When then-candidate Donald Trump mocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren as ‘Pocahontas’ for claiming Native American ancestry, the image that popped into most people’s minds was that from the 1995 Disney film.
The voice and physical likeness behind that character was Irene Bedard, an Alaskan Native of Inupiat and Yupik descent and a Dimond High School graduate. Bedard is back home this Thanksgiving season as an artist-in-residence with Perserverance Theatre, playing the starring role of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’, which concludes its run this weekend.
Over coffee Monday, Bedard said she was always a social activist to some degree, but the current President’s disparaging comments — and his lack of decency, in general — have galvanized her efforts in recent years.
“At a certain point you have to speak up and speak out; you can’t just stand by,” she said. “You have to take those moments in time, as a citizen, to stand up and say something — speak loud and speak proud.”
Sometimes that means speaking her mind at places where people came to see the cartoon Pocahontas more than the Irene behind her.
“The last couple of years I’ve been asked to do a few Comic-Cons, panels and things and I realized that maybe my panels are a little less Disney-like and a little more, let’s-talk-about-some-things, and I’ll bring up some subjects that are a little more deep or have more meaning,” Bedard said. “People keep wanting to know what I think. You’ve got this microphone here and I realized, well, now I’ve been more educated, met more of the tribes, the tribal leaders, been to ceremonies and powwows… maybe I can speak because I have more knowledge behind me now.”
Twenty-three years ago, Bedard, fresh off her Golden Globe-nominated role for ‘Lakota Woman’, wasn’t nearly so confident after landing the role of a major animated film that drew objections for being historically inaccurate.
“When Pocahontas came out, there were 100,000 people in Central Park and I had to take a police motorcade. There was tent after tent of journalists from around the world and I was literally having to say, ‘I can’t speak for all Native people — I’m just a girl from Alaska,” Bedard said of the role, which, it could be argued, was a springboard for the increase in female and ethnic roles in animated films. “I was proud and honored to be part of a kind of resurgence where indigenous people play indigenous people… but little did I know I’d have to be kind of an ambassador my whole life; I couldn’t just be an actor.”
To this day, Bedard isn’t wholly convinced of the value, or lack thereof, of the Disney version. Mentors at the time advised her to pick and choose her battles when it came to the script. One battle she lost was to portray Pocahontas, who was 11 or 12 at the time of her encounter with 30-year-old John Smith, with a child-like voice. Producers thought highlighting that age discrepancy might kill the romance.
“I knew this was going to be a legacy for me so I had to think about it,” Bedard said. “If you look at John Smith’s memoirs, he seemed to have, everywhere he went, been saved by some beautiful young thing. I guess he needed that, a lot.”
Opinions varied about the film in the Native community at the time.
“I’m sure Disney was afraid of what I would have to say about it. Russell Means did say it was the best film ever made about Native Americans. That would not have come out of my mouth, but at the same time it was a first — it was a positive portrayal in so many ways for younger people,” Bedard said. “But there were protests about the way she looked and all the historical inaccuracies, but answer to that was, ‘well, out of this you got a whole generation of teachers who said this was historically inaccurate and then taught the accurate history to their children.”
Bedard balances the historical inaccuracies in Pocahontas with the film’s overall message, which went somewhat against the Disney film blueprint at the time.
“To just look at the spirit of it, this young girl stopped a war from happening by reaching out, building bridges and learning about the other — that’s the heart of the story,” Bedard said. “Ultimately, it wasn’t, ‘someday my prince will come.’ She saves the man, and she has a relationship to the elders and she has a relationship to the coming generations.”
Bedard continued the role in ‘Pocahontas II: Journey to the New World’ and in Terence Malik’s 2005 film ‘The New World’, she played Pocahontas’ mother, in the flesh, and most recently reprised the role in the just-out-in-theaters ‘Ralph Wrecks the Internet’.
In between, she’s enjoyed a wildly successful career in TV and movies, including a supporting role in the 1998 film ‘Smoke Signals’, adapted from a Sherman Alexie short story, that she says highlights well the message she tries to relay when asked about being an ‘indigenous actor.’
“It starts out with a microcosm of the Coeur d’Alene Indian tribe. Then they get their passports out into the world, but ultimately it’s about fathers and sons and forgiving our parents’ mistakes and it becomes a universal story — it’s now a cult classic,” she said. “So I think it’s important to have more of those worldviews from an indigenous point of view. I hope to remind us all that we’re all indigenous.”
Through the spring, Bedard will spend much of her time in her home state, as artist-in-residence with Perseverance Theatre, which is celebrating its 40th season, and its first since nearly going under in 2018.
“It’s amazing to me that this professional theater has maintained for so long, especially in this climate where so many nonprofit arts and arts in general are having funding issues,” Bedard said.
Coming up through the Anchorage arts community, Bedard had performed with Anchorage Civic Opera and Anchorage Community Theater, as well as drama and swing choir at Dimond High, but never worked with Perseverance.
“I was really shy — I still am shy, but like painfully shy growing up. Going to Dimond High there were few Alaska Natives, but I was also the oldest child and oldest grandchild. Corraling those siblings and cousins I started writing plays so I knew where exactly everybody was,” Bedard said. “I also liked doing it because I got to be someone else. I liked the storytelling aspect of it, too — learning about other cultures and, whether it was Grovers Corners, New Hampshire or Greece, it was like, ‘oh, this is something completely different from what I know and understand. Every time I took on a new project, there was a learning curve.”
Grovers Corners is the fictional setting for ‘Our Town’, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play written by Thornton Wilder in 1938. Using minimalistic stage props, the play is a not-so-subtle commentary on how the advent of electricity at the turn of the century caused people to become more disconnected from one another.
An updated version of the play might focus on people being more engrossed in their smartphones than speaking to one another.
“The message is that life does just go by so fast, especially when you have kids,” Bedard said. “It really is a story about community and family and love and the rites of passage in life, but I think especially in this society, we don’t face death; we kind of want to shuffle it away and put our elders in places away from us so we don’t have to watch it happening so much. How do we respect that part in all of us in the knowing that life is fleeting, that we’re only here, in the realm of the infinite, in the blip of the eye. That’s something (Wilder) does so well in that micro-to-macro view.”
Bedard will be closing out the show’s two-week run this weekend after missing last weekend’s show to shoot a movie in South Dakota. Called ‘Heartland’ the movie is set during the Standing Rock Protests of the Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota two years ago.
In March, Bedard will close out her time as artist-in-residence with Perseverance, playing the role of the Inupiak whale priestess in the Alaskan-themed ‘Whale Song’, which will mark the first time she’ll play a member of her own tribe.
“It’s beautiful; it’s poetic — I’m really looking forward to it,” Bedard said. “It’s something that is spiritual; it speaks to our relationship to that. Without subsistence hunting, fishing, whaling — if that weren’t part of our lives anymore, I think that would be the extinction of our tribes and villages.”
In a more universal sense, ‘Whale Song’ speaks to how vital it is to have gratitude and give thanks for our sources of nourishment.
“When my son was 5 or 6, we were in the grocery store and I picked up a frozen bag of chicken wings or something and he said, ‘Mom, what’s chicken?’ He had no understanding it was once a living creature — it’s breathing; it has eyes; it has children” Bedard said. “If I have to kill it so I may live, I would’ve had a relationship with the fact that I’m taking its life so that me and my family might live. Now, we’re so disconnected. There’s no understanding. Chicken is nuggets in a drive-thru.”
The final weekend of shows for Our Town are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Sydney Laurence Theater in Downtown Anchorage. Get tickets at www.ptalaska.org.