In recent weeks, social media erupted in outrage after it was announced that Warner Brothers had cast Rooney Mara, a non-Native actress, to play the part of Tiger Lily, a Native character, in a new adaptation of Peter Pan.
We’re all seen this scenario before. Since the dawn of film, non-Native actors and actresses have been perpetuating negative stereotypes of Natives by painting their faces red and appearing as embarrassing caricatures that promote Hollywood’s view of what American Indians are.
It’s so disappointing that this practice continues. There are plenty of qualified, talented Native thespians who are available to play Native characters. Sadly, movie makers continue to double down on white privilege, unwilling to give Natives and other people of color equal representation.
I understand the indignation. When will we have a voice in how we as Native peoples are portrayed? When will our demands for respect be heard?
But wait. Hold your horses. Instead of raising our smartphones in anger and filing petitions calling for Warner Brothers to boot Mara and replace her with a Native actress, let’s flip the script—literally. We don’t have to play their white-privilege game.
While little is known of Warner Brothers' new version of Peter Pan, the history of the story alone is enough to warrant apt circumspection by socially conscious Natives everywhere.
Like other movies featuring stereotypical Native characters, Peter Pan, in regards to American Indians, is flawed on its face. Based on the 1904 play authored by J.M. Barrie, Disney upped the racism ante by giving his feather and fringe costumed Indian princess Tiger Lily a "peace pipe"-toking father in actual redface who offered to “Teach ‘um Paleface brother all about Red Man,” accompanied by a big-nosed chorus of generic Indian braves who sang “What Makes the Red Man Red.” If that weren’t enough, a homely snaggle-toothed ‘squaw’ plays right into patriarchy when she tells Wendy, “No dance,” that she must gather wood instead. The fact that these monstrous, bigoted, negative depictions of Natives continue to be force fed to the minds of highly impressionable children is unacceptable. They’re being brainwashed; conditioned to embrace white privilege and the racist system they’ve been born into.
We’re right in refusing to accept a whitewashed world. Our children need to see role models who look like them, not just lily white ones. Also, studies have shown that redface is harmful to the mental and emotionally well-being of Native children. Yet at the same time, are we as Native adults setting a good example for the next generation when we put Native actors and actresses in the position of playing to Hollywood’s stereotypes of who we are?
It’s time we stop dancing to their tune. We don’t have to play into their lies. No more one little, two little, three little Indians. We have the tools and talent necessary to tell our own stories, with our own voices. We have the power, and are the most qualified, to show the world who we are as Natives.
We’ve all enjoyed the films of Chris Eyre, like Smoke Signals, Skins, and Skinwalkers. Well, he’s not alone. We’re in the midst of a Native filmmaking explosion. Sterlin Harjo’s third feature film This May Be the Last Time premiered at the last Sundance Film Festival, and will be coming to a television screen near you. If you haven’t already, you’ve got to watch the clever short film Universal VIP directed by Gyasi Ross and Ken White, starring Tatanka Means as the Creator. Sydney Freeland’s movie Drunktown’s Finest is destined to become a cult classic. Other Native made films are being produced all the time.
Given the way Native women are disproportionately fetishized and stereotyped by pop culture and Hollywood, we have an obligation to bring attention to Native women in filmmaking. Here are just a few. Elle-Maija Tailfeathers (writer, director) created an empowered female character who fights against male perpetrators in A Red Girl’s Reasoning. Melissa Henry (writer, director) is preserving the Navajo Dine language through her films Horses You See and Red Run Walk. Ramona Emerson (owner of Reel Indian Pictures) focuses on contemporary Native documentaries and narratives. Georgina Lightning (writer, producer, director) created Older Than America, about the boarding school system. Missy Whiteman (owner of Independent Indigenous Film and Media) is in pre-production of Coyote Way Trilogy. Jennifer Akana Sturla (writer, director) is working on a documentary called Somewhere Over the Rainbow, about Indigenous Hawaiian depiction, representation, and participation in mainstream media. Cinnamon Spears (writer, director) made a documentary called Pride & Basketball that’s currently available for purchase. Pamela J. Peters (writer, producer, photojournalist) made Legacy of Exiled NDNz to educate society about the origins of American Indians living in Los Angeles, while also dispelling stereotypes about Natives that pervade mainstream media. I commend all of these ladies and others I haven’t mentioned for making honest Native perspectives available to the public through film.
It’s time for us to stop letting mainstream media and society spread misinformation about us. They don’t know who we are, but we do. The best way to fight stereotypes, mascots, and cultural appropriation is to take back control of our identity. Let racial divisive myths like Peter Pan’s rendition of Tiger Lily die and replace it will the truth, one that we alone can tell.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.