Imagining Indigenous Peoples in the Worlds of Peter Pan
“I’ve digested the Puffin classic and devoured the Penguin volume with its scholarly preface, and gobbled up the Disney Books for Young Reader edition. I’ve consumed the illustrated and the annotated books, seen the play and the musical, and heard the sound track. Now isn’t that smart of me? I mean, that’s preparation. Nothing can surprise me now.”
–Berry anticipates her own trip to Neverland in Laurie Fox’s The Lost Girls
When I began working on this talk, I hadn’t realized just how many different versions of the Peter Pan story there are: abridgements and adaptations of James Barrie’s original story, illustrations for the original story by many different illustrators, new books and movies that operate as prequels, sequels, or variations of the original. Why has Peter Pan been reinvented so often?
Its history might help to explain that: Barrie himself kept on reinventing it. The central ideas emerged in games of piracy and adventure Barrie played with the Llewellyn Davies children, boys he had first met as young children in Kensington Gardens and whom he adopted after their parents died.
Barrie first wrote of an eternally youthful character called Peter Pan in a section of his novel The White Bird, later published as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, then produced a play including most of the characters and events we now identify with Neverland in 1904.
The play underwent constant revision in its annual productions until Barrie finally published a version for readers in 1928. Meanwhile, he had published the novel called Peter and Wendy in 1911.
The existence of so many different versions of the story by Barrie himself suggests the possibility of an inherent variability in the material–something that invites retelling.
The something might be Barrie’s conception of Neverland as the place implied by childlike imaginings.
In Peter and Wendy, Barrie tells us that the map of Neverland is like
a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs. . . . It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.
Nothing will stand still. Barrie’s version of childhood is, in its essence, unfixed and variational. The Neverland then seems to invite writers beyond Barrie to put on the roles of its characters and act out new versions of the events, just as Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys pretended to be the pirates they had read about in novels like Treasure Island or by writers like Mayne Reid and involved them in newly imagined events.
In allowing such responses, however, Peter Pan merely becomes an extreme example of a characteristic of all texts generally. There is nothing particularly indeterminate about Treasure Island, but it was open to re-imagining by Barrie and his young friends. And the story based on those re-imaginings remains open; as well as versions in movies and published novels, there are over 2000 new stories about Neverland on FanFiction.net.
But while Neverland is an invitation to imagine, it wouldn’t seem like Neverland anymore if the story focussed on robots and talking clams and left out the pirates. The same goes for the Redskins Barrie depicts–and that causes a problem.
(Redskins–I should note here my discomfort in using that term. I am also uncomfortable about “Indians,” but I’ll use both these contentious terms in this talk, along with a variety of others, each of which comes with its own problems: Native Americans, aboriginals, indigenous peoples, the Canadian term “First Nations peoples.” The more different terms I use, I figure, the less authority any one of them possesses.)
The stereotypes of North American natives that Barrie engages based on his memories of Indians in Wild West shows and of depictions of them in novelists like Fenimore Copper and Mayne Reid seriously misrepresent actual North American indigenous peoples.
Consider this passage:
(Far away some one treads on a dry leaf.)
TIGER LILY. Pirates! (They do not draw their knives) the knives slip into their hands.) Have um scalps? What you say?
PANTHER. Scalp um, oho, velly quick.
THE BRAVES (in corroboration). Ugh, ugh, wah.
Barrie’s original audience would have taken these racist stereotypes for granted. In our own place and time, unfortunately, they are still often left unquestioned. Too many people would rather not think about the negative effect of caricatures like University of Illinois’s Chief Illiniwek.
And there is widespread ignorance of or amnesia even about the continuing existence of indigenous American and Canadians; stereotypes like Illiniwek replicate what appears to be a distorted version of the way things once were–before, presumably, the Injuns got wiped out. There is also a sense that if indigenous people do still exist, they are, well, not quite civilized, maybe even not quite human. Even positive representations tend to focus on the connections of Indians with nature and the wild: purveyors of herbal medicines or protectors of the earth.
Clay Kinchen Smith argues that Barrie subverts the stereotypes he engages with, primarily by identifying his “Redskins” as the tribe of Picaninnies, that name being an offensive derogatory term more usually used for children of African descent.
“Given the extent of ‘Picaninny’ as a racialist term, Barrie’s choice to use it foregrounds a wide range of hegemonic forces [and] indicates his active engagement of such forces in an attempt to subvert them.”
But to be subversive, Barrie’s depiction needs to leave audiences with negative feelings about it; and while such feeling are easily possible–I have them myself—I’m not convinced that they are the responses that Barrie actually invites in the audience his texts imply. Nor am I convinced, on the other hand, that the depictions are purely toxic.
The key here is the status of Neverland as the place of childlike imagination.
Barrie not only engages the stereotypes, re-inscribing and reminding his original audiences of the Indians they know and love from adventure novels, but also, he plays with them, not so much making subversive fun of them as having fun with them. As a clearly unrealistic caricature, his scalp-obsessed portrayal of the Picaninnies seems intended to offer an absurdist form of fun, the fun of the silliness of creatures who might behave so oddly, who might be so at odds with what normal people normally do, so other than who we–implied white English reader/viewers–believe we are. Indeed, the Picaninnies–scalp-crazy “Redskins” bearing the name racists call dark-skinned children and distorting the English language by saying”velly” instead of “very” as Asians supposedly do–represent a conglomerate of racial slurs, and so stand for the supposedly delightful oddity (and inferiority) of racial otherness generally.
