Pretendians, Peter Pan and How Native Americans Deserve Better Than ....Basically All of It

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Melody Nicolette

Happy New Year, OnStage Blog Family! We are embarking on a new ongoing series for OnStage Blog about all the different ways representation matters. This series will not only cover representation in theatre, but the overlap between theatre, film, animation and other forms of media, and their social responsibilities. Some of the folks and topics we’ll be discussing are Joaquin Garay, Coco, Nick Stewart and the Ebony Showcase Theatre, Anna May Wong, and many, many many others. If there are some you feel we should know about, and somehow missed, please let us know! This series has been a labour of love.

Content Warning: mention of physical and sexual violence (against children), racism, genocide, forced sterilization, forced separation of parents from their children, and occasional bad language. (Not really here for respectability politics, but I guarantee you, someone is going to complain about and be more upset by  the f-word than they are about murdered and missing Indigenous woman and girls, but I digress.)

Oh, The Fantasticks. You miserable, outdated, charmless relic, rife with a bumper crop of rape “jokes,” ableism and horrifying racial stereotypes that would make a sane person want to dive under their seat in fremdschämen. In the Year of Our Lord 2018, someone thought it would be a genius idea to invite a group of 40 high school age Native students to a performance of The Fantasticks at the University of Wyoming...and NOT warn them.

Ho.ly.shit.

I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to subject 40 high school Native students to horrifying racial stereotypes of themselves as an incentive to get them to go to their university. I don’t know why, given the history of Wyoming, how Fort Laramie (not the same location, mind you) was literally the epicentre of the “Indian Wars,” and the fact that Wyoming is just now starting to put policies in place to protect Native American graves, someone thought this would be a good idea.

Ho.ly.shit.

This, my gentlepeeps, is textbook cognitive dissonance, and, boy, is it staggering.

Very politely, all 40 Native students got up and walked out of the production at intermission.

Predictably begin the castigations of these young Native people as being “too sensitive.” If only these folks knew just how remarkable it was for these 40 to even look at different colleges, despite being willfully left behind by the education system.  It’s not like these high school students are the first to decry this show. In fact, people have been screaming about for years. Why it continues to be marketed as a “sunny” “family show” is mindblowing.

I love (“love”) that the people who couldn’t survive 5 minutes in the life of an actual Native person always claim that we are “too sensitive,” “easily offended,” --you get the idea.

I’ve never understood this idea that Native people (or any marginalized person, for that matter) are some sort of fragile whiners. That’s such a bizarre thing to say to those who still face forced sterilization, are treated as unwelcome foreign entities in their ancestral homelands, have no real religious freedom, don’t hold complete rights to their dead, go murdered and or missing with no recourse or justice, suffer intergenerational trauma, are having their newborns stolen from them, subject to toxic colonialism and forced removals, and  hold  a special legal status that makes us little more than the National Fauna™. It’s been repeatedly demonstrated and proven that continued exposure to racism and racial traumas  directly cause lasting impacts on psychological or physiological health.

This isn’t a pity party. We don’t need you feel sorry for us. We’re just trying to let you know you probably don’t comprehend just how bad it is. Maybe it can help you make a more informed decision.  

(Yes, I’ll be opting to use examples from the US and Canada, as well as Latin America. Not only do the US and Canada hold similar, congruent Native policies, but it’s all Turtle Island ….and the colonial borders are imaginary anyway. I’ll also be interchangeably using American Indian, Native, Native American and First Nations.)

I’ve spent my entire life as a Native person. Not someone with an imaginary “Cherokee” “Indian Princess” grandmother (who is always a grandmother, usually Cherokee, and almost always with some bullshit “Indian name”). Not someone who was “an Indian in a past life,” or someone who wishes that they were Native and has their house filled chockablock with kitschy roadside stop “Indian” chuchería all over their walls. Certainly not as someone who can divorce themselves in anyway from the lasting impacts of colonization and intergenerational trauma. Most certainly not as someone who wasn’t made acutely aware of the fact that “kids like [me] just don’t do well in school,” or that my father was “a drunk Indian,” and “that’s just how they are.”

