Can you stage Peter Pan in a way that is respectful to Native Americans?
March 11, 2013 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Is there a way to stage Peter Pan that is respectful to Native Americans?

I recently saw an otherwise lovely production of the 1954 musical Peter Pan, but all of the scenes with the "Indians" were very uncomfortable and embarrassing. I know these are supposed to be the little boy's fantasy version of pirates and "Indians," but this production, at least, wasn't able to get that across in a way that mitigated the awful caricatures.

Is there a way to stage this without racist stereotypes? Would it be better or worse to use authentic Native American clothes and dances?

I'd particularly like to hear responses from people who are Native American or have some contact or background with Native American culture.
posted by straight to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I saw a production in Boston a few years ago that dealt with this.

They changed the word "redskins" to "warriors", in the Ug-a-Wug song. They didn't take out the song entirely, but they did include a lengthy "sorry about that, this play was written in a different time" in the program notes.

What they did do was as you suggested, authentic Native dances that were very long and interesting. They talked about that too in the program, explaining the meanings of the dances as one might do in any dance program notes. I think they also eliminated the stereotypical speech patterns of Tiger Lilly, having her talk the same as everyone else.

I saw this also in a production of "Annie Get Your Gun".
posted by Melismata at 8:59 AM on March 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

When I was young I was in a production of Peter Pan where the director of the play knew this was a problem, so he cast all-female "Amazons" instead of "Indians." Is this better? Maybe not for the Amazons, but it certainly was less cringe-inducing.
posted by 41swans at 8:59 AM on March 11, 2013

This may be a REALLY meta approach, but this worked intriguingly well with a production I worked on which involved similarly cringe-inducing sterotypes. Our show was written in the 1830's - so we staged it as if it really was the 1830's, with obviously-fake painted scenery and footlights and really over-the-top obvious body paint and costuming for everyone and a guy over in the corner doing all the sound effects live and also throwing in dramatic organ music underscoring. We even had an "MC" in 1830's eveningwear come out to introduce the show. It really played up the "this is really super-obviously fakey-fake" aspect of the characterization, which sort of took the teeth out of it.

So maybe something like that - try staging the show as if it really is 1954, with everyone in over-the-top costumes, so it's obvious that all the characterizations are very much From Another Era. Granted, the 1950's wasn't quite so far away, but we found that sort of falling into the this-is-obviously-not-how-it-really-is-ness helped.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:26 AM on March 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

I was also in a production of this as a kid, when no one seemed to care about these things. ("Ugga-wugga meatball"??!) I'm not Native American and I don't remember the show perfectly, but I wanted to say from an acting/directing perspective, one thing I think would help a lot with the portrayals of the Indians is really emphasizing the fact that the story takes place a) in the early 20th century, and b) in England. Play up the world the family lives in, and how their culture, attitudes, prejudices, and blind spots are so different from ours here and now. Make them in some ways as "exotic" as they think the Indians are.

There was a 2003 movie of Peter Pan, and I vaguely remember thinking the way they handled the Indians was good. Of course, they didn't have to say Ugga-wugga meatball...but you might want to watch that.

I like the idea of changing certain words and adding authentic dances. But I think it's important, in a way, or maybe just interesting and informative, to remind the audience that people in the past DID think this way. I'd still change the most offensive lines, etc, but on the whole I wouldn't want to white-wash the whole thing and have people thinking that the original story was all progressive and stuff. That's offensive too, in its own way.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 9:37 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've seen it staged with "Natives" instead of Indians, and left it to the viewer to decide what they were native to.
Not sure if that didn't end up making it offensive to more folks or not..
posted by bitdamaged at 9:50 AM on March 11, 2013

I find the idea of using "authentic dances" troubling in itself. You're taking something possibly sacred and certainly culturally significant and portraying it as a moment of fun in a kid-oriented show. That seems potentially more insulting than what is, after all, a patently cartoonish, in-the-world-of-children's-imaginations, version of "Redskins" in the book (meant to have no more connection to "real" Native Americans than the pirates do to real, historical pirates).

This strikes me as something you could address in the program and with some of the "hey, this was English children's imaginary world at the beginning of the C20th!" suggested above. But if it all just seems too difficult one could cut the gordian knot by switching the "Indians" to some other childish bugaboo: aliens, perhaps? Pixies (no reason pixies shouldn't be mock-dangerous)? Or maybe just some made-up name? The Ub-jubs or something? And then just have completely ethnically non-specific costumes, weapons and make-up for them.
posted by yoink at 9:51 AM on March 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

I find the idea of using "authentic dances" troubling in itself

Yeah, this is a good point.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 9:57 AM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am a Native Indian and spent the first 17 years of my life growing up on a reservation.

