Miss NC's Pocahontas Photo Shoot: No Big Deal, or Teachable Moment?

Miss NC's Pocahontas Photo Shoot: No Big Deal, or Teachable Moment?

By: 
Vincent Schilling
3/26/14

Nearly two weeks ago, Johna Edmonds, Miss North Carolina 2013, posted several photos of herself portraying a glamorized version of Pocahontas. Though she received some appreciative comments on social media, Edmonds also received a considerable amount of backlash from Native communities. Edmonds herself is Lumbee.

"I do not like it when there are sexual overtones to many of the cartoon figures portraying our Native Women," reads one representative comment, from Facebook user Carolyn Martell. "A grave message is sent to the world at large and our children. Our Native Women are to be view, revered with honor, dignity respect and integrity! Not Sex Objects!"

Other commenters were more blunt. "Pocahontas, Disney style? Gross!" was Fran Gillespie's reaction, posted to the Powwows.com Facebook page. "Some jacked up miniskirt & stiletto high heels? On a practical level, she would have froze her ass off & sprained an ankle. Here is this really important historical figure, being made cheap & sleazy!"

On March 18th, Edmonds responded to the slew of comments on her own Facebook page with a statement that later appeared in a post at Powwows.com. Her statement reads, in part:

For the purpose of helping an incredible artistic team who have been unbelievably generous to the Miss North Carolina Scholarship Program, capture the essence of their creative vision for this year’s Disney Princess-themed Miss NC program book ad-page, I portrayed my childhood favorite Disney Princess, “Pocahontas.” And what should have remained a proud moment for me as well as others excited to see the outcome of this photo shoot, quickly devolved.

Within a matter of minutes, I had been unfairly accused of “misappropriating Native American culture” and of perpetuating society’s “hyper-sexualization of Native American women.” … So to those who feel that I have distastefully used my sexuality or femininity–which are mine to use–I do sincerely apologize. However, I’d like to also suggest that if all you see is a “hyper-sexualized” Native American woman when looking at these beautifully captured photographs, I would suggest that problem isn’t me, as I never aimed to convey “hyper-sexiness” at any point during this photo shoot. Instead, I really wanted to epitomize and portray the beauty and regal nature of the “Pocahontas” I fondly remember, and with whom I spent the entirety of my childhood captivated by.

With public discussion still raging, Lori Winfree, a member of the Lumbee Tribe reached out to ICTMN to try to diffuse some tension, hoping to avoid "seeing a young woman who made a mistake, get dragged through the mud."

"I don’t condone what she did," says Winfree. "But I know what it is like to make a dumb mistake and get unwanted responses. It is even worse now because of social media. I just want to make this a teaching moment if at all possible and not a persecution moment."

Winfree also reached out to the Miss North Carolina Organization to share her knowledge regarding the hyper-sexualization of Native American women and statistics of sexual assault on reservations. Winfree says her information was received with welcoming arms and receptivity from Beth Knox, the Miss North Carolina organization's Executive Director. "Johna is obviously a very beautiful young lady and I think that in hindsight I wish that we, the Organization, had been given a chance to see the photos before she posted them on social media," Knox said. "That alone could have prevented this entire situation that we're dealing with."

Knox then said she had not been aware of the high rates of sexual assault against Native women and wanted to use this situation as a teaching moment.

"We had a board meeting last night and a conference call in which we unanimously agreed to remove the pictures and we discussed information that Lori had shared with us. We had a board meeting today with Johna and I had printed out a lot of that information and took the opportunity to make ourselves more aware regarding the sexualization of the Native American woman and how those images were offensive to so many."

"Our goal, and I'm sure Johna's goal, was never to offend anyone," said Knox. "I think this was an innocent mistake on her part and we are now trying to manage the situation as best as we can and Make sure something like this will never happen again."

The photos of Johna Edmonds in Pocahontas costume were taken by SERDARdesign.com. Additional photos on this page come from Johna Edmonds Facebook page.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
If the photo above is the one that caused all the controversy, I'm afraid I'm underwhelmed. I don't see this photo as being overtly sexual, nor do I see it as objectifying Native women. I think people are getting a little TOO used to being used by the media. This isn't Heidi Klum pretending to be an Indian, this is a Native girl, in Native clothing portraying a Native character. She is NOT in a sexual pose, she is NOT doing anything disrespectful and she IS Native American. Have we become so angry with the way we're portrayed that we have to scream, "FOUL!" every time we see a woman in NDN clothing? I honestly think we need to lighten up a little. Keep your sights set on the Washington NFL team and the caricatures promoted by the Cleveland baseball team, and yes, you can even get angry when Heidi Klum uses Native clothing, but reserve your outrage for a REAL scandal and not just the ones people tell you to be angry at.

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