Disney’s Racist History of Native American Caricatures

From Peter Pan to Pocahontas.

From left: Princess Tiger Lily, Indian Chief and Peter Pan as depicted in the 1953 film. ©Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection.

Disney has faced many controversies concerning the depictions of Native American characters in their media productions. The portrayal of Native Americans in children’s movies, specifically the Disney films Peter Pan (1953) and Pocahontas (1995) are not only stereotypical but also dehumanizing and often completely inaccurate.

Both Peter Pan and Pocahontas exploit Native American culture and deviate so far from reality that they undermined Native peoples and their unique cultures in the United States. Though very different in their inaccuracies, the two features have arguably convinced generations of Americans who grew up with the films that these illustrations of native culture are based in fact.

Children’s self-images are susceptible to external guidance and criticism, and are particularly influenced by Hollywood media products. Stereotypical and arguably racist content found in children’s films is especially damaging to children of all ethnic backgrounds.

Peter Pan epitomizes racist sentiments that plagued 20th century media. In this film, the Native Americans reside in Neverland with the mermaids, pixies, and other fantastical figures, demonstrating the white man’s dismissal of their very existence. Disney essentially treats them as caricatured marvels, depicting the Blackfoot Indians as red-skinned with sharp, angled noses, and black footprints.

Two of the white characters even use racial slurs in reference to the Indians. For example, Captain Hook says, “These Redskins know this island better than I know my own ship,” when reading his map of Neverland and trying to devise a plan to find Peter Pan’s hide-out. In essence, Captain Hook, who is a ship captain and symbolizes a European ‘explorer’ plans to exploit the natives in order to defeat his fellow white enemy.

John, Wendy and Michael’s brother, chants, “we are off to fight the Injuns because he [Peter Pan] told us so,” a statement that summarizes why white soldiers devastated native cultures: because someone of higher power told them to. He later refers to the Indians as “quite savage,” and explains “the Indian is cunning but less intelligent…” right before they are captured. These descriptions are common societal assumptions about Native Americans, even to this day.

Taking stereotypes to the level of racist description, the chief and the older women are ugly, fat, and some have missing teeth. The chief wears a headdress and is so abstracted that he hardly resembles a human. The natives speak in broken English and even use sign language as means of communication. They are also depicted participating in a variety of stereotypical behaviors such as drumming, chanting, living in Tee Pees, saying “how” to greet each other, and lastly using the “Indian call.”

From left: Pocahontas, John Smith and Grandmother Willow as depicted in the 1995 film. ©Walt Disney Pictures

Pocahontas reflects a shift in media portrayal of American Indians from racist and discriminatory falsehoods to romanticized distortions. Though Pocahontas does not contain overt racism like Peter Pan, the film falsely romanticizes the relationship between the Powhatan tribe and the early English settlers.

According to A.H. Itwaru, Pocahontas is depicted as an “Indian Princess [that is] maidenly, demure, and deeply committed to some white man,” when she mostly likely was either too young to play a dominant role in early English relations or possessed a politically important role “as an interpreter and ambassador of her tribe.” The concept of an “Indian Princess” is a status designation created by white imperialists, not Native American societies.

The specific historical facts of Pocahontas’ life are controversial and there are several debates concerning her age, her relations with John Smith, her loyalty to her tribe/to the Englishmen, and the conditions of her marriage to John Rolfe.

However, historians agree that Disney inaccurately illustrates Pocahontas as Irwaru also discusses the role of “grandmother-spirit willow tree,” arguing that her lines in the film were shaped by romanticized image most Americans have of early white and Indian relations.

Grandmother willow tells Pocahontas to pursue the “dashing Englishman” rather than the man her father has chosen for her, which Itwaru deems a “violation of indigenous knowledge and wisdom as well as the undermining of indigenous cultural custom.”

Very little is known about the religious practices of the Powhatan tribe, which makes the creation of a European-favoring spirit willow tree all the more demeaning.

The extremely offensive and degrading stereotypes incorporated into both Peter Pan and Pocahontas demonstrate the lack of sensitivity in American culture to American Indian culture. From the inclusion of simple generalizations to historical inaccuracies to the use of insulting racial slurs, the children’s movie industry is not exempt from the pervasive nature of the racism and xenophobia of Native Americans in the United States.

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