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Missing Matoaka: How a Breathtakingly Ambitious Project Helped Set the Record Straight Over the Story of Pocahontas


BBDO Canada’s SVP and ECD Derek Blais, alongside TA2 president Steve Gadsden, tell LBB’s Adam Bennett how their unique and honest correction to Pocahontas’ narrative came to life

Missing Matoaka: How a Breathtakingly Ambitious Project Helped Set the Record Straight Over the Story of Pocahontas

“Poetry is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history, for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular” - Aristotle. 

As Aristotle knew, nothing expresses human truths more accurately than fiction. Ideas, concepts, and stereotypes which have long been embedded in our consciousness - passed, often, between generations - can trace their roots back to storytelling. It’s why, for example, we use nursery rhymes to teach our children how to be human. Why simply tell them to slow down and take their time, when you can tell them about a tortoise and a hare who express that sentiment perfectly? 

It’s also why, unfortunately, some harmful stereotypes have persisted. Our ideas about entire civilizations, races, and cultures are frequently surmised through the telling of stories - and too often those written by their invaders. The story of Pocahontas, a First Nations woman who ‘fell in love’ with a coloniser named John Smith, is one such romanticised example. It’s also a complete lie. 

Over the course of decades, the harmful stereotype of a submissive First Nations woman who fell in love with her colonisers has come to define Indigenous peoples in our popular consciousness. But Pocahontas, or Matoaka to use her real name, did not fall head over heels for John Smith. In fact, she was ten years old when they met, and was kidnapped to be paraded around Europe as a ‘successful example’ of colonisation. 

Now, a full 27 years following the popular Disney film’s release, a group of creatives set out to tell the true story of Matoaka with a remarkably ambitious project. By creating an alternative audio track to be played alongside the 1995 animated film, Matoaka’s true story is finally being told. 

To find out how this project, entitled ‘Missing Matoaka’, came together, LBB’s Adam Bennett sat down with BBDO Canada’s SVP and ECD Derek Blais, and TA2 president Steve Gadsden…

LBB> Steve, how did the Missing Matoaka project first come about, and how did you get involved with it? 

Steve> I had a call late at night from Derek Blais, who was standing in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (which showcases art and works with First Nations of the Pacific Northwest). He had an idea. His question was whether what he had in mind was possible, and could I help bring it to life? 

For clarity, I outlined how we would need to replace an entire movie’s audio and have it sync to an existing picture, whilst having characters say completely different things. Yes, yes I could do that.

LBB> Derek, can you tell us a little about why working on this campaign was important to you? 

Derek> I’m both Indigenous and Canadian, an identity at odds.  

I was raised in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and later Toronto, with no relationship to my native identity beyond the government issued Indian status card in my pocket. And that lack of connection can be traced back to my mother being taken away from her mother by the Canadian government as part of the sixties scoop

I lived my life as a ‘true Canadian’, playing hockey, going camping, and loving our country. It was much later that I connected with being Indigenous, and I found myself confronting deeply held biases within me… about myself. I had absorbed the storytelling and stereotypes that had defined Indigenous peoples in the greater collective Canadian consciousness. This campaign is about representation – accurate representation of who we are. 

LBB> So to what extent did your own background have an impact on your approach to this project? 

Derek> When you’re dealing with Indigenous subject matter, it’s always personal. You are a culmination of your ancestors, and when you make decisions there is an impact which ripples outward. There’s a teaching in most Indigenous nations, including my own, Oneida -  part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy - that’s all about seven generations. It’s about focusing for a moment on the impact any decision you might take will have seven generations down the line. 

It’s a great way of making sure the connection between personal and community is always present. Thinking seven generations ahead and looking at how representation from the past and in the present can ripple into the future. Women in my own family, including my own mother, have experienced racism and the lasting effects of these harmful stereotypes.  

LBB> Broadly speaking, this is a conversation that’s been happening on a national level within Canada for a number of years. So what impact do you think this particular project might have seven generations ahead of us? 

Derek> Well, I think there are two general audiences for this project. One is Indigenous and the other is non-Indigenous. Let’s say you’re a young Indigenous woman and you’re watching Disney’s Pocahontas, learning about Indigenous female representation in the media. And Pocahontas is, for all intents and purposes, probably the single most famous representative for Indigenous women in the global media. That’s why we chose to address her story. 

It’s a story which has been told wrong. Completely wrong. We wanted to change it back to the truth. I hope that if you’re listening to our version of Pocahontas, it’s going to teach you to have a more critical lens to the way narratives and stereotypes build up in the media and through society. 

In the film, they made Pocahontas seem as though she’d fallen in love with John Smith. There’s a submissiveness and an over-sexualization which is really damaging, suggesting how a young woman would or should behave in scenarios like this. What’s especially damaging for the non-Indigenous viewer is that most Canadians don’t actually know an Indigenous woman directly - their introduction to how an Indigenous woman behaves, looks or is treated is most likely to be through mass media storytelling such as Pocahontas. 

LBB> Steve, on a technical level, what were the biggest challenges you had to overcome to make this project happen? 

Steve> It was a huge undertaking. We had to replace absolutely everything - not a thing could come from the original in any way. We weren’t even mimicking. 