As roles in play, furthermore, the “Redskins” are like masks any child can choose to put on.
In Peter and Wendy, for instance, we hear of the brush with the redskins at Slightly Gulch:
At the Gulch, when victory was still in the balance, sometimes leaning this way and sometimes that, [Peter] called out, “I’m redskin to-day; what are you, Tootles?” And Tootles answered, “Redskin; what are you, Nibs?” and Nibs said, “Redskin; what are you Twin?” and so on; and they were all redskins; and of course this would have ended the fight had not the real redskins, fascinated by Peter’s methods, agreed to be lost boys for that once, and so at it they all went again, more fiercely than ever.
But I must now hasten to add: This is not to say that the Picaninny mask being put on is not in itself defamatory–just as Chief Illiniwek is still defamatory despite his supporter’s claims otherwise. The Picaninnies are depicted in Barrie’s texts as colonists usually depict the people they colonize.
They are less human, more child- and animal-like–and therefore, less restrained and proper, more driven by their bodily urges.
An early production script of the play tells us that Tiger Lily”approaches Peter in an ingratiating wriggle, is full of cajolery.” Later, after Peter makes Wendy, Tiger Lily and Tinker Bell line up in a row and asks them what they want of him, Tiger Lily demonstrates by putting his arms around her: “You pull my ear–so–chucky chin–so. Velly nice to you, velly nice to me.”
The pleasure of a story not being over seems to require that its characteristic elements continue in the new texts it spawns. Tiger Lily and the Redskins seem to be a characteristic element of the Peter Pan story. Does that mean that any and all versions and variations of it will not be recognizably Peter-Pan-like unless they replicate its racism?
In picture books and illustrated versions of Peter Pan and adaptations of it, the old stereotypes continue. The aboriginal characters, often mirror images of each other, usually have similar physical attributes–often including hooked noses–and wear more or less the same clothing as the actors in the original production of the play in 1904.
Illustrators often echo the two-story vista of the original set, Indians above listening as Wendy tells the boys stories below.
It’s really what’s on stage being illustrated, not the reality it represents. The original costumes being referenced were themselves certainly more influenced by stereotypical representations in earlier novels and Wild West shows than anything authentically indigenous.They are North American natives as viewed by outsiders through the filter of popular entertainment.
The clothing that defines these pretend Red Indians tends to wipe out significant distinctions between what, say, Plains Indians wore as opposed to what nations of the West Coast or American south wore.
Furthermore, the natives of Peter Pan tend to wear ceremonial regalia–including intricately beaded garments and huge feather headdresses–even while stalking their enemies in the forest, apparently unaware of the tendency of these complex outfits to jingle or to snag on low branches. They seem much more interested in making an exotic impression of savagely alien power than in dressing appropriately for battle.
Raquel Jaramillo’s Lost Boys, gone native, 2000
Tiger Lily often looks less stereotypically savage, more European; more like a dark-haired, fiery Irish Colleen, say, or a tempestuous Spanish señorita, than the stouter and more hook-nosed squaws who occasionally accompany her–for usually, she is the only female. But she is very female and very sexy. She conforms more to stereotypes of exotic temptresses than to those of brutal savages. Dangerously uncontrolled in this more female way, she goes off to battle wearing surprisingly little to protect her from arrows or swords. She looks exactly the kind of woman who might feel the lust for Peter that Barrie originally made so much of.
As did Barrie, furthermore, illustrators often depict mature Tiger Lilies lusting after surprisingly young Peter Pans–and clearly not out of feelings that are the least bit maternal. She might better have been called Cougar Lily.
As did Barrie, furthermore, illustrators often depict mature Tiger Lilies lusting after surprisingly young Peter Pans–and clearly not out of feelings that are the least bit maternal. She might better have been called Cougar Lily.
But while all the illustrated versions I’ve looked at include the Picaninnies, most sets of pictures include no more than one group portrayal of the Picaninnies and one of their Princess. For every one depiction of an Indian there are three or four of pirates, Tinkerbell and even the mermaids. Perhaps Illustrators downplay the role of the aboriginals to avoid potential criticism.
Stage and Film
Later stage and film versions of Peter Pan follow a similar pattern. In the 1953 Disney cartoon, the old stereotypes receive their fullest expression in the song “What Makes a Redskin Red.
The skin is very red indeed–and the large nose of the chief is even redder. Dressed in the conventional attire found also in so many book illustrations, these native speak a language of baby talk, full of “ums” and “ughs” in sentences with no subjects and no articles: “Teachum paleface brother all about red man.” They also smoke the inevitable peace pipe, threaten to burn people at the stake, and do a dance that involves a lot of bouncing on their toes and raising their knees up and down to the sounds of drums while saying “Hana Mana Ganda, Hana Mana Ganda ” and hitting their mouths with the palms of their hand to make “waw waw” sounds. I don’t know if I played Indians in my own childhood with these gestures in imitation of this movie, or if the movie was itself imitating already existing children’s games.
