance of John Smith.
Unlike Kocoum, John Smith is someone her father would probably not approve of (and he doesn’t, at first), but he’s also a lot more similar to Pocahontas. They both share the same sense of adventure. John Smith’s little “I Want” segment is actually all about adventure, which shows his own path diverging from Radcliffe’s; while Radcliffe only cares about money and getting gold, John Smith wants adventure in a new land, and more importantly, he wants to know about it. In that way, Pocahontas is good for him as well: she’s exactly the teacher he needs, and just as she influences him, he also has an influence on her. His presence offers her another option: another reason to diverge from the path her father has set her on.
The arrow spinning faster and faster could easily represent events put into motion, like the conflict between the settlers and the tribe, and the arrow stopping could represent so many things, but I like to think it represents Pocahontas finally choosing her course. Savages is the song that sets up the climax of the film, with the settlers and tribe determined to fight. John Smith’s execution is planned, and there’s really no going back for either side at this point… or so we think.
When Pocahontas sets out to save John Smith and unite the tribes, she’s finally taking the initiative to chart her own course for once. Standing up to save John Smith means going up against her father, but Pocahontas does it because it is the right path, and because she loves him. She loves both of them, and wants the conflict to end.
And while all of this is going on, Grandmother Willow is Pocahontas’ guiding light. It’s interesting because while Pocahontas goes to her for advice, Grandmother Willow acts as more of a counselor. She does tell her to listen to the spirits (“All around you are spirits, child. They live in the earth, the water, sky. If you listen, they will guide you.”), but more importantly, Pocahontas must listen to her own heart and find out what she wants. She needs to make the right choice for herself, even if it isn’t the easiest choice or the smoothest course.
And when all seems lost, Grandmother Willow reminds Pocahontas of her dream. “It’s not too late, child. Let the spirits of the Earth guide you.”
Then comes one of my favorite scenes of the entire movie: the colors of the wind swirling around Pocahontas. The compass stopping, just as we pan to the sunrise, the path to the conflict about to begin, and John Smith’s execution.
“You know your path,” Grandmother Willow prompts, “Now follow it.”
And like a badass, Pocahontas does, to the tune of one of the best musical montages of the entire movie. When she needs them, the spirits come through for her and get her to John Smith in time, so that she can stop the conflict. Her course has been decided, and the spirits are 100% behind her on this one.
The Colors of the Wind
Now before we get to the resolution, there’s something else I need to talk about: the colors of the wind. No, not the song. What I mean when I mention “the colors of the wind” is those pretty leaves that circle around Pocahontas and John Smith. Do you know what I’ve always thought those leaves represent? To me, they represent the other important spiritual presence of the movie: Pocahontas’ mother.
Now, we don’t get much about Pocahontas’ mother during the movie. We know that she’s passed away, because she’s spoken about in the past tense, and we do know that Chief Powhatan loved her deeply, because he speaks very fondly of her. Pocahontas is also compared to her, both by Chief Powhatan and Grandmother Willow.
We can tell Pocahontas cares deeply for her too, because of how deeply she cherishes the necklace she wears, the necklace that was once her mother’s, and how she speaks about her. And just like Grandmother Willow, Pocahontas’ mother is with her as well. If we think of the leaves as Pocahontas’ mother, then a lot of the plot makes sense. The leaves are there to guide her whenever she needs them. They appear a lot in The Colors of the Wind (of course), they draw Pocahontas and John Smith together (which, yes, means that Mama Pocahontas ships her daughter and John Smith just like the rest of us), and they’re what guides her toward the cliff so that she can reach John Smith in time.
They’re also in that horrible heartbreaking ending scene none of us like talking about, where they pass on Pocahontas’ love to John Smith as he sails away.
(Nope, why are we talking about this, let’s move on from the heartbreak.)
Anyway, looking at Pocahontas from a spiritual stance, and seeing her mother as the leaves means that Pocahontas’ mother is her other important guiding force. An important facet of spirituality to me is knowing that the ones you love are still watching over you, and I think both Pocahontas (and Chief Powhatan) get that experience through her mother’s spirit watching over them.
Conclusion: Pocahontas’s Path Decided
I’m going to wrap this up by talking about the end of Pocahontas’ spiritual quest. After everything – finding her path, bringing the tribes together, all that jazz –, Pocahontas knows what she wants.
Unfortunately, John Smith is going back to England, due to that lovely gunshot wound he got from Radcliffe, and Pocahontas knows she can’t go with him. Her path led to him, but unfortunately, their paths have to diverge, at least as long as it takes for him to get patched up and come back to her (my preferred ending; I like to pretend the sequel doesn’t exist), and she’s okay with that. It’s hard letting go of people, even for a short time, but Pocahontas sacrifices what she has with John Smith, because her people need her more.
In the end, we get a sort of compromise. Pocahontas takes responsibility for her people and her role in the community, but she’s also on her own course, and no one can choose her path but herself. It’s not the path she imagined for herself, but as they say, you never know what’s waiting just around the riverbend.
Notes: When we started brainstorming topics for the site, I knew that I really wanted to talk about Pocahontas, because it’s one of my favorite Disney Renaissance films, and once I started thinking about the movie, I realized that it would be wonderful to talk about the spiritual themes of the movie. I also thought it would be good timing, considering the holiday season is beginning. 😉
(Also, if you guys were wondering, the lyrics came from: http://www.stlyrics.com/p/pocahontas.htm)
Comment below with thoughts/feedback/opinions!