The biggest problem is going to be the dancing. When you have a non-native person performing what the perceive are Indian dance moves, it comes across to many native people as offensive and of a mocking nature.

The Native people don't belong to what many people would understand to be a "religion", but they are a very spiritual group and it's more of a lifestyle. The traditional native dances honor these beliefs and when you mock this, especially to get a laugh or to further entrench some misguided prejudices, it's going to offend some native people.

For example, it doesn't bother me when I see a high school football team with the term "Warriors" in their name, or even if they use a Native Person/Warrior as a logo. What DOES bother me, is before every game, a 15 year-old kid comes out dressed like a warrior/chief with all the feathers and starts "Hooping and Hollering" pretending to do the war dance. This is clearly someone mocking the native "religion" or way of life. (Obviously, the 15 year old kid has no idea what's he/she is doing and has no malicious intent, but at the end of the day, this doesn't matter.) If however, they learned to do the war dance properly, or brought in native dancers, then I wouldn't find this offensive.

What further offends me, is after I've explained this to people, they dismiss my feelings/opinion and proceed to tell me that in fact, I DO NOT feel this way. They are further perplexed that I am not honored by this high school football team. Of course...I don't expect people to understand, but I think it's reasonable to expect people to appreciate and respect another person's opinion.

It's nice to see that your sensitive to this subject, but you're also walking the fine line of being true to classic literature. How we handle these issues is going to define our character.
posted by MoJoPokeyBlue at 9:58 AM on March 11, 2013 [40 favorites]

Unless you're doing some sort of meta-production that is trying to investigate what Peter Pan actually mean, I would just take out the "Indian" connection to the characters totally.

What you have left is a bunch of boys wearing animal costumes, which is kinda cool.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:03 AM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I find the idea of using "authentic dances" troubling in itself

AbsoLUTEly. It's known as "cultural appropriation" and it's usually not all that welcome, well meaning though it may be, because it continues to perpetuate stereotypes. I work in a museum that features a fair amount of Native performance, and have heard a lot of thinking on it, and wouldn't ever recommend using someone's cultural dances out of context - and by non-Native performers - in this way. In addition, it just doesn't deal with the other embedded stereotyping in the script.

to remind the audience that people in the past DID think this way

I think there is some merit in this approach, but it's still important to remember that "people" didn't think this way, "some people" thought this way, while others bore the brunt of their ignorant misapprehensions.

It seems like your question might be a little rhetorical: like, you're not actually staging this, just wondering how one would. I think that really depends upon audience and venue, and if you were working from a concrete place with those things, you'd be able to make decisions that logically fall out for your audience. So, for an elementary school production whose goals are to give out a lot of parts and familiarize everyone with a well-known Western fairy tale, then you might just elide the "Indian" issue by replacing it with another group perceivable as "exotic" or "other" but not because of ethnicity. But if you were Baz Luhrmann staging this on Broadway, well, you might want to play up the stereotype by suggesting the period in which it was written and twisting the presentation in some clever way so as to indicate you've got a critical perspective on it. Or if you're a summer stock touring company you might just leave it as is and the hell with it. In short, it's hard to know what choices you'd make without knowing how culturally sensitive you want to be, how new to the content your audience is, who they are and how culturally sensitive they are, and what the artistic goals of the production would be.
posted by Miko at 10:05 AM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

No. I'd replace all native sequences with mermaid stuff instead, personally.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:06 AM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is this a theoretical or an I-am-interested sort of question?

Because from a practical standpoint you have another issue beyond thinking of an approach: getting it cleared by the rights holder. If you want to do a PLAY using the original Barrie work you should be in the clear - the Peter Pan basic story there would be out of copyright.

You ask about the musical, however, which is a property from the 50s and therefor still in copyright. Performing it would require determining the rights holder - in this case the Samuel French company - and arranging both to license it for performance AND getting permission to make changes.
Can I make changes to the script for my production?
Can I combine two characters into one?
Can I change the locale of the play?
Can we edit out the “bad language”/references to smoking and drinking/any references to a deity?
Can we change the play title?
Can we change character names?
We are an all boys/girls school can we cast female parts with male actors?
Can we change the order of the scenes?
Can we add a dance/song number to the show?