The song, accounts for the redskin’s redness as a result of female sexuality:
What made the red man red?
Let’s go back a million years
To the very first Injun prince.
He kissed a maid and start to blush
And we’ve all been blushin’ since.
Nor is it the surprising that, while the older squaw is an overweight battle ax, Tiger Lily is young, thin and very Caucasian-looking. The only word she utters throughout the film is “Help.”
The 1954 Broadway musical Peter Pan originally starring Mary Martin as Peter offers almost the same stereotypes as the Disney film; in it, Tiger Lily warns her tribe that they “makum too much noise” before they smoke, guess what, a peace pipe, hop around to drums and make wawa sounds with their hands on their mouths, and sing “Ugh a wug ugh a wug ugh a wug ugha wug wahhhh.” Revived on television in the fifties and sixties, this show has become a staple of high school musical offerings across America: Youtube offers many versions of the Indian dance as performed in recent productions by choruses consisting predominantly of Caucasian girls who enthusiastically ape the outmoded stereotypes of the original.
Off the high school stage, however, more professional entertainment producers have seemed a little more embarrassed. In Stephen Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook, in which a middle-aged Peter Pan, now a piratical corporate lawyer, returns to Neverland to retrieve his kidnapped children and his youthful joy, the Picaninnies are absent from a world that still includes the requisite Lost Boys, pirates, and mermaids. The Redskins have, perhaps, been replaced by the Lost Boys, here a gang of street kids who paint their faces, dress in animal skins and feathers, include bows and paint-gun-like arrows among their arsenal of weapons, and at one point indulge in stereotypical whooping and high-stepping.
Their current leader, Rufio has a particularly aboriginal-looking outfit and Mohawkish hairstyle.
As un-parented and therefore uncivilized children, these boys are the movie’s version of what turns out to be a desirably unrepressed savagery, a savagery conveyed by stereotypical markers of aboriginality despite the film’s actual absence of aboriginals.
P.J. Hogan’s 2003 live action film Peter Pan tries to avoiding stereotypes by implying that its Indians are more authentically aboriginal than Barrie’s Redskins.
Tiger Lily, played by a young girl who claims membership in the Haida nation of the Pacific Northwest, looks more normatively aboriginal that most Tiger Lilies do, even in spite of the elaborately beaded ceremonial dress and the bizarre war paint–a solitary neon blue handprint enclosing her chin–that she sports throughout the movie, even while out for a solitary stroll in the woods. An added feature on the film’s DVD claims that the language this actress speaks in her scenes is her native Iroquois; but her claim to membership in a nation from the other side of the continent makes that unlikely. Like the original Tiger Lily, this one is captured by Hook and rescued by Peter; but since that is the only part she plays in the movie, there is no evidence of her own courage or that of any of the others of her tribe who are so impressively dangerous in Barrie; these are Indians who never go to battle and are clearly not to be feared. The film does show them doing what seems like an authentically traditional healing ritual; an elder chants as she moves her hands through tobacco smoke: “She is calling on the spirit of the eagle to heal the warrior,” says one of the Lost Boys. “Very impressive.”
Impressive or not, its authenticity is thrown into question when the camera pans to the warrior being so ceremoniously healed: young Michael Barrie’s beheaded teddy bear. Whatever is serious and authentic here then becomes undermined as the context for a joke, a callous co-option of a spiritual tradition. The standard caricatures might well seem just a little bit less racist.
There’s a similar problem with the aboriginals depicted in the 2011 British TV series Neverland, a prequel to Barrie’s story which accounts for the human residents of Neverland by means of a Renaissance alchemist who invented a ball which, hit hard enough, transports earth people to a planet in the centre of the universe. The leader of an aboriginal people called the Kaw hit it hard enough to transport his whole village there
It looks like a Northwest Coast village, and the Kaw wear what look like Northwest Coast clothes, albeit decorated with images too diverse and random to represent the clan affiliations that figures like these originally signified. The Kaw are eco-friendly, kindly and forgiving to the point of wimpiness, and more or less always wise. (There’s some question about how wise it is for them to forgive the lost boys for revealing their most important secret to their enemy pirates; for that matter, unlike the pirates and boys drawn to this new world, they seem generally content about everything, simply living their old life in a new place, the essence of stereotypical aboriginal stoicism).
The Kaw’s rituals seem based on authentic traditions of indigenous North American peoples; but while the funeral for Kaw warriors killed in battle involves authentic-seeming chants, it ends as a sprinkling of fairy dust causes their wrapped corpses to rise aloft and then burst into flames and burn out of visible existence–an unsettling mixture of solemn archeology and silly fantasy.
That fairy dust is a product of the actual natives of this distant planet, a species of wood-sprites who emit magical dust as they fly–dust that makes humans immortal. In this TV series, then, the Redskin-like characters are as much interlopers from our world as the alchemist, the boys, and the pirates are. But while not in fact natives, these aboriginals retain their grounded respect for the strange new planet they now occupy. In confirmation of an ecological stereotype, Mother Earth is still mothering them in a different galaxy.