I am First Nations Abenaki (Alnôbak) and Nahuatl of México (Deeeeeyyy Efffff Ayyyyyyy). Being Native informs the way that I conduct my life. It’s a huge responsibility to be a living manifestation of survival. I do not consider myself to be “mixed,” because I am not a drink or a dog. I am a whole person made up of many things, and I am 100% all of those things. The Abenaki are not federally recognized in the United States, but they are in Canada. Most of the Indigenous peoples of Latin America have no “status” because of the Spanish “style” of colonization (forced assimilation through compulsory absorption and declaration as Spanish citizens/ property vs. treating them like foreigners in their own lands to eradicate….not that either one of these is better than the other because colonization just sucks and no one wins). My lack of a tribal ID card doesn’t make me any less Native. My lack of approval from a colonial government does not inform my identity; I don’t care.

I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been Native, how much farther I would be right now, how I wouldn’t be held back, or held myself back in fear, or had more opportunities. We, like other marginalized peoples, have to fight so much harder than some of our peers for much less. Then, I realized last year that in the case of my late former classmate and treasured friend, Jessica, that it didn’t matter if we “made it” or not. Doing all the right things or working hard or defying the odds would ultimately not save us from being Native, and everything that comes with that. Or even with Misty Upham, who was a famous Native woman, who had  just starred in a glamourous Hollywood blockbuster before her death proved to all of us that not even fame or playing opposite Meryl Streep was enough to keep her from becoming a #MMIW statistic.

But, you know, then again, the feelings of Pretendians supercede the needs, rights and voices of actual Native people, people who live with the daily consequences of being Native. Sure. I guess. Native people are still relegated to invisibility while these celebrities claiming to be Native and doing nothing for actual Native people are not.

That exposition all out of the way, let’s get back to The Fantasticks. (That was necessary, I promise.)

The Fantasticks is just one of countless depictions in media that dehumanizes Native people. When we try to explain why these depictions are so detrimental to us, we are met with staunch resistance and excuses. There are those who will have read the above exposition and still think the students politely refusing to tolerate their dehumanization as “overreacting.”  Again, cognitive dissonance is one hell of a drug.

It doesn’t matter that The Fantasticks debuted in 1960, because it was disgusting then, and it’s disgusting now. I’ve heard the music is great, apparently. I don’t know if that’s enough to save such witty lyrics as “You can get the rape with Indians:/ A very charming sight.” It doesn’t matter if it is “supposed to be” the “traditional literary sense” of "abduction" (to which I wholly call bullshit), rape means rape. Anyone can tell that it very well doesn’t actually mean “abduction.” The stereotypes of the rapist Latino and Indian to this day have very serious real life consequences, made all the most horrifying when you note the disproportionate rate at which Native women are raped and murdered by non-Native men. It doesn’t matter that it is “art” and not “real life,”  because it cannot divorce itself from historical and contemporary context. Native and Latinx people cannot simply say that they are “art” and remove themselves from their conditions and reality.

Productions of The Fantasticks legally require Redface and the use of “war bonnets” as part of the MTI licensing. When the show debuted in the 1960’s, religious and ceremonial regalia, such as headdresses, were still against the law. In one of its earlier testrun incarnations, it featured an Apache “half breed” with an American West backdrop. El Gallo is undeniably originally a Mexican character.

Here’s the thing: it’s not that Native people, or, anyone else, really, are “too sensitive.”  We don’t not have a sense of humour. In fact, Native people consider humour to be sacred because it’s how we’ve survived 500 years of colonization. If you’ve ever seen anything by the 1491s, or read The Walking Eagle,  it’s pretty obvious we’re super funny people with a really irreverent sense of humour. The problem isn’t that we have no sense of humour or are “easily offended.”

Take Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson*.  We “get” what you’re trying to do; but it’s at our expense. Andrew Jackson was not a “product of his time,” he was a monster. Being set in a “historical context” doesn’t divorce it from modern day understanding and implications of racism, and that excuse is cheap, lazy, and cowardly. Redface just isn’t funny. The insinuations of the show aren’t funny. Calling it “art,” “parody,” “satire,” “pastiche,”--whatever doesn’t absolve it from its racist implications. The authors’ inability to do these things correctly or effectively doesn’t mean that Native people “don’t get it,” or that we “don’t understand humour.” (*The creatives of Andrew Jackson went after targeted minorities they knew they could “get away with.” However, this author would like to make it known the inclusion of this link was not to pit minorities against each other, or to perpetuate an imaginary hierarchy of minorities, but to demonstrate just how relegated to invisibility Native people are. Under no circumstances would this author perpetuate anti-semitism or anti-Blackness just to “win” the Oppression Olympics; there are no winners, and the false hierarchy is designed to keep us seperated. I am, however, not 100% convinced that the creative team of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson hadn’t considered Blackface as a “viable” “comedy” “option” at one point.)

