December 02, 2014

Peter Pan's racist history

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
[I]n the play, as one New York Times reviewer wrote in 1905, "Mr. Barrie presents not the pirate or Indian of grown-up fiction but the creations seen by childish eyes."

In practice, that meant portraying the fierce tribe that lives on Neverland in a way that even in the early 20th-century looked like a caricature. As The Times of London wrote:

"...the Never-Never-Land is peopled by Red Indians and Pirates, who lose no time in showing us that they know how to 'behave as sich.' [sic] The Red Indians always lay their ear to the ground, then give vent to unearthly yells, and prepare for scalping somebody—a Pirate, for choice."

At the time, this portrayal wasn't controversial. But while much of Barrie's original work is just as delightful today as 110 years ago, Tiger Lily and her tribe have become a problem for contemporary productions. There's no real reason for a tribe of Native Americans—"not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons," Barrie wrote—to live on Neverland, where they are impossible to excise from the story. But it's almost as impossible to depict them in a way that's not offensive.

In the play, Peter refers to the tribe as "piccaninny warriors," and in Peter & Wendy (Barrie's book-long adaptation of the story, published in 1911), they are introduced as the "Piccaninny tribe"—a blanket stand-in for "others" of all stripes, from Aboriginal populations in Australia to descendants of slaves in the United States. Barrie's tribespeople communicate in pidgin; the braves have lines like "Ugh, ugh, wah!" Tiger Lily is slightly more loquacious; she'll say things like "Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him." They call Peter "the great white father"—the name that Barrie had originally chosen for the entire play. A tom-tom pounded in victory is a key plot point.

"It was a popular fantasy trope," says Anne Hiebert Alton, a professor of English at Central Michigan University and the editor of a scholarly edition of Peter Pan. "Barrie was telling the story in the very early 1900s, and so part of it, I think, was: this was a good story, this'll stage well. He was very Victorian—and that's the age when British people were still proud to brag that the sun never set on the British empire."
Comment:  For more on Peter Pan, see White Tiger Lily, Aboriginal Chief? and Tiger Lily in Peter Pan: An Allegory of Anglo-Indian Relations.

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