Smithsonian: The racist history behind Peter Pan's 'Indian tribe'

Alanna Saunders, who claims Cherokee ancestry, portrays Tiger Lily in NBC's Peter Pan Live! Photo from NBC

Why does Peter Pan feature a "tribe" known as the Piccaninny? Sarah Laskow looks at the portrayal of Native Americans in the iconic production:
Tiger Lily and her tribe have become a problem for contemporary productions. There's no real reason for a tribe of Native Americans —"not 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."

Get the Story:
Sarah Laskow: The Racist History of Peter Pan's Indian Tribe (Smithsonian Magazine 12/2)

Also Today:
“We had to replace the lyrics ‘ugg-a-wugg’”: Meet the “Native American consultant” who worked on NBC’s “Peter Pan” (Slate 11/21)

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Backstage: Native American roles end up going to White actors (3/27)
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