While the Disney corporation has created a mini-industry around their Peter Pan franchise In recent years, they avoided mentioning Indians within it. Natives do not appear at all in a 2002 sequel. Peter Pan 2: Return to Neverland.
While Tiger Lily appears only briefly in one scene of a 2003 video game, Adventures in Neverland, the game does feature a shop in the Indian village, where players can spend the points they’ve earned on tips and hints, life bonuses, and pixie dust.
Disney has also created an expanding series of books, films, and games about Tinkerbell and her fairy friends and their adventures: but there appear to be no Indians in this version of Neverland–I’ll say a little more about the books attached to this franchise later. There are also few references to Indians in Kingdom Hearts, a video game series produced by Disney in collaboration with the Japanese video game company Square Enix that explores the main character Sora’s encounters with various Disney characters and characters from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy game.
Peter Pan appears alongside Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey, as well as various fit and feisty fighting teenagers–but while the Indian Camp appears, there is no Tiger Lily.
Prequels, Sequels, and Variations
Some of the prequels, sequels, and stories that build on but vary from Peter Pan depict the Picaninnies more or less as Barrie did. Some try to make them less stereotypical and more realistic. Some, simply ignore their existence–although they do, sometimes, introduce ideas of savagery in other ways.
Laurie Fox mentions the Indians in her adult novel Lost Girls, for instance, but doesn’t get herself in the situation of actually introducing one into the novel except in memories of stays in Neverland. Wendy’s great-grandmother Jane’s tells how she set up residence in Neverland as an unwelcome adult, “with the help of a couple of Indians. . . . my companions were strictly members of the tribal cultures and a couple of animals–dogs, if you must now. Stray dogs and the occasional horse” (263-64); nobody actually completely human, the implication seems to be. Saying that “the Neverland means something different to each person who alights there” (34), the current Wendy describes it as one of the “mythological places” (35) in which she found that
heroes were plentiful, too–the fraternity of wayward boys, but also a loose collection of Indians: Pacific Islanders, Inuits, and Native Americans, men and women who sought balance there. By the time I arrived, though all but two of the tribes had moved on to Hawaii, a roomier and less melancholy Pacific island.”
So it turns out that Barrie’s Picaninnies were merely one tribe out of a bunch of others with more authentic aboriginal provenances–there in Neverland, it seems,seeking the “balance” of, perhaps, things like spiritual vision quests, reinvented now as regenerative Jungian acts of the healing imagination? At any rate, this bizarre use of Neverland imagining is all in the past by Wendy’s time; the only Indians left are the fake ones.
Stereotypically, the native tongue of the Piccas of Peter David’s young adult novel Tigerheart sounds “rather a bit like pig Latin” to Paul, a new arrival in Neverland who interacts with Barrie’s Peter. They say things like “You know story of girl with glass moccasin?” and their names build on Barrie’s jokey ones. There is Pouring Rain who, “like all Picca males . . . had been named for the first thing his mother saw outside her wigwam after he had been born” (129); another, it then turns out, is Dog Licking Self.
Princess Picca has the requisite “savage expression” (130)–indeed, David identifies various Picca behaviours as savage throughout the book–and in the light of the Princess’s attraction to young Peter, it is telling that “It was hard for Paul to get a fix on her age. She might have been as young as fifteen or as remarkably ancient as thirty, for her physique seemed youthful but her bearing added many years” (130). So does the sparseness of her battle outfit: “She was wearing leather covering her beasts and loins, and thigh-high doeskin boots with fringe hanging from the tops. The rest of her body–stomach, face, legs and arms–was covered with an astounding and fearsome array of images” painted on her naked skin (226). One of her major acts in the book is to show a despondent Peter that he is not useless now that he has begun to grow up by hauling him into her tent. When Gwenny, a character who parallels Barrie’s Wendy, asks the Princess what she has been doing after she and Peter emerge the following morning, the Princess responds:
‘Boy feel like adult. So …. I help him to feel like boy again.’
‘And how,’ Gwenny said tartly, ‘did you accomplish that?’
‘Indian way,’ was all Princess Picca said, and smiled in a manner that seemed to light up her face”(222)
Here as in just about all mainstream colonialist thinking about othered peoples, David implies an innate connection between sexuality, being boyish or childlike, and being Indian: all three are equally inferior to and needing the control of civilized adult self-control. In celebrating Peter’s move into maturity later in the novel, then, David implies that being Indian is being immature.
In the children’s novel Always Neverland, Zoe Barton’s braves are literally immature, just children playing the role of savages: True to their background in Barrie’s imagination, “They talked with faint English accents and wore the most random outfits. . . . Really, the only sign they all belonged to the same tribe were the feathers braided into their long hair and the war paint on their faces” (133). Strangely, however, the Tiger Lily here is at odds with her random tribe: “She didn’t dress like anyone else. She dressed better–the deerskin gown fit her exactly; the beading on it shone in the sun. the feathers and beads braided into her hair were like carefully chosen accessories. She looked over the scene with a calm, cool, confidence. She was royalty, and she knew it” 135 At the end of the novel, this Tiger Lily is the one standout in all of Neverland against the charm of the protagonist, the original Wendy’s descendant Ashley. Unlike the mermaids, the rest of the Indians, and even Tinkerbell, she is too proud to accept Ashley’s friendship even after Ashley leads her rescue from Hook. The one Indian who dresses like a traditional Neverland Indian and has the gravitas and silence of a Tonto stereotype, Tiger lily remains the one othered outsider to the new harmony Ashley creates in Neverland.
