BBDO's Alternate Audio Track to Disney's Pocahontas Tells Her Brutal True Story
Last year, a van life influencer, Gabby Petito, went missing. After reams of news coverage and intense searches—five different agencies pitched in—through vast territory (Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park), her remains were found.
This was a tragedy and an injustice in thousands of ways. If you followed it, you know what happened. But another, lesser-known story unfolded alongside Petito's—one about the many Indigenous women who go missing, without justice or news coverage, every year.
In Wyoming alone, 710 Indigenous people were reported missing over the past decade. Some 85 percent were minors, 57 percent women and girls. Overall, Indigenous people are 100 percent more likely to still be missing after 30 days than white people.
I like to think this isn't because we actively think some lives are more important than others. The problem is, we passively do, and much of this relates to the stories we are told, and then pass down, about whose life is valuable, and in what way.
Take the Disney film Pocahontas. On its face, it looks like another princess story, spiced up with the idea that it's a romance pulled straight from history: Two good hearts finding each other as their respective nations perpetuate destructive, xenophobic ideas, fomenting war.
The actual story is less charming and more straightforward. What happened to Pocahontas—whose real name was Matoaka—shares an ancestral lineage with what happens to Indigenous women and children today. Her erasure is a mirror of theirs, which happens in continuity: Among Indigenous women, homicide is the third-leading cause of death, over 10 times the national average, per U.S. federal data.
For the Indigenous arts and culture magazine Muskrat, BBDO Canada worked to change the most widely told story of Pocahontas in North American culture: the Disney version. The project aims to bring awareness to the calls for justice and the stereotypes Indigenous women face, as captured in the Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) report.
"Muskrat Magazine is thrilled to help share the 'Missing Matoaka' project and unveil the real story of Pocahontas," says Rebeka Tabobondung, publisher and editor in chief of Muskrat, and a member of the Wasauksing First Nation. "We believe that Indigenous stories must be told through the lens and voices of Indigenous people who bring a necessary truth to centuries of misrepresentation and destructive colonial whitewashing."
Below (and at MissingMatoaka.ca), you'll find an alternate audio track for the Disney film, which you can play over it. We used the version on Disney+ from our computers, so getting the syncing right is easy.
Meanwhile, here is the project video:
"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 decisive 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:
Blais has a fun fact about DeLeary. "Her nation, Chippewas of the Thames, is the neighbouring nation of my nation—Oneida of the Thames—across the river. When we were initially talking about her coming onto the project we realized that our grandparents would have gone to residential school together at Mount Elgin Residential School. We hope we've done our ancestors proud."
"Missing Matoaka" is directed to governments, institutions, social service providers, industries and Canadians generally. "A project like this will really help non-Indigenous people see how harmful stereotypes like this are and to see our stories through an Indigenous lens and from an Indigenous perspective," says Blais. "I hope people will question how and where they learn about Indigenous Peoples and consider how these stereotypes affect their relationship with Indigenous Peoples and how they are treated"—particularly the myth that Indigenous women are more sexually available, and less worthy than non-Indigenous ones.
The positioning of Matoaka as a woman with an adult body is also a weird colonial tendency that fetishizes native people while illustrating their inferiority. Following the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, tribal shamans—usually elderly women—were recast in paintings as young, nubile and half-naked, submitting idols to the Spanish for burning. This also happened with Greece's Oracle of Delphi, a role usually held by women over 50 (the film 300 depicts her as young, sexy and so much out of her head that, it's implied, she was likely violated by the same priests meant to care for her).
Matoaka's story is only a romance when looking at it from the aggressor's perspective. This isn't just about John Smith's fanciful version of If I Did It. Rather, it's part of what colonialism is—an aggressor's perspective. But from her own viewpoint—and that of her people, literally decimated by what followed—Matoaka marks the first documented Indigenous woman to go missing and be murdered by forces that considered themselves inevitable in the human story. (Graeber's book makes a nice case that this is hardly the pinnacle of civilization, nor was it inevitable. There are lots of ways humans lived, which get tidily shelved aside—erased, really—because they don't suit the modern narrative that our entire way of living was inevitable.)
"The life of Matoaka is a chilling reality of the literal horror of invasion, enslavement, rape and murder," says DeLeary. "It is unfathomable that it can be funneled down so far from reality that it was made into a children's movie, perpetuating lies and the fetishization of Indigenous women. It has taken over 400 years to tell this story correctly. Now more than ever, it is time for Indigenous voices to be heard."
At the end of "Missing Matoaka," where the Pocahontas story comes to a romantic head, the narrative goes into the sorry deal Matoaka had to make in order to go on surviving. She also describes how Kocoum, the husband she chose around the age of 14—was murdered, "one of the many broken promises," Matoaka laments.
"You'll hear all sorts of versions of my story, including one that says Kocoum died in battle to save me. He didn't even get the chance."
Project Title: "Missing Matoaka"
Client: MUSKRAT Magazine
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief: Rebeka Tabobondung
Agency: BBDO Canada
Chief Creative Officer: Max Geraldo
SVP, Executive Creative Director: Derek Blais
SVP, Integrated Production: Beatrice Bodogh
SVP, Business Director/Brand Reputation: Rebecca Flaman
Senior Project Manager: Fernanda Rodrigues
Art Director: Olga Netaeva
Copywriter: Hailey Ireland
VP, Digital Production: Jason Dick
Executive Story Editor: Fabio Montanari
Screenwriter: Lauren DeLeary
Screenwriter: Camille Beaudoin
Original music score & sound design created by: TA2 Sound & Music
Director and Composer: Steve Gadsden
Audio Director: Oliver Wickham
Original music licensed through Canyon Records: Northern Cree - Singing Group
Nikamo -Sing! - Album
Singer's Song - Track
Matoaka and Matoaka Young Narrator: Quinn Roffey-Antoine
John Smith, Ben, Lon, Thomas, Wiggins, Englishman 1 & 2: Steve Gadsden
Chief Powhatan, Governor Ratcliffe, Kekata, Kocoum, Native American Warrior, Namontack: Derek Blais
Grandmother / Elder: Dorothy Peters
Nakoma: Jocelyne Couture