Hollywood glosses over the puppy love of a princess

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Here in the shack which serves as the Mattaponi Indian reservation's tribal museum, you can still see and touch a legend. Hanging on the wall is the club, carved into the shape of a snake, that would have been used to beat the white man to death. Beneath, in a glass case, is a necklace worn by the young Indian princess who is said to have saved him. But come quickly: Walt Disney is about to change everything.

This land of broad rivers, woodlands and marshes at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay is a perfect home for Pocahontas, the mysterious heroine of early colonial times.

In 1607, when the English founded their first permanent New World settlement at Jamestown, the Mattaponi belonged to the Nation of Powhatan, a confederation forged by the chief Powhatan.

American schoolchildren know the story by heart: how Pocahontas, child of Powhatan, threw herself across the body of the captured settler, John Smith, as he was about to be executed. Later she married another colonist, John Rolfe, bore him a son and travelled to England, where she was a minor celebrity at the court of James I. Just as the family was to return to Virginia in 1617, Pocahontas died of smallpox at the age of 21, fated to be a symbol of what might have been, settlers and Indians intermingling happilyand peacefully for ever.

They, of course, did not. War and pestilence have reduced the 32 original Powhatan tribes to eight. Today, only 125 Mattaponi inhabit the shrivelled realm of the present chief, Webster Little Eagle Custalow, on 125 acres of reservation on the banks of the Mattaponi river.

His nephew, Chief Evening Star Norman Custalow, runs the museum, while his niece, Gertude Minnie-haha Custalow, looks after the trading post. Both learnt the story of their ancestors, Powhatan and Pocahontas, at their parents' knee, preserved in the spoken tales that constitute the only records of the Mattaponi. Now, on behalf of Hollywood and America's guilty conscience, Walt Disney has rewritten the script from top to bottom.

Pocahontas, due to hit the screens later this month, is the first Disney feature based on a real person. But reality ends as the first credits roll. The real Pocahontas was 11, at most 12, at the moment of her first encounter with John Smith. Her original name was not Pocahontas but Mataoka. In the film, she is the Sophia Loren of Native Americans, a doeskin-clad, environmentally-aware siren with an hourglass figure who gambols through forests with Smith, a blond Aryan with the physique of Tarzan and the dubbed voice of Mel Gibson.

Smith almost certainly was a scoundrel. At the most, Pocahontas had a crush on him. If Disney's portrayal is true, however, her cinematic paramour would have been put inside for child molesting. The film omits entirely her subsequent kidnapping by settlers and forcible conversion to Christianity, as well as her marriage to Rolfe. But when did facts stand in the way of a good yarn?

Surprisingly, those most directly involved do not mind unduly. Gertrude Minnie-haha Custalow would like to see a documentary "from the native American point of view", but can live with Disney's version. "We'll tell the truth to anyone who asks, that this girl is not the one you saw in the movie," says her brother, Chief Evening Star. "But you can't fault Disney - it's their job to make money."

They have their own theories, scarcely less idealised than Disney's romp. Smith's ordeal may not have been an intended execution, but an elaborate initiation rite to symbolise a new harmony between the native and settler races. Pocahontas' marriage to Rolfe, a founder of the Virginia tobacco trade, was perhaps a business transaction, symbolising Indian agreement to permit whites to grow a vital cash crop without impediment.

That does not square with Rolfe's explanation to Virginia's then Governor, in which he admits being "entangled and enthralled" by a young woman "whose education hath bin rude, her manners barbarous, her generation accursed".

Historical niceties do not matter. All will be swept aside by Disney. Huge sums are at stake. The publicity may send a few tourist dollars down here. Flop or blockbuster, one thing is certain. From the moment the film is shown in New York this weekend, the Pocahontas legend will be given its definitive shape. If the Mattaponi are philosophical, so be it. After the savageries and indignities whites heaped on them, what's wrong with a well-meaning cartoon, even if it's bunkum?