December 03, 2014

A 21st-century Peter Pan

The Racist History of Peter Pan's Indian Tribe

Even in the early 20th century, though, critics saw Tiger Lily and her fellow "Picaninnies" as caricatures

By Sarah Laskow
More recently, though, directors who take on Peter Pan have tried to update these ideas, a tiny bit. Hook, the 1991 Robert Zemeckis movie, leaves the tribe out altogether. When the British director Tim Carroll staged Peter Pan for the Stratford Festival in 2010, he turned the tribe into Amazons.

"The role of the Indians in the play is to be both exotic and a bit savage," he wrote in an email. "But the use of the term (and the stereotyped language) could only cause offense to a North American audience. It seemed to me that 'Amazons' was a neat way of killing two birds with one stone: as mythic warriors they satisfied the 'exotic and savage' criterion; but it also allowed me to cast a group of women."

2015's Pan, a film that imagines Peter's first years in Neverland as an orphan kidnapped by pirates and forced to work in a mine, made a similar choice. The film features Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily but dresses her tribe in a sort of outlandishly bright array of pinks, purples, browns and bright blues that manages to be fantastic enough that no one would ever confuse this tribe with an American Indian tribe.

NBC's 2014 version of the 1954 musical is going in the opposite direction, in search of something like authenticity. Unknown actress Alanna Saunders, whose paternal heritage has distant ties to the Cherokee nation, will play Tiger Lily, and the song "Ugg-a-Wugg" was updated to include actual Native American phrases. Perhaps these changes will keep today's directors from looking, in another hundred years, like purveyors of crude racial stereotypes; perhaps they'll seem just as clumsy as Barrie's original conception of the tribe's relationship to Peter—"We redskins—you the great white father."
Updating the original

“We had to replace the lyrics ‘ugg-a-wugg’”: Meet the “Native American consultant” who worked on NBC’s “Peter Pan”

Salon talked to Jerod Tate about how NBC smoothed over the musical's un-p.c. edges

By Erin Keane
[T]hen the really big thing that we worked on was the replacement of [the lyrics] “ugg-a-wugg.” Just a little background: In general, what we all know is that the Indian tribe that’s represented in Peter Pan was influenced by knowledge of Northeast Indians of the United States. So we’re talking Iroquois, Huron, Wyandotte, Algonquin, these kinds of cultural regions. So what I did was I set out to find a replacement word for “ugg-a-wugg” that was literally a Wyandotte word.CTC conjures a 'Peter Pan' for the 21st century

As NBC prepares to screen the musical this week, Children's Theatre is working on an update that may become the standard.

By Rohan Preston
“What’s appalling about ‘Peter Pan’ is that everyone else in the play speaks perfect English, but when it comes to the Native Americans, the tribe, it’s the ‘ugga wugga’ song, which is made-up gibberish in the third person,” said playwright and choreographer Larissa FastHorse, a Lakota who grew up in South Dakota. “The play puts Native Americans in that realm of the fantastical, as if we were extinct. But we’re here, alive and creative, not better or worse than anyone else.”

FastHorse consulted with the Children’s Theatre, which plans to stage “Peter Pan” next spring and which wrestled with how to portray Tiger Lily, an Indian character, and the tribe. Artistic director Peter Brosius worked with director Peter Rothstein and new play director Elissa Adams to make changes to the script in consultation with some Indian artists.

They came up with an idea to change the tribe into a group of powerful, diverse girls known as the Pounce. They are a counterpoint to the show’s famous Lost Boys.

Theater officials were at first fearful that the licensing company would reject the suggested changes. Instead, Music Theatre International, which controls the performance rights of “Peter Pan,” is considering adopting them for all future productions that it licenses.
Comment:  Let's look at possible changes:

1) Omitting the Indian tribe altogether may be the best solution. It's not critical to the story; it can be replaced by a few individuals or nothing.

2) Changing the tribe to primitive people in multicolored feathers doesn't address the "exotic and savage" issue. That isn't a goal, it's a problem. Yes, some indigenous people still go half-naked and hunt with spears, but they're likely to watch TV or log onto the Internet after a day in the jungle. Equating them with fairies and pirates from a couple of centuries ago will always be stereotypical.

3) Changing the tribe to Amazon women or "a group of powerful, diverse girls known as the Pounce" is better--if they don't look primitive and indigenous. Why not dress these women like warriors from Wonder Woman's Paradise Island--in full armor? Or as gang members from a West Side Story-like background?

4) Like Tonto and Turok, Tiger Lily is an iconic, if minor, Native character. Indians have so few roles that it's a shame to lose one. Producers should think about keeping her Native--but only if they solve the "tribal" problem.

If Tiger Lily isn't leading an Indian tribe, she obviously doesn't need to be Native. But if her "tribe" is a group of girls like the Pounce, she still could be indigenous. There's no reason a brown-skinned woman shouldn't lead a multi-ethnic society.

For more on Peter Pan, see Peter Pan's Racist History and White Tiger Lily, Aboriginal Chief?

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