Our ongoing genocide isn’t a joke. We cannot divorce ourselves from our history. We cannot divorce ourselves from the consequences of those actions.

One of the other problems of the making jokes at our expense, aside from the fact  that they play on dangerous tropes that get our people killed on a regular basis, is that they just aren’t funny. You’re essentially an edgelord with a budget, and you know it. I know that it is shocking to some people that their cheap mediocrity isn’t always met with applause and lauded with praise. It’s not that we “don’t get it.” We do. It just sucks.  “Art” isn’t an excuse or a shield from criticism. Calling something “art” doesn’t automatically make it “art,” or absolve it from its flaws. Sometimes the Emperor has no clothes, and you just have to accept that the mileage on what you have made may vary. Not everyone thinks you’re the genius that you do. Yes, we get that The Fantasticks was intended to be “experimental theatre;” sometimes “experiments” fail.

I am not saying that we have to neuter all artistic expression, but maybe we could actually, oh, I don’t know, execute it effectively? Actually make shit that’s funny, and not at the expense  of some of the most marginalized and vulnerable people there are? Just a thought.

What other  Broadway works do Native people have to look to for representation, given that we know all other forms of media representation leave more than enough to be desired?

Y.i.k.e.s.

There are no Native people in HAMILTON, and  the show is basically built on our erasure. (We’ll be covering more of that at a later date.) There’s August: Osage County, featuring Johanna “the help” and the “magical Injun,” who exists solely as an accessory to non-Native protagonists. Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake is a “role” in Annie, Get Your Gun, along with several other “braves.” I don’t know if the removal of “I’m An Indian, Too” could be enough to save it. L’il Abner has ‘entrepreneur’ Lonesome Polecat of the “Fried Dog Indian tribe.” There’s an opera based on the life and martyrdom of Métis revolutionary, Louis Riel, aptly, though perhaps unimaginatively, named thus. It has a history of being problematic, but has been reworked to a reflect changes in values, understanding of history, and Native involvement. This is a step up from Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, which features  roles for “Jackrabbit” and his “Squaw.” The 1940’s Sleepy Hollow musical has an “Indian” listed as one of the characters, with a track for an “understudy” “Indian.” The scenic design apparently won a Tony Award. Huh.

There are probably more that I’ve missed, all of which I assume to be more cringe-worthy than the next.

Which, naturally, brings us to everyone’s favourite trainwreck, Peter Pan (in all of its incarnations), the enduring classic tale of a spoiled, tyrannical little shit who refuses to grow up, and ditches his ride-or-die, Tinker Bell, for some girl he’s been stalking*--and we haven’t even gotten to “the Indians” yet.

(*In different incarnations of the story, Peter’s interest in Wendy varies from mother figure to love interest….yeah, either way, none of  this is looking particularly great.)

People love to criticize the Disney version, and rightfully so, but its source material is just rotten to the core.

Let’s start off with the fact that the “tribe” of “Indians” is the ““Piccaninnies.” which is a racial slur against African American children, particularly dark-skinned children.

Peter Pan remains a fixture of childhoods all over the world, and it’s a theatre darling (all puns intended). The anti-Native racism in Peter Pan is somehow forgotten (willfully, I suspect) in favour of its evocation of “nostalgia” and “magic.” Peter Pan serves as a particular problem, for both its prominence in popular culture and heavy sentimentality attached to it, it is one of  the major depictions of Native people (and probably one of the worst ones). Sadly, this is probably the touchstone for what people think of when they think of “Indians” (well, that and John Wayne movies).

It’s ripe territory for whitewashing (in many of the stage productions, Mother Darling and Tiger Lilly are played by the same actress). Even in 2015, it was still deemed permissible and acceptable that Rooney Mara could play Tiger Lily; the jury is out on whether or not it would have better or worse to have an actual Native actress play Tiger Lily. Mara is apparently “sorry”  for perpetuating the hypersexualization of Native women and girls (can’t say I’m particularly sympathetic for stress over the backlash she received). Peter Pan might be too far gone down the racist rabbit hole to be saved, even by casting  actual Native people. Peter Pan Live! had a “Native Actress” play Tiger Lily. How much better is it to have one of our own stuck playing irredeemable stereotypes?