In the official sequel mandated by the Great Ormand Street Hospital, Geraldine McCaughrean’s Peter Pan in Scarlet, Indians are once more just children who dress up as warriors. Following up on Barrie’s announcement in Peter and Wendy that Starkey was “captured by the redskins, who made him nurse for all their papooses,” McCaughrean reports on how Starkey made the best of his sad fate: “See what a job I done on ’em, my little squaws an’ braves! You won’t find better manners in the King of England’s parlour. An’ I trained them up in a trade, too, which is more’n you can say for most schoolmasters. Learned ’em everything I knowed. Turned ’em into pirates, every Jack-and-Jill of ’em” (90-91). As pirates, “though no more than waist high . . . [they] were wearing full warpaint and were armed with hatchets, bows and arrows, and bowie knives.”(89), and Starkey encourages them to match the conventional stereotype. Watching them politely request, “Kindly shed your loot in our direction, then lie face down on the deck, or sadly, we will have to slit your gizzards and feed you to the fish,” he tells them, “Very good, buckos, but you forgot about the scalping. You must always mention the scalping.”
McCaughrean’s act of placing these piratical Indian children inside the book mirrors the way in which Barrie engendered his story outside of the book in the first place; his characters always represented what children play. But since these children are actually young Indians in the first place, and since their piracy requires them to ape stereotypical adult redskin behaviour, they become a telling example of colonization–having an stereotypical image of who they are and how they must behave inaccurately imposed upon them by a more powerful outside authority.
McCaughrean’s novel centrally concerns the dark underside of putting on a costume and imagining yourself to be something else–the possibility that you might actually become what you wear or pretend to be: “Clothes are so much a part of what a person is, after all” (188). Donning Hook’s coat, Peter Pan begins to act piratical; and at the end of the novel, Hook, who has been lost to himself, finally puts his coat back on:
It became him well.
And he became it.
Clothes can do that.(304)
In donning warpaint and becoming what Starkey has imagined them to be, his youthful redskins move past being a mere reiteration of the old clichés they represent, and offer something like an analysis of the colonial process. Finally, though, they are just children at play: “faced with pack of panthers ands a pride of lions, with boarding parties of monkeys and a broadside of bears, their soft little hands shook and the bowstrings slid from between their weary fingers” and on the verge of capture, they “could be heard screaming and whimpering and calling for their mothers” (98). As the only real children in this melancholy book about a gloomily dying Neverland and adults who have lost their innocence in the wake of the Great War, they are too actually youthful to live up to the fierce role the fantasy demands of them–and thus reveal its status as a role.
When the adult Indians finally show up in Peter Pan in Scarlet, they are more historically authentic than the redskins their children have been aping: “There, streaming towards them across the flat skillet of the sear desert sands, came all the bison and appaloosas and travois and squaws and dogs and braves and thunderbirds and drums and papooses and war bonnets and peace-pipes and braids and coup sticks and moccasins and bows and arrows that went to make up the Tribe of the Eight Nations” (280). After throwing a potlach, they then move off “in eight different directions–to teepees, hogans, kivas or longhouses, roundhouses, bivouacs or stockades; some to sleep under the stars” (282). While these references to authentic indigenous objects and dwellings suggests an effort to go beyond stereotype, it also leads McCaughrean into a weird melange of different cultures: a strangely unsettled stew, something like imagining an authentic European dressed in a beret and lederhosen while taking in a bullfight, having a spot of tea and eating a traditional meal of linguini and lingonberry pancakes.
McCaughrean is not alone in trying to avoid the problem of stereotyping by providing theoretically more authentic versions of aboriginal cultures. Perhaps to avoid the negative implications of words like “Indians” or “Redskins,” a number of versions specifically identify their equivalents to Barrie’s savages as “natives,” or just as being native to the island, thus moving past Barrie’s conception of them as figments of a childlike imagination: they were there before everyone else arrived–they really are natives.
In Dan Elconin’s YA novel Never After, the protagonist Ricky describes his first encounter with the islanders:
what I thought I was seeing was North American Indian braves. The figures were all tall men, in their early twenties to early thirties. Each held a sword, spear, or hatchet or two at his side and stood as straight, stiff, and still as a flagpole. Their bodies were sinewy, their expressions stony and faintly proud, their skin so bronze it was almost red. Many had shoulder-length ponytails; a few had completely shaved heads; one had braided pigtails. they all wore animal-skin trousers, and some wore feathers in their hair and bracelets and necklaces made of yarn, beads, and shells.(98)
Furthermore, their leader, Prince Panther, has a Mohawk and “dark, somewhat sunken eyes” (99), and “there was something about them, beyond their weapons, that made them seem distinctly, eerily lethal” (99)–savages once more. When Ricky asks about if these people are Native Americans, the evil Peter’s enemy Hooke responds, “Native Islanders, ” but offers no further explanation of how there happen to be natives on an island which otherwise functions as a fantasy retreat for those whose reality in our own world is too painful. Unless the real world was too much for these natives also, the implication is that natives are somehow indigenous to fantasy, characters who don’t actually fit into our usual conceptions of reality.
