Sunday, April 25, 2010

PETER PAN in Canada: Two steps forward, and then two steps back again

Friday, April 23rd, The Globe and Mail published an article in the Arts section. Written by J. Kelly Nestruck, the article is titled "Sensitivity Training in Neverland.

It opens with Nestruck posing this question: "Are the Neverland Indians of Peter Pan going the way of the Beothuk in Canada?"

Given that the article is about getting rid of stereotypical images of Indians in Peter Pan, I imagine that Nestruck thought he was being clever by comparing the fictional Indians in Peter Pan with the Beothuk. The Beothuk, according to a quick look-see of research, are a tribe that no longer exists. However! I'm not inclined to believe that they vanished. I've heard that "vanished" story before. I'll check into it, by talking to First Nations people. (If you're First Nations and have info that can help me with this research, let me know.)  Some may think Nestruck's playful opening is clever. I don't think it is clever at all. Regular readers of American Indians in Children's Literature know that I think it is important to examine where people situate American Indians. We're often in the same sentence as wild animals, and in the case of "Sensitivity Training in Neverland" fictional stereotypical Indians.

The first full paragraph says that the Peter Pan that will be on stage next week in Halifax and Stratford, will not have any references to "Indians" or "redskins" in the script. Next, Nestruck tells us, that Tiger Lily's tribe is in both productions, but, that "its members no longer bear any resemblance to North America's aboriginal peoples."

Obviously, someone (Nestruck? Producers? Playwrights?) think the Indians in J. M. Barrie's play did, in fact, bear resemblance to North America's aboriginal peoples. Which ones?! We do not (and did not) all look alike....

Fourth paragraph, Nestruck says the "beloved" story has been "causing controversy of late." Of late? Maybe it is news to Nestruck that we (indigenous people) don't like the way we've been portrayed for a long time. Take, as one example, what William Apes, a Pequot man, said in 1829 in A Son of the Forest:
[T]he great fear I entertained of my brethren was occasioned by the many stories I had heard of their cruelty toward the whites—how they were in the habit of killing and scalping men, women, and children. But the whites did not tell me that they were in a great majority of instances the aggressors—that they had imbrued their hands in the lifeblood of my brethren, driven them from their once peaceful and happy homes—that they introduced among them the fatal and exterminating diseases of civilized life. 
Fifth paragraph, Nestruck reports that George Pothitos and the theatre in Halifax "found itself in hot water" when it sent out a casting call for "Pirates/Indians." The artistic director was contacted by "angry artists" and apologized for the oversight, "not realizing how offensive that might be to some first-nations people."  So then Nestruck goes into the Land of Offense. (My term, not his.)

He says that "if" Indian is now considered derogatory "in some circles" now, the word "piccaninnies" is "much more problematic." Here's paragraph eight:
In Peter and Wendy, Barrie's 1911 novelization of his earlier play, the Scottish author describes these “redskins” on the warpath with their tomahawks not as an imaginary people, but as just another group of North American Indians. “Strung around them are scalps, of boys as well as of pirates, for these are the Piccaninny tribe, and not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons,” he wrote.
There's a lot wrong---and confusing---in that paragraph. Where is my copy of Peter and Wendy...

Moving on to the tenth and eleventh paragraphs, wherein Tim Carroll, the British director for the production being staged in Stratford, says:
“Coming here, it was obvious to me that we had to be more sensitive to the feelings of people who would be watching a debased version of their forefathers put onstage,” he says.
So, I guess, it is ok to be racist if there's nobody looking? Carroll decided to recast Tiger Lily's tribe as Amazons, thereby paying off thematically because now, he is "adding a mysterious female hinterland to the very male world of Neverland's Lost Boys and pirates." He doesn't mean the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. He means "the women warriors of Greek mythology."

Meanwhile, back in Halifax, Pothitos said "I decided we'd produce our own Neverland, with a tribe not based on any one ethnicity." In his production, Tiger Lily's tribe is inspired by "primitivist Henri Rousseau as well as bits and pieces of Mayan, Egyptian, and East Indian culture." Rather than just mess with North American Indian stereotypical imagery, they've decided to add in a few other cultures...  That's no better than the mish-mash we already have to deal with....   Indians in headdresses, standing beside totem poles outside tipis...

