Irene Bedard is one of the most famous and respected Native Americans working in Hollywood today. Her career spans nearly twenty-five years and ranges from acting to producing credits. She is probably best known as the voice behind the title character of Disney’s 1995 animation Pocahontas. The movie broke new ground for the studio but was also not received well for its representation of Native Americans and its historical inaccuracies. Bedard also heads a production company dedicated to “bringing positive, inspirational stories from Indian Country to the world”.
Born in Anchorage, Alaska, on July 22nd, 1967, Bedard had her film acting debut in the mid-1990s. Besides Pocahontas, she has featured in Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994), Into the West (2005) and small parts in other films and television series. Bedard regularly plays Native American characters. She received a Golden Globe nomination in 1995. She reprised her Disney Princess in its direct-to-video sequel, Pocahontas 2: Journey to the New World (1998), and the character’s mother in The New World (2005). She was also the physical model for Pocahontas. In the early 2010s, she started the company Sleeping Lady Films Waking Giant Productions. It’s based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Coming off The Rescuers Down Under (1990), director Mike Gabriel was looking for something completely different for his next film. He teamed up with legendary Disney story artist and character designer Joe Grant. Grant is responsible for a lot of the work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940) and many other Disney classics. The duo worked on an outline to adapt Swan Lake for the big screen. It was rejected by Disney executives as they felt it had no story. Gabriel and Grant went looking for inspiration in old cowboy films and American folklore. At the next meeting, they produced a picture of the Peter Pan character Tiger Lily with the title ‘Walt Disney’s Pocahontas’ and the pitch ‘an Indian princess who is torn between her father’s wishes to destroy the English settlers and her wishes to help them—a girl caught between her father and her people, and her love for the enemy’ written on it. Executives were enthusiastic about the concept and Pocahontas was greenlit.
Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards but lost to The Silence of the Lambs. Disney decided to take another shot for the award. Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) were too close to completion, but Pocahontas had everything they needed: an epic romance story. To make it Oscar worthy and more serious, the secondary animal characters were changed to non-speaking roles. Tom Sito was the film’s story supervisor. He decided to loosely base the story on past events and embrace myth. He felt this approach wouldn’t hinder creativity. Though this was the direction Pocahontas headed in, Disney wanted to keep everything as authentic as possible and hired Native American voice actors and elders. Once learning the film wasn’t following true history, Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow-McGowan—a decedent from the real Pocahontas’s tribe—left the project. She had served as a consultant.
Bedard learnt she was cast as Pocahontas while on the set of Lakota Woman.
Pocahontas was in production for five years. It was the first Disney film to have an interracial relationship and the only Disney Princess, to date, based on a historical figure. It had a budget of $55 million (no figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation) and was released on the real Pocahontas’s 400th birthday. It debuted in Central Park, New York, on four 80-foot high screens to 100,000 people, making it the biggest premiere turnout of all time. It was also the first Disney movie censored. Its racial slurs were removed in post-production. The film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture but won the Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, for ‘Colors of the Wind’.
It had an average box office run and is noted as the beginning of the Disney Renaissance decline. The studio’s popularity wouldn’t return until the Revival era with Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013). Pocahontas was heavily criticised by activists and scholars for its Native American representation and stereotyping.
The real Pocahontas shared similarities with her Disney counterpart but lived a vastly different life in other areas. She was born Amonute and her nickname was Pocahontas, meaning ‘Little Mischief’, ‘Playful One’ and ‘Ill-Behaved Child’. She was a member of the Pamunkey tribe and was really twelve years old—not in her early twenties as depicted in the film. Pocahontas and John Smith didn’t have a romantic relationship. She befriended him while he was being held captive. The two taught each other the basics of their languages. Pocahontas was pivotal in freeing Smith. Her story has been told from one generation to the next becoming the myth it is today. In her own strong, smart and independent way she became an ambassador and translator for both nations. While in England, she became very sick and died in 1617.
To this day, Pocahontas remains the only Disney Princess to have a visible tattoo and—besides Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009)—is the only one to be born in America. People still have mixed feelings about the film; some see it as groundbreaking for its time whilst many others, particularly among the Native American community, see it as deeply problematic. As for Bedard, she and her production company recently bought the rights to the classic Alaskan novel Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis, and are adapting it into a film. She currently resides in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on June 20th, 2018. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)
15 Things You Might Not Know About Pocahontas (http://mentalfloss.com/article/64841/15-things-you-might-not-know-about-pocahontas)
Irene Bedard – iMDB (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0065942/)
Native Actress Irene Bedard’s Film Company to Bring Classic Novel, “Two Old Women” to Big Screen (https://nativenewsonline.net/currents/native-actress-irene-bedards-film-company-to-bring-classic-novel-two-old-women-to-big-screen/)
Pocahontas – iMDB (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114148/?ref_=nmbio_trv_4)
Pocahontas – The Disney Wiki (http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Pocahontas_(character))
Pocahontas (film) – The Disney Wiki (http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Pocahontas_(film))
The True Story of Pocahontas (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-pocahontas-180962649/)
Sleeping Lady Films, Waking Giant Productions – Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pg/SleepingLadyFilms/about/?ref=page_internal)