None of these stereotypes exist in a vacuum. “Historical context” is important, so I am told--- I guess that’s supposed to “excuse” the historical racism in Peter Pan. Historical context, I would argue, is incredibly important. What was happening to Native people at this time perfectly reflects why they are written in Peter Pan the way that they are (and why that is even more fucked up): Native people around the year 1900, the height of the eugenics movement, and at their historically lowest population point, were not citizens of the US or Canada,  were confined to “reservation” death camps, were not allowed to practice their traditions or religions outside of  performances in ‘Wild West’ shows, had their children stolen and sent to compulsory “boarding schools” (where they were not only brutalized to strip them of their traditional languages and religions, but were subject to physical and sexual violence, and murder, only to be taught skills that would only insure they would stay in subservient roles in society).  It’s why they’re on an island with fairies, pirates, and mermaids in Peter Pan--because we had been confined to the past, and were figures of fantasy--because of genocide. It’s during this period we see the height of the usage of the “common” expression “off the reservation” is not a phrase that’s somehow guiltlessly embedded in the American vernacular. It was historically a death sentence, in which a non-citizen, non-human animal was deemed “feral” and could be shot to death on sight.

So, frankly, no, we don’t care about whatever personal crisis befalling J.M. Barry at this time, or why we had to be part of his escapist fantasy. We were... kinda busy. (It is also fascinating to see how J. M. Barry’s personal troubles are met with more empathy than Native people’s systematic extermination, but okay).

Historical context is also important when talking about The Fantasticks. At the time The Fantasticks was written, many Native people had lost their sovereignty status and were forced into urban areas because of the Termination policies. Again, they were relegated to invisibility and erasure, shortly before the rise of the American Indian Movement and the occupation of Alcatraz. In 1960, Native people were a cheap an easy target with no political power.

What is the counterpoint to pieces like these?

Things are changing. We need more Native American theatre. It’s time for our stories to make it to Broadway, and beyond. There is a Native Theatre Movement. There’s actually lots of Native theatre (if you know how to Google). Events like the Indigenous Women Playwrights series are a wonderful start. The Spiderwoman Theatre in Brooklyn is wonderful. Works such as Flight of The Army Worm work hard to combat stereotypes. Zitkála-Šá fought bigotry on Broadway at a time when no one could have thought it possible with the first American Indian opera. There’s also Mary Frances Thompson, better known as Te Ata. They’ve even made a movie about her prestigious performances all over the world.

We have Native theatre; we just need more of it. We’ve always had it, from our sacred oral histories and stories, Ceremonies, and to more modern anthologies. Our Ceremonies have always been theatre; they just didn’t (don’t) have the prestige of Eurocentric epistemologies. We are born storytellers. We are born singers. We are born dancers. We are born musicians. Our histories, our Codetalkers, the steelworkers who built Manhattan, Jim Thorpe, Joe Medicine Crow, Annie Mae Aquash, Bishop Donald Pelotte, Mabel McKay, Lozen, and so many, many others need to be told. Native people need to be able to tell Native stories, because we have the knowledge to tell these stories based on nuance, respect, and reality, and not rooted in the American mythos, stereotypes and misinformation.

We, as Native people, just like everyone else, deserve to have our stories told in a major way, through major platforms. My concern is the commercialization of our sacred songs, stories, histories, and languages by non-Native people (which, yes, is a huge issue), as well as the limitations Native people who are not from federally recognized tribes face making ‘Native’ art. It is important that our stories be told in our way, in The Good Way, but what would something like a multimillion dollar show force us to sacrifice by doing it? Can there be a balance between The Powers That Be wanting their profits and the necessity of our stories being told? Is the world ready for something beyond Cowboys and Indians, Magical Injun Friends and POC Pain Porn? How can we deal with MTI licencing our shows out with the inevitability of Redface? Why should we be obligated to share, expose and subject what little we do have left for mass consumption? How do we deal with frauds such as Pretendians and people with imaginary Indian Princess Grandmothers trying to invade productions?

I am afraid I don’t have answers to those questions, but I can leave you with this: Tôwdanna klôgan.

Tôwdanna klôgan to works like Distant Thunder.

We’ll also be covering Indigenous influence on Chincanx and Latinx drama at a later date!

