“What Makes the Red Man Red?” Peter Pan 1953

A combination of assimilation and forced reservations assisted in the control and suppression of the Native American population throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This attempted control over the Native American population resulted in a type of nostalgic representation of the ‘Indian’[1] through wild west shows, films, pictures and even camp’s. This type of mock play has continued right up to today. Many camps still use tribal names or organize the age groups into tribes instead of groups. At one camp I attended there were the traditional tribal names of Algonquians and Chippewa as well as white contrived names such as Tenderfoot for the pre-school aged children. The appropriation of Native Americans for entertainment purposes, proliferates the American life, and perpetuates the idea of the “Vanishing Indian”.

Disney’s Peter Pan released in 1953, depicts the Native American in Never-Never-Land through grotesque caricature.

The song “What Makes the Red Man Red?” depicts a ceremony around a fire that places the chief’s daughter as a prize for the heroic white Peter Pan, and paints Native Americans as misogynistic when the Chief’s wife continually orders Wendy to fetch and carry as the men dance around the fire. The Native American’s have a ‘detrimental effect’ on the lost boys, making them rude and misogynistic as well as even the littlest boy ends by ordering Wendy around. The Native Americans exist alongside Pirates and Fairy’s implying that they are no more real than these other fictional characters they are depicted with.

Two decades later the depiction of Native American’s had not changed much in the media. In 1971 a PSA created by the Keep American Beautiful foundation created what would later be known as the “Crying Indian Commercial”.

The camera follows a Native American as he paddles a canoe through polluted waters, past industrial plants and onto a heavily littered beach. He then steps out onto the side of the highway where trash is thrown at his feet; he then turns to the camera as a single tear rolls down his cheek. Again, the socially normative perspective on Native Americans, boxes them as the caricature created by the white majority. Perhaps this is one of the reasons people react so strongly to the Native American’s use of Casinos for revenue, after a century of media encouragement people either see Native Americans as extinct (if a population can even be described as extinct) or as having an innate desire to save and protect mother earth.

[1]Beck, David R.M., “The Myth of the Vanishing Race” February, 2001 http://lcweb4.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/essay2.html

3 thoughts on ““What Makes the Red Man Red?” Peter Pan 1953

  1. We, the library exhibit group, have encountered quite a few images similar to these representations in the ‘wild west shows’ that often accompanied or were features of the circus in the early twentieth century. Although I think that it isn’t as prevalent now, your examples still show that it exhists. Maybe artists like Kent Monkman will begin to change the stereotypes of native peoples, but I think American’s love that image of the savage warrior (how many children still play cowboys and indians?).

  2. At the Farmers Museum in the Spring it is not uncommon for children to be descending the hill woo-hooing “Indian Style.” I always wondered, where are they getting this? That was until my daughters got their Copy of Peter Pan.
    Disney continues to be #1 in building stereotypes in children’s minds. Watch Lady and the Tramp. It makes me wonder if Disney Studios is in California or Berlin circa 39.

    1. I would say it is unfair to claim Disney are the equivalent of Nazi Berlin. The movie was made in 1953, and the Animator has repeatedly said they would not portray First Nations people in that way if they had made it now. Pocahontas is probably more in line with the political views of today, and I would say that movie is more respectful, though still affirming the stereotypical view of ‘guardian of the land’.
      As an Englishman, I may have issues with our constant portrayal as either evil or homosexual…. Lol

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