Written permission must be obtained from Samuel French for all changes to the script. It is a violation of copyright law to make any changes in the play for the purposes of production without obtaining written permission. Otherwise, the play must be presented only as published in the Samuel French, Inc. acting edition, without any changes, additions, alterations or deletions to the text or title. These restrictions include, without limitation, altering, updating or amending the time, locales or settings of the play in any way. The gender of the characters shall also not be changed or altered in any way (for instance by way of costume or physical change).
Now, I would be ASTONISHED if this wasn't an issue that had been addressed with them. Since they're in the business of licensing this stuff I expect they'd be willing to talk about past changes they've green-lit. But you cannot simply alter the musical in this way w/o their clearance (assuming you're doing the legally required licensing)
posted by phearlez at 10:06 AM on March 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Totally true about the musical by the title Peter Pan. Here is some discussion of copyright issues on Neverpedia (the Peter Pan wiki) and on a JM Barrie forum.
posted by Miko at 10:09 AM on March 11, 2013

I should have added, the production I saw in Boston did have Natives doing the dances.
posted by Melismata at 10:18 AM on March 11, 2013

If you actually know any tribal members, I'd ask them. Otherwise, it's concerned white people wringing their hands, which can be more offensive that the stereotype in question. Everyone I know who's Crow or Brule Sioux and says "Indian", not "Native American".
posted by Ideefixe at 10:19 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you actually know any tribal members, I'd ask them.

Members of one group often don't want the responsibility of speaking for another. It's not "if you've asked one Native/group you've asked them all."

Everyone I know who's Crow or Brule Sioux and says "Indian", not "Native American".

Me too. It's a self-referent term for many native people. I've never been looked at crosseyed for calling someone "Indian" but I've been told the demonstration of respect in using a term like "Native," "indigenous (a big favorite)," or "Native American" is never unwelcome. "Indian" or even "'nd'n" is one of those terms that often works better used intraculturally than interculturally.
posted by Miko at 10:25 AM on March 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I had the privilege of hearing Richard Twiss speak on the very same stage where I saw Peter Pan only about a month before he died (which is part of why this was so disturbing). He said that, of course, the best thing to do is to get to know individual people and ask what they prefer, but that in impersonal contexts (like AskMetaFilter) where you don't have that opportunity, he recommended "Native American," although he personally preferred "First Nations" people. He had a very generous attitude about the issue toward people who were ignorant while remaining candid about his own feelings and challenging people to pay attention and be more respectful.

posted by straight at 10:36 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I tend not to use "First Nations" if only because it has a specific political meaning in Canada, and so it can be confusing to use here (like, some people will think you are referring only to Natives within the borders of Canada, even if you're trying to apply it more broadly).
posted by Miko at 11:07 AM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Otherwise, it's concerned white people wringing their hands, which can be more offensive that the stereotype in question. Everyone I know who's Crow or Brule Sioux and says "Indian", not "Native American".

I tend to agree that the "Indian" vs. "Native American" thing is pretty unimportant. On the other hand, it's also not very relevant to the problem of staging Peter Pan. Whatever anyone is likely to find offensive about the musical is unlikely to be addressed simply by changing references to "Indian" to "Native American."

(It's worth noting, by the way, that in the book there is only one use of the word "indian"--they are otherwise exclusively referred to as "redskins." Not, perhaps, a helpful signpost towards a solution.
posted by yoink at 11:21 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's in a fantasy world. Why not paint them blue and make them space aliens? Or put pointy ears on them and call them elves?
posted by empath at 2:03 PM on March 11, 2013

Members of one group often don't want the responsibility of speaking for another
But that's the whole deal with this very issue--members of another group are deciding to be distressed for another group. Hire a tribal adviser. Write a note in the program. Redskins is offensive--so make everyone in the play an Iroquois and make it all very authentic. Barrie never met anyone of any tribe, and I'm willing to bet that the authors of the musical didn't either. But if you believe in the integrity of the actual work, written by artists--maybe just doing the musical the way it was written is actually the best thing to do.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:22 PM on March 11, 2013

41swans: When I was young I was in a production of Peter Pan where the director of the play knew this was a problem, so he cast all-female "Amazons" instead of "Indians." Is this better? Maybe not for the Amazons, but it certainly was less cringe-inducing.
The Amazons were mythical. Indians (Native Americans) are very real. Big difference.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:16 PM on March 11, 2013

Hire a tribal adviser

I dunno, maybe it's because I come from Canada where the term "First Nations" has some real meaning, but "Indians" are not a monolithic or homogenous culture. You can't just hire an adviser who will speak for all First Nations or aboriginal folk.