Finally, in the last four paragraphs, Nestruck turns to the words of Tara Beagan, a playwright who is Ntlakapamux and Irish-Canadian. She is among those "angry artists" who contacted the Neptune about the casting notice. Nestruck wrote:
To Beagan, Peter Pan's casual equation of “Indians” with imaginary Neverland creatures such as mermaids was part of a larger racist British mindset that didn't see native North Americans as a real people who existed in the present.
I'm not sure where he got "racist British mindset" from. She didn't say that. He followed that with a quote from Beagan:
“The early 20th-century English theatre-going public literally thought of native North Americans as a vanishing race: This is what their rulers intended,” she writes. “England has made several very creative attempts at eradicating Canada’s first peoples – the mythologization of first-nations peoples was a false ‘swan song’ type of trend that has, sadly, lasted until 2010.”
And he ends the article with this paragraph:
In a recent article she penned for the Praxis Theatre blog, Beagan imagined her mother on a field trip from the Kamloops Indian Residential School in 1953 watching Disney's cartoon version of Peter Pan with its stereotypical Indians saying “Ugh” at a local theatre that only allowed native people to sit in the balcony. (Beagan's mother doesn't remember the specific films she saw on these trips, but the timing fits.) “My mom’s grandchildren – my niece and nephew – sit in any section they want, in any theatre they want,” Beagan wrote. “If things continue to look up the way they have been, they won’t ever sit through a production of something that will teach them that their people say 'ugh.’” In productions of Peter Pan at Stratford and Neptune, at least, that will be the case.
I searched the Praxis Theatre pages and found the blog post Nestruck quoted from. He left out her final sentence, which is:
Hell, it might be to watch something that one of them has written.
The article itself and the casting, revisions, and Barrie's story itself are all worth studying. I'm glad the article is available. It tells us there's some awareness (two steps forward), but, not understanding, or if there IS understanding, an inability to apply that understanding (two steps backward).

I think the theater people are trying, but, they're not slowing down enough to really think this stuff through. From Nova Scotia news is a favorable review that includes this:
Choreographer Jim White, who cooks up a lot of variety, has created an Indonesian-style dance for Tiger Lily and the tribesmen, in their grass skirts and bright blue and orange head dresses. Heidi Ford is a wonderfully lithe and expressive Tiger Lily.
There's a promo for the Neptune Theatre presentation at youtube. Tiger Lilly and her tribemen come onstage at 0:44 for a few seconds.  I'm not sure this is an improvement over the sequel to Peter Pan, titled Peter Pan in Scarlet... 


Anonymous said...


This is....just. Wow.

And what a parallel: in a discussion about Gaiman on my LJ a few days ago, a British author talked about how little is known about "Indians" in Britain (just from American Westerns?), and my basic response was "Peter Pan."

Debbie Reese said...

Ithiliana---click on the link I provided...the one that goes to the recently released sequel to PETER PAN.

It is called PETER PAN IN SCARLET. The author added "throat slitters" to the massive body of misinformation about American Indians.

Tara B. said...

dear ms. reese,

i appreciate your thorough dissection of the globe and mail piece so much. i, too, was immediately thrown off by the beothuk quip, but knew i had to go forth with a sense of how little ground i feel we're able to cover when trying to work with the press. in late '08 and into '09 a theatre company in toronto (native earth performing arts) tried to make inroads with another newspaper when they referred to a metis playwright and her characters as "indians". for the most part, in canada, we don't employ this term unless it's amongst ourselves - when there is no hatred in the word, it's a different animal, isn't it? the toronto star (the offending paper) acknowledged our communications and made a watery commitment to look into altering their style guide which was what they asserted had given them permission to call our metis playwright and her characters "indians".

the learning curve is steep, and it is endless work to try to shine light on the indigenous perspective. i feel much bolstered to learn of your own activism, having been referred here by a friend.

the positive in all of this is that, in spite of j. kelly nestruck's wince-worthy (on a worse day it would be weep-worthy, mind you) verbiage, he had the insight to see that this story was worth writing about. baby steps...

yours in solidarity,
tara beagan