We created our own sounds, even going out of our way to make sure we did things without inspiration from the original. We had the casting together, but we were editing the script on the fly to try and maximise the sync, as well as looking for new interpretations of performance and inflections to help things lock in. 

The sound design itself was epic. We started by just grabbing the most essential things, but found that we need to be pretty detailed in order to keep people in our new world and try to connect the narrative elements together. 

LBB> I've heard that the TA2 team were careful to ensure that the audio sounded ‘authentically North American’. Can you tell me more about how you did that?

Steve> Yes! We ensured every detail was accurate to the environment, and the time. With the overarching theme of truth, we made sure every ambience was connected to the region, down to the wildlife and birds you hear in the background. For the animal characters, we took them away from human vocalisations and used real raccoon and hummingbird sounds to make their voices. 

With Derek’s oversight and vigilance, we applied the same attention to detail as we headed into the music needed for the movie. As with many cultures, there are regional and cultural differences to melodic structure, rhythm, and instruments depending on time frame and region. I learned to look for those kinds of details years ago, when I was producing Latin Artists. 

Through Derek’s help, we found the correct nations and areas that applied to the story in that time frame, examined their music’s specific instruments and beat patterns, and used them for our original score. It needed to be as accurate and clear as humanly possible for this all to work. We juxtaposed the organic accurate Indigenous music with deep menacing machine synth music to score the English side of the story.

LBB> Derek, do you think that storytelling projects such as this are the way that our collective narrative is ultimately going to change? As opposed to public information campaigns with facts and figures? 

Derek> I think so. It goes back to the notion that data always needs a story. And storytelling is the most enduring mechanism for knowledge transfer that we have. Writing down language and communicating via written text wasn’t the way most Indigenous communities communicated with one another. So it’s powerful to me that we’ve chosen a medium that aligns with a traditional way of learning; oral storytelling. 

If you can move somebody emotionally with your story, that’s going to move the dial a lot more than just a list of statistics. That’s just human nature. 

LBB> It’s also how Disney’s story of Pocahontas has reflected and impacted social attitudes in the first place, right? 

Derek> Totally. The oral histories of Indigenous peoples were never told this way – and in this case, it was told and retold via John Smith’s journals full of boasts and lies. They were written in a very specific way to align with a colonial lens and turn her into this symbol that furthered the goals of colonisation. But the truth has been told through hundreds of years of Indigenous storytelling and is entirely the opposite. That’s what we’re looking to correct here.

LBB> Were there any moments from your time working on Missing Matoaka which you found especially touching or impactful? 

Steve> What we were doing only truly hit home to me when we were recording the Grandmother character. She was deeply moved and said, “for all my life my voice was taken from me, and here we are now, in the studio, this is giving me and my people our voice back”  That was incredibly powerful.

LBB> How have you found the reaction to Missing Matoaka? Has any of it surprised you? 

Steve> The project has been very well received so far, and I don’t find that surprising. It’s proving to be a powerful tool to set the record straight and to get people to reconsider what they believe - and have simply accepted - is the history of the North American continent. 

Derek> I wouldn’t say, ‘surprised’, no. I knew there would be people who didn’t want to accept the truth. There was a prominent article about our project in the National Post, one of Canada’s more right-wing newspapers, which within 30 minutes of its publication had so many racist and ignorant comments that it served as the perfect reminder of why we needed to create this project in the first place. 

The fact is that there have been generations of Canadians to whom the truth has never been told. In fact, it’s been actively hidden by design. That’s all been to support the narrative that in order for the state to exist, natives needed to be ‘saved’ and our culture and people needed to be eliminated or assimilated. To quote our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald the goal was to “take the Indian out of the child”. So with that being a deeply fundamental aspect of our society, it’s not been a surprise to me that we’ve seen some pushback to Missing Matoaka. It runs contrary to what most people have heard growing up in North America.  

But on the other side of that, we’re living in a really exciting time where young people are more passionately interested in the truth than ever before. There are a lot more eyes and ears open to this kind of story than there probably ever has been. 

There will always be people who are lost or ignorant, who don’t want to listen, or who would prefer to deny the truth. But if we can affect people who are willing to listen, and who want to see things from the Indigenous perspective, then there’s a lot of good we can do. 

LBB> Finally, do you have any specific goals in mind in terms of this campaign’s impact? 

Derek> We’ve already received some feedback from high schools who are interested in featuring Missing Matoaka in their curriculum. That’s been incredible. The educational component is huge. It would be great to see this project in more schools. 

I’d also love for the entertainment industry and the media to see this project and understand that stories written about Indigenous people need to involve Indigenous people. When done wrong, like Pocahontas, they perpetuate stereotypes and do more harm than good.   

Steve> Disney acknowledging the project would be wonderful, absolutely. It's not a combative message; it’s something to be embraced, an opportunity for learning and understanding. 

If we were dreaming, I would want there to be an extra audio dub option when you watch the movie. English, French, and one more labelled “Truth".


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Genres: Music & Sound Design, Storytelling

Categories: Media and Entertainment, Movies

TA2 Sound + Music , Fri, 27 Jan 2023 09:01:44 GMT