Tom King, in The Truth About Stories also points out that "Indians" are an invention of European settlers, right down to the war paint and the headdresses and all that stuff.

The quest for "authenticity" is also an effort to define and categorize people who may not wish to be definitely categorized. There is no consensus on what an "Iroquois" is, for example.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:34 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: If you take that logic too far, if I say that no one speaks for me or even understands me well enough to predict whether I will find a musical insulting or respectful, then I can hardly complain that someone is insulting me. Who could have known what I would find insulting? No one can get to know every individual on earth before they say or do something in public.

I wasn't expecting any Native American to speak for all Native Americans, but I don't think it's unreasonable to suppose that a Native American is more likely than a random AskMeFite to have some insight about how best to be respectful to the various peoples who get lumped under that umbrella.
posted by straight at 8:57 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Which is to say, thanks MoJoPokeyBlue and everyone else who contributed.
posted by straight at 9:01 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's really not all that complicated. I'm sure there have been times you hear that "Americans" want something and know that you don't want that particular thing. This is like that, only even more personal because of the weight of stereotype and oppression of centuries associated with essentializing you as a member of a giant monolithic culture and denying your individual, personal, and cultural perspectives.

When we do stuff in my work that has Native content, there's a lot that we do. First, we have subject matter experts - curators and researchers, some of them Native but not all, who have spent time studying the [rather unwillingly] shared history of indigenous people in the Americas. Part of their knowledge is of the discourse surrounding the concept of "Native," and there are things about that discourse that can be generally said to win wide agreement. For instance, there has been a concretely visible history of prejudice and conflation with regards to all of those people - so it's pretty easy to start with "avoid prejudice and conflation." That is something almost all Native people I know put forward almost immediately. So we do our level best to avoid that. "Don't appropriate cultural traditions you don't understand and use them for your own purposes" is also exceedingly widely agreed on. So we do our best to avoid that.

Second, we do work with advisors. But not one advisor. That would never work especially well for this type of effort. Typically, we assemble an advisory group that includes people with subject matter expertise in whatever we're working on (music, art, performance) and in some aspect of Native American culture, broadly writ, of both Native and non-Native backgrounds. We run our plans by them and listen to their responses, as a sounding board. Some things get shot down by everyone. On some points, there is robust debate. People often cite the work of other scholars, writers, etc. Some speak up for new ideas and changing understandings. We record minutes of all that was discussed.

Out of that robust discussion we develop a direction. And throughout the production of the project, we continue to check that direction with many individuals to get their perspectives - both people from the advisory group, and additional people that may become involved on single aspects. Along the way, we maintain the ability to make changes and adjust elements based on this anecdotal, rather piecemeal feedback.

And we understand that there will always be a few people who disagree with what we've done. If the voices of disagreement are few, we are fairly content. If they are many, and loud, and diverse, then we've missed something, or done something pretty wrong.

This is only a model of collaboration. Our institution is still overwhelmingly white Anglo. The future of this sort of work is one of increased co-creation and Native-led creation, not just advisory boards called in to shape a project already conceived by others and barreling down the rails. So the interesting question might be: what would Native-led theatre groups do with Peter Pan? Decide not to stage it at all? Stage it and make changes? Totally rework it? Subvert and parody it? All of the above? Probably. Or what if you wanted to stage it, and you went to the Native people who live locally in your area and ask them how they'd like to see it handled? They'd probably have some good suggestions. Or maybe you'd want to collaborate with a local group to develop this whole performance. We can't really tell you what the right path is - you'd have to explore that on your own, for a specific production, with the people whom it would most affect, and make decisions appropriate to your audience and venue, your artistic goals and your beliefs about human equality.

In the end, doing the most respectful thing is always going to be harmful to the smallest number of people. So figure out how to do the most respectful thing. Usually that involves asking a lot of people how your decisions would strike them, and listening to the answers.
posted by Miko at 9:15 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older 401k/Roth undisclosed "Forfeiture Fee" halves...   |   A well-balanced relationship is making me feel... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.