As often happens, Elconin’s Lily seems less savage than her tribe: “She looked healthy, her skin was clean, even a little radiant, her eyes were bright . . . and her hair was in a neat ponytail” (133). Nevertheless, “she also had a sword slung across her back. Lily, warrior princess” (133); and there is a fiery savagery behind her sweet facade: speaking of her brother, “‘Panther is a coward,’ she snapped with such sudden ferocity that I promptly scribbled a mental note: Do NOT fuck with Lily” (135). She and her brother fight “with all the unrestrained ferocity of wild animals” (209).
The Indians of the Zenescope Neverland comics, a prequel to Barrie’s story, are also indigenous to the island. Their tradition is surprisingly non-sexist: Tiger Lily is one of the eight greatest warriors who compete for head warrior by fighting the buff Korikio, whom she defeats with a well-placed kick in the crotch (“No wonder they call her Tiger”)–but then is told that this blow to “a sacred area” has cost her the victory. This is a fantasy world–after she kills him, Tiger Lily’s opponent is brought back to life by “the sacred child,” an eternal infant inside a glowing green beachball that the evil Pan will later steal from the tribe to begin his immortal youth.
But there is a doomed attempt to ground the Towchoks in authentic native culture.
Despite Tiger Lily’s revealing warrior outfit of leather push-up bra and loincloth (and the fact that all her fellow warriors seems to have been spending too much time at the indigenous gym each day), the tribe lives in a village of plains Indian tipis but with a west coast totem pole and a strange roundhouse raised on stilts–perhaps in the style of indigenous Californians?
In their Starcatcher series of children’s novels, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson also include natives in their Neverland; and while they seem more like the aboriginal peoples of the South Pacific than like the usual native Americans, they are no less stereotyped. Immediately identified by the newcomers as “savages” (237), their have names like Fighting Prawn and Running Snail, and their language consists of “Grunts and . . . clicks” (249). They are “brown skinned, black-haired people–the men wearing only loin cloths, the women in slightly more modest loose shifts, the smaller children happily naked” (265), and “their faces, framed by shoulder-length jet-black hair, were enough alike that the men could have been brothers: both [of two tribesmen] had high cheekbones, jutting angular noses, deep-set eyes” (259).
Despite all that, though, Barry and Pearson use the newcomers’s antipathy to what they see as savage and assume must be “cannibals by the look of them” (277) to introduce a critique of their colonialism.
The leader of the Mollusks, Fighting Prawn, says,
“You think we’re savages boy?’ . . . . “We’re not savages here . . . . I know. I’ve seen savagery. I saw it often when I was a . . . guest of the British navy . . . . Oh yes, boy, I know what savagery is, and it’s not to be found here. Except when we have visitors.”(281)
As the series proceeds, the Mollusks turn out to be the sanest people in Neverland–clichés of very noble savages; and in the Never Land books, a subsidiary series of stories by other authors about the lost boys and some Mollusk girls, Fighting Prawn becomes the parental adult who must protect the children both from bad guys and their own childish lack of good sense.
In his adult fantasy The Child Thief, Brom also replaces Barrie’s redskins with indigenous peoples; but this time, they are not human at all, but the leftover remnants of ancient British mythology and folklore. The island of Avalon is “the refuge of the last of earth’s enchanted creatures” (97), for it seems that “the whole world was once Faerie,” (174) until reason and religion colonized it, suppressed the natives, and “Earth’s first children were driven into the shadows by flame and cold iron, by man’s insatiable need of conquest” (248). In a telling phrase, we learn that “Avalon began to drift away from human civilization” (249) and towards a more primitive North America: “This new land was still wild and full of magic, much like the early ages of earth. The native people of the Americas were one with nature, both revering and fearing its magic” (249)–i.e., uncivilized enough to be admirably devoid of reason and religion.
In the context of this admiration of what more usually gets identified as savagery, the Devils, Brom’s equivalent of Barrie’s Lost Boys, are equally happy to aspire to the usual stereotypes of indigenous North Americans, painting their faces and wearing “hides, matted and mangy [and] festooned with bones, tusks and twigs, their ankles and wrists layered in bracelets of leather and twine.”
Standing out among them is a “monster” draped in hides and in a mask and,”all of it, skin, mask, fur, horns, was covered in cracking red paint” (71)–a symbolic evocation of the ultimate redskin and the savagery they aspire to. At the end of the book, Peter announces that he has become “the Horned One. . . .The forest spirit, the lord of all wild things” (476); in a weird blend of Celtic myth and Native American stereotyping, the innocent heartless spirit of childhood has been transformed into an icon of essential aboriginality.
One of the Devils, Sekeu, is an actual Aboriginal–Brom’s noble savage equivalent for Tiger Lily: “She had the wide cheekbones and a strong jawline of a Native American indian. . . . Her copper-coloured skin was dirty and dotted with scars, leaving no doubt she’d seen her fair share of trouble.” For all her nobility, “With her war paint on, she truly looked the part of an Indian on the warpath” (267); and she is the one who teaches battle skills to the newcomer Nick. Learning from her, Nick soon observes a new self in the mirror: “Standing there . . . was a savage with dark swatches of black paint running down both sides of his face. The savage looked lean and hard, but it was the eyes that Nick found most disturbing, piercing, haunted eyes” (269).
