Why BBDO rewrote the fairytale about Pocahontas

Who: Muskrat Magazine, with BBDO for strategy and creative; TA2 Sound & Music for original music score and sound design; PR by Glossy and Hype PR.

What: “Missing Matoaka,” the true story of the young girl popularly known as Pocahontas—one of the first missing and murdered Indigenous women—told through a new audio track that syncs up with a popular Pocahontas movie.

When & Where: The audio is live now at MissingMatoaka.ca, with PR doing most of the work to raise awareness. BBDO can’t say which of the 10 Pocahontas movies the audio syncs to, but the audio file is one hour and 21 minutes long, and the famous 1995 Disney version of the film is also one hour and 21 minutes long. Soooo…

Why (I): There are a couple of parts to this. First, Muskrat is an arts and culture magazine focused on Indigenous storytelling. “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,” said Rebeka Tabobondung, Muskrat‘s publisher and editor-in-chief, and a member of the Wasauksing First Nation, in a release.

BBDO had been talking with Muskrat about ways to tackle some of the stereotypes and misrepresentations about Indigenous Canadians, said Derek Blais, who is a member of Oneida Nation of the Thames. “This was a project that we developed to present the true story of Pocahontas from an Indigenous perspective.”

Why (II): The other important motivation was the 2019 final report of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.

One of the calls for justice in the report was: “Take proactive steps to break down the stereotypes that hyper-sexualize and demean Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, and to end practices that perpetuate myths that Indigenous women are more sexually available and ‘less worthy’ than non-Indigenous women because of their race or background.”

Blais and BBDO wanted to do something about that call for justice.

“When it comes to stereotypes specifically about women, and stereotypes that hyper-sexualize women specifically, we looked at Pocahontas as the most famous Indigenous woman out there, and the most famous stereotype,” Blais told The Message. “And the way that most people who are non-Indigenous will learn about Indigenous women is through the story of Pocahontas.”

That story is presented as a romantic love story of sorts, when in fact it is a story of rape, murder and violence against Indigenous women.

How: BBDO worked with a team of Indigenous writers, researchers and voice actors to retell the entire story. Blais said it began with a tremendous amount of research into the time, “ensuring that we were being as truthful and authentic and authentic as possible.”

Making sure the story they had written lined up perfectly with the on-screen visuals was also “a bit of a technical jigsaw,” he said. But once they did, they effectively had a new version of a Disney film correcting some of the painful lies at the heart of the original:

  • Mataoka was only 10 when she first met John Smith, and was eventually kidnapped and held hostage;
  • She was sexually assaulted and forced to marry one of her captors and later taken to Europe;
  • She died from disease/poisoning fleeing England when she was just 20.

“The life of Matoaka is a chilling reality of the literal horror of invasion, enslavement, rape and murder,” said screenwriter Lauren DeLeary, who is Ojibwe and a member of the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation. “It is unfathomable that it can be funnelled down so far from reality that it was made into a children’s movie, perpetuating lies and the fetishization of Indigenous women.”

It was personal: Blais calls “Missing Matoaka” the most important project of his creative career. His grandmother was sent to a residential school in her youth, and his mother was taken from her family as part of the infamous “60s Scoop.”

“I am the first person on my mother’s side of the family that wasn’t taken away by the government,” he said. “The women in my family have directly experienced generations of trauma and the effects of this kind of stereotype. So for me to be able to create and support this project, to educate and answer one of the calls for justice addressing harmful stereotypes towards our women in this way, it’s really hard to put into words, it’s very powerful for me.”

David Brown