The story of Native Americans in Virginia doesn’t end with Pocahontas sailing off into the sunset with John Rolfe. The story hasn’t ended at all.
There are eleven state-recognized tribes in Virginia, and yet most Americans’ understanding of indigenous Virginia is limited to the image of Pocahontas throwing herself between John Smith and wooden clubs. This is an image propagated not only by Disney but also by the U.S. government: two friezes of Pocahontas protecting John Smith from her tribe can be found in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., as well as a twelve-by-eighteen-foot oil painting of her baptism.
These images enforce the idea that the indigenous story of Virginia is over. Brad Brown, assistant chief of the Pamunkey tribe and founder of the Pocahontas Reframed: Storytellers Film Festival, wanted to change that narrative.
“Native Americans are still here,” he urges. “A lot of people just don’t know.”
Now in its second year, the four-day festival opens Thursday, November 15, in Richmond, Virginia. With twenty-one short and feature-length films, a musical performance, and other special events, it is an ambitious festival that sprouted from an idea just two years ago.
In the spring of 2016, as Richmond’s popular French Film Festival was ending, Brown began wondering why there was no Native American film festival on the East Coast. Why are they all in the west? He and a few cinephile friends gathered a group of leaders in both the Virginia film and Native American communities and proposed a Native American film festival in Richmond to celebrate Native storytelling. (The Smithsonian’s annual Mother Tongue Film Festival focuses on films in and about indigenous language from around the world.)
The team used their experience planning the French Film Festival, the largest of its kind outside of France, to help Brad plan a Native American film festival. The group includes Peter Kirkpatrick, who teaches Native American film at Virginia Commonwealth University, and his wife, Françoise, is a professor of French and film studies at the University of Richmond. They connected Brown to Todd Schall-Vess, general manager of the Byrd Theatre, who offered to host the festival at no charge to the organizers. Actor George Aguilar, an important figure in both American and French film industries, and his son Sky Bear, a young filmmaker, used their connections and knowledge to identify Native filmmakers and producers.
Of course, Native American filmmakers were excited to be a part of the festival. Brown explained many of the films “don’t really get the exposure to the theaters and the big distribution that Hollywood films get.” The films that will be screened at the festival come from Native communities across North America, covering decades of Native film history—from 1930 to 2018.
With the title, they decided to focus the film festival on Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, ruler of Tsenacomoco when the English arrived in 1607. Brown and his team thought it could be the hook to attract attention and focus the content.
“Everyone knows the story of Pocahontas—whether it’s the Disney story or the real story,” he says.
While the board of directors and twenty-five other festival planners were meeting to decide on a name, President Donald Trump was infamously in the news for referring to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” calling her claim of Native American heritage a lie and her life a fraud.
“We thought he was using it sort of as an insult, and we thought, as a whole, the conversation about Pocahontas needs to be reframed,” Brown explains. “It’s not a term that should be used to denigrate or put someone down.”
The festival aims to reframe the conversation not only about Pocahontas but Native Americans in general. As an example, Brown points out that a lot of people don’t know there are still Native Americans in Virginia. He believes Pocahontas Reframed will help change people’s perceptions of indigenous Virginia.
He also sees the festival as a way to strengthen the bonds of the Native film community and build for the future. Native filmmakers are provided an opportunity to promote their work to a wider audience and are able to connect with other members of the film community. It showcases the diversity of Native American art, showing that First Nation artists have many “ways of expressing what Native Americans are feeling in their communities and how they communicate,” as Brown describes.
The film selection committee strives to balance education with entertainment in hopes to reflect on past trauma and heal old wounds.
“We want people to come and enjoy themselves,” Brown assures. “We’re not going to be bashing people over the head with the history of Native Americans and all the injustices that have been done. We want to entertain, but maybe open people’s eyes a little bit to things they weren’t aware of.”
Pocahontas Reframed provides an opportunity for Virginians to reflect on the state’s history, as 2019 will mark an important anniversary: in 1619, the first organized government in colonial America was established when the first House of Burgesses assembly convened, and the first African slaves were brought to America. The painful irony of creating a government of the people while simultaneously stripping other people of their freedom and humanity echoes throughout the history of the United States and continues to influence the nation today. Considering that over a thousand people reserved festival tickets in advance last year, it seems that many Virginians are ready to confront this painful past.
The events that took place as English colonists took over Virginia set the precedent for race relations in the United States. Richmond was one of the largest centers of the U.S. slave trade, second only to New Orleans. The violent removal of indigenous people from Tsenacomoco foreshadows the history of violent and brutal policies against Native Americans.
As the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English colony in North America approaches, events like Pocahontas Reframed are more important than ever. We need events like this film festival to reflect on our past, question our present, and plan for our future. The history of Richmond is a reminder of how decisions today can affect people hundreds of from now.
Proud of the festival’s home in Richmond, Brad concludes, “It’s the right time, the right city, and the right state.”
Emma Cregan is a filmmaker and a former video production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.