While Nick himself is from contemporary Brooklyn, Sekeu has been a Devil for some time, and that makes her yet another stereotyped representation of a past aboriginality. Her “words were stilted, spaced. Nick could tell English wasn’t her native tongue” (96). The Devil nicknamed Redbone, an aboriginal aspirant who sports “the dye, or paint, or whatever it was he rubbed on his skin and hair to make it red [and] made him look like a real devil” (154), tells Nick, “she got her muscles from scalping white men, y’know” (153). She came to join Peter centuries ago, and so here as in so much contemporary fiction for younger people and older ones, there appear to be no actual contemporary aboriginals remaining in our world now.
While Loisel’s French language bandes dessinées series Peter Pan includes Barrie’s Picaninnies, it is a prequel of Barrie’s story and therefore keeps its aboriginals in the past, and with a status apparently equivalent to the creatures from Greek mythology and European folklore–satyrs, centaurs, elves, fairies, gnomes and “Korrigans,” not to mention a group of very busty sirens that the Picaninnies interact with.
Once more, then, Native Americians are equivalent to figures of myth.
The series describes how Peter, mistreated in a dark Dickensian London, is brought to Neverland to help its two kinds of natives ward off the evil pirates. There are hints that this Neverland might have emerged from Peter’s imagination and the stories he loves–“Toutes les histoires sont vraies, surtout celles qu’on se donne le peine d’imaginer, Peter.” The stories represent a form of escape from the cruelty of life on London’s streets and with an alcoholic mother whom he later imagines as horrifically mutilating him as she gives birth to him. But Loisel offers no explanation about how the Picaninnies came to be in Neverland or why this version of a real people appears to have the same status as creatures of myth. They are, however, equally alien; while the Greek and folkloristic creatures speak the same French language as Peter and the pirates do, the Picaninnies have what seems to be a made-up language of their own. Furthermore, “Les indiens Picaninny sont de terrible guerriers qui pratiquent par période le sacrifice humain . . . Bref, ils ont enlevé l’un des nôtres, pur l’offrir tripes a l’air a leur Dieu.”
In a variation on the idea of Indians as native Neverlanders, Heather Killough-Walden’s Forever Neverland posits that all the residents of Neverland have been drawn there through the power of Wendy’s imagination, including the Picadilly tribe–note how the changed name avoids the stereotype it’s based on. At the end, Wendy sends them back home to what appears to be a real place in the past: the Picadillies “recalled where they had come from, in that other place, so very long ago” and then, with “every father telling tales of spirits and the sky and the earth and fire . . . images of different forests and different teepees flashed before their eyes” and “the Native camp began to grow dim” as she sends them “back to where they had been taken from so long ago.”
As I’ve suggested, many books evoke Pan and Neverland, but avoid or totally ignore what appears to be the contentious question of aboriginals. As The Disney Wiki website says of the film sequel Return to Neverland, Tiger Lily and the Indians “were dropped from this most likely due to the controversy surrounding the way they were ethnically stereotyped and portrayed in the original movie.” Better to leave them out altogether–thus implying their lack of importance or contemporary relevance.
There are also no Picaninnies in Gail Carson Levine’s Disney series of children’s books about the Neverland Fairies. But there is a Tiger Lily. One of the books in Step into Reading, a subsidiary franchise of Levine’s books that offers stories about the fairies for early readers by other writers, is (*187, 188) Please Don’t Feed the Tiger Lily!
This book is about an actual tiger lily, though, a flower rather than a person. Nevertheless, it is a savage flower, snapping at the fairies’ fingers and eating their hats: “Tiger lilies can be nasty flowers” (8). This one is nasty because everyone is feeding it fairy food; it finally gets tamed, i.e., restored to its proper link as a mere flower on the great chain of being, through a diet of water and sunshine. Like Barrie’s Tiger Lily and her tribe, perhaps, it needs to learn its proper position as a being less civilized and more natural. As its name suggests, it operates as a substitute for and representation of the missing aboriginals.
That returns me to my earlier hypothesis that the Indians might turn out to be an essential element of Neverland–represent something so essential to its fabric and its meaning that something like them will tend to show up to replace their absence. Thus, the grownup Wendy in Moore and Geddie’s more or less pornographic graphic novel The Lost Girls remembers Peter providing her with a revealing Indian costume to add spice to one of their not-so-innocent escapades.
In Karen Wallace’s prequel Wendy the children also play a being Indians, in a less sexy but equally not-so-innocent way that reveals the possibilities of actual savagery in childhood play.