To close up, let’s preemptively answer some inevitable questions from listen-to-argue Keyboard Warriors:

Why can’t it go back to being innocent kids’ stuff? It never was just innocent kids stuff. And what about our children? Why does your child getting to enjoy something supercede the basic human dignity of Native children?

What happens if I was in The Fantasticks or Peter Pan’s Flight is my favourite attraction at the Disney parks?! Maybe you didn’t know before, and now you do. I don’t understand why people have such a hard time being able to think critically of things they enjoy. I’m not trying to be a Ruining Ruiner here. I’m just trying to get you to think critically of the things you consume or participate in.

Why don’t you just make your own media? Well, we do (see above). We just don’t have the visibility of the multibillion dollar financial backing of the mainstream media. One of the few nice things about social media is that, for the first time in our modern history, Native people have found that platforms like Twitter and Instagram give equal(-ish) footing and a voice that reaches lots and lots of people. This idea that “no one was complaining about this before!” just simply isn’t true. We just now finally have a way to get people to listen to us.

Don’t you have anything else to worry about? Friend, we can be annoyed and upset and hurt by multiple things.You might not be able to multitask, but we can. With the onslaught of constant and continuous bullshit we have flying at us on a regular basis, we’re actually quite deft at maneuvering. Also, all of this stuff is interrelated. All of the minor things inform and uphold the larger ones and serve as bricks in the Anti-Native Racism Pyramid. Indian head mascots (a history that is so insidious, it is beyond defense), NAGPRA, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, “What Made the Red Man Red?,” toxic colonialism and your obsession with cheap ass chuchería “dreamcatchers” (someone please explain this shit to me) all support and uphold the same thing: the relegation to invisibility, while the imaginary, fanciful images of Native people dominate, enforce the dehumanization of Native people.

What about XYZ group? Yes, historically many have faced and still face oppression and marginalization. Trying to use other marginalized people you don’t really give a shit about either as an example doesn’t actually prove any point. This is especially true for Americans of certain ethnicities multiple generations removed, like the Scots or the Irish, who no longer face systemic oppression in the US. Somehow they claim that other minorities are “whining.” Meanwhile, Scotland and Ireland are still dealing with the lasting effects of English imperialism. The Irish of Ireland have repeatedly denounced American Irish racism in their name.

My great-great-great Grandmother, Singing Flower Mourning Dove, was a Cherokee Princess, and I’M not offended! That’s not actually a question, but there are a lot of issues with that statement. You’re (probably) not actually Native, not even remotely. “Indian Princesses” didn’t actually exist, to start with. Somehow claiming to have Indigenous ancestry does not excuse or justify your bigotry.

(And, before you ask, Pocahontas does not fucking belong on Broadway, or anywhere else, other than the trash bin.)

Some Further Reading (in no particular order):

Forgotten Women: The conversation of murdered and missing native women is not one North America wants to have - but it must

MURDERED AND MISSING NATIVE AMERICAN WOMEN CHALLENGE POLICE AND COURTS

The crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women

Ending Violence Against Native Women

No Religious Freedom for Traditional Native Religions

#NotInvisible: Why are Native American women vanishing?

Native Perspectives on the 40th Anniversary of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act

What Is The Status Of The Abenaki Native Americans In Vermont Today?

Joseph Boyden’s Apology and the Strange History of ‘Pretendians

My Native identity isn't your plaything. Stop with the mascots and 'pocahotties'

Why does the language of journalism fail indigenous people?

Missing: The Documentary – Bringing Awareness to #MMIW

Reel Injun (PBS Special)

The real history of Native American team names

The 2,128 Native American Mascots People Aren’t Talking About
How 'Indian' Mascots Oppress

Staging Race in a “Post-Racial” Age: Contemporary Collaborations Between Mainstream and Culturally Specific Theatres in the United States

TRAIL OF SNEERS Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: A NoDef Theatre Review

American Indians in Children’s Literature  (this is a wonderful resource for parents, teachers, librarians and other educators)

Native American Theater: A Concise History

Spiderwoman Theatre  

21 things you can do to be more respectful of Native American cultures

A Native Comes to Broadway (an interview with the actress who played Johanna in August: Osage County)

A List of Native Theatres and Theatremakers :Resources, institutions, and more than 100 artists spanning North America.

Please Don’t Commodify My Culture