As John Darling and his friend Henry’s play cowboys and indians in a house in Edwardian London, “Henry’s cowboys shot [John’s] Indians before they even had time to grab their tomahawks. Then, to make things worse, the cowboys had scalped the Indians they had just killed, which left John looking completely hopeless” (58); Henry then goes on to threaten John with a heated poker. Henry’s sister Letitia is equally savage: “Among the spiky green leaves [of the plabnts in her front hall], Letitia had the look of a jungle animal. She had dark eyes and olive skin like her mother. Her black ringlets coiled like snakes over her shoulder and her clothes were like velvety tropical flowers” (37). Her otherness is both dangerously animal-like and associated with Indians: “That morning she had arranged to play Bloody Slaughter with her brother Henry, using all the cowboys and Indians in the toy box. Henry had made up the game and it was one of Letitia’s favourites. There was lots of scalping and killing.” As the novel progresses, Wendy must help this dangerous friend evolve past her animality–must, in effect, colonize the natives; and the implication is that the even less obviously harmful Picaninnies of Barrie’s story represent this Wendy’s even further defanging of Letitia and her brother’s savage dangerousness in the story of Neverland, which, readers learn at the end of this novel, this Wendy is about to imagine.
There are also pretend aboriginals in Muppet Peter Pan: the Hippen Groovees, a band of counter-cultural musicians who came to Neverland “to escape the squareness of the world.”
The novel cements their connection to Barrie’s original Indians by providing their village with a totem pole and tents and giving them pseduo-aboriginal names like Firecheeks Floyd, Zoot Runningmouth (who blows a mean sax), and He-Who-Runs-with-Sharks. When Wendy joins the Hippen Groovee band, Peter makes a surprisingly colonialist accusation of savagery: “”the Hippen Groovees are vicious hippies! They catch children and boil them into soup!!” But being anti-square like the Hippen Groovee band is an allowable aberration even in a world in which, Peter Pan, this story insists, needs to grow up, for they are only superficially aboriginal, their dangerous otherness only a skin-deep facade through which their muppet niceness shines.
In J.V. Hart’s prequel Capt. Hook, finally, it is the protagonist who takes on aboriginality, as a heroic response by a young Eton student to maltreatment by the establishment figures who look down on him because of his illegitimate birth. When they paint “James Matthew Bastard” on the wall of his room at Eton, “James wiped a long, tapered finger through ‘Bastard,’ then, looking in the mirror, smeared it carefully on his face just as the aborigines in Australia, the Africas, and the Americas customarily did before going into battle” (8). Later, when other boys start imitating James’s long black hair and the insufferably establishment-oriented Arthur Darling organizes the House Captains to denounce the “style of hair of women and pagans” (29), young James celebrates the paganism: “Right after chapel services one Friday, fifty-seven Oppidans gathered on the yard in front of the chapel, where . . . each boy’s head was anointed with shaving soap and skinned near-bald with a straight razor, leaving only a furrow of hair down the center of the scalp in the fashion of certain native tribes inhabiting the Americas. A new style was born” (29). In a conversation later in the novel, James’s unacknowledged father tells him, “Without discipline and laws and rules, we are no better than the savages” (188-89); but when James discovers the true nature of the civilization represented by his father, a transporter of African slaves to the colonies, he finds savagery preferable. Here as in The Child Thief, becoming savage is a positive response to colonialist oppression.
Even so, the savage characters that this Hook and Bram’s Peter become are still savage–violent, anti-social enough to be egocentric, self-indulgent, and self-seeking, and always more unregenerately childish than adult. They are, also, still identified with indigenous peoples. And so, once more, even in celebrating the positive potential in aboriginality for revolution against narrow-minded repression, these books maintain the stereotypes that oppose alien others to civilized rational maturity.
I seem to have concluded, then, that all the ways in which the texts I’ve considered include references to Indians is counter-productive. Building on Barrie’s redskins more or less as he describes them reinforces outmoded, offensive stereotypes. Including Indians but attempting to make them more authentic representations of indigenous people either founders on departures from authenticity or raises the issue of why real native people are appearing in a place that represents the unreal things children like to imagine. Leaving out the Redskins both blanks out significant history and represents a refusal to confront a knotty problem in the present. Finally, leaving them out but offering versions of the same stereotypes in costumes or children’s games preserves what one appears to be avoiding. Writers, it seems, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The problem emerges, I think, in the origin of the Picaninnies in the games that Barrie played with the Llewelyn-Davies boys. The Redskins were always imaginary, based on earlier misrepresentations and made even more exaggerated creatures of fantasy as Barrie and the boys improvised on them. At heart, they never had much more than a tenuous relationship with the real lives of native North Americans, and so any attempt either to engage their original playfulness or to avoid it is doomed to be problematic. It either inevitably confirms the unfortunate implications of the origin along with its playfulness or else ignores or attempts to go round those implications in ways that are untrue to the nature of the Neverland.
Finally, then, I conclude with a paradox: since it seems that any attempt to deal with natives in books that represent or build on the world of Peter Pan will inevitably raise issues for readers aware of the implications of their presence (or absence), the least dangerous depictions of aboriginals in the various worlds of Peter Pan are the ones that are most obviously offensive–the ones most playfully obvious about their exaggerated and unrealistic nature, and therefore, the ones most true to the original, most obviously distant from authentic aboriginality, and most unlikely therefore to be confused with it. But that, of course, avoids the issue of how such depictions might affect readers unaware of, or unwilling to accept the healthiness, of the obviousness of their misrepresentations.