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Disney: Fantasy American History

A column by Dan Jones about Disney.
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At Walt Disney World you can have the world at your convenience, cultures of the world with many native cultures from abroad. At Epcot Center you can have the American experience of history with one exception: contemporary American Indians. The view they present of American Indians shows the lack of understanding prevalent in mainstream American society.

I first went to work at Disney in Imagineering. The Disney America project was to be a giant theme park in Virginia located near the old Manassas battlefield. The new theme park was to tell American History as only Disney could. We hardly got started before an outcry began from scholars, historians and academics. They argued that Disney, given its history with American and world history, had no damn business in the American history business!

This project started in the early 1990s and was canceled in 1994. At first, we were free to use any research or source and as many books by as many authors on American Indian history as we wanted. We could bring in consultants, so we started with Indians like Scott Momaday (Kiowa); Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek); and many others. Michael Cywink (Anishinabe) and Dr. John Pohl, were on staff. Dr Pohl is one of the leading authorities on Mesoamerican culture. When we had finished the storyboards to show the concepts we were working on, we brought in Michael Haney (Muscogee Creek) of the American Indian Movement for his opinion. We wanted this to be something special, something all American Indians would be proud of.

Even though the critics had never seen our designs, our historically correct works were cast into the lot with the rest and shut down. Our project was caught in Disney’s well deserved reputation as a purveyor of culturally inadequate and historically misaligned interpretations. Disney is not what you think it is. It's not about building something to educate your children; it preys on your children to get into your pockets, which is a great American shame. We scream about American Indian studies or history being a part of the American school system, but it’s not even in the mainstream. They say history belongs to the victor but that’s just not true—history belongs to the future so we collectively can build a greater union, to learn from the mistakes of the past. It’s a deliberate and shameful thing Disney has done to history and more pointedly to a whole people, namely American Indians. Without our participation, Disney will always be a hollow experience.

One day we were notified that a Japanese team from Tokyo Disney was in our shop; they had heard what we were doing and wanted to talk with us. We met with them through an interrupter. They explained to us that recent visitors from America had complained that the Indian portion of their river ride was offensive. They had 8x10 photos of the Indian automatons and the exhibits they were in. Michael Cywink (Anishinabe) and I poured over the photos. We noticed the regalia was sloppy. We tried to identify the tribe, but it was a hodgepodge. What was most offensive was what the Indians were doing: dragging a white woman off into the woods, while another group burned the house with occupants still inside. So we told the Japanese team that yes, some Indians may be offended by these things. The regalia was one point, but mainly this is only one side of a story. Indians were not the antagonists in every situation; there were atrocities carried out by both sides in war. We suggested some changes and some research they needed to make it fair and more historically correct so it would be educational as well. We didn’t think much more about it after they left. Until another Imagineer who had been listening made the comment, “That’s the same ride we have at Anaheim.” Cywink and I had the same expression, that blank look. “Yeah, same thing!” he echoed.

Cywink and I got on the phone and made arrangements with security at Disneyland in Anaheim to visit the exhibit. So we cleared the visit with Imagineering. When we arrive at Disneyland, security escorted us through the back lot to the river ride. The first person we met outside the ride was a man in suit, who immediately informed us that the ride had been closed down. We told him all we wanted to do is see the Indian exhibit and that the ride didn’t need to be operating. Nope, no way—the ride was shut down! Cy told the guy it was working an hour ago when we called. His only response was, “It happens.” That was a major disappointment, when reality hits you in the head like a sack of bricks. So what the hell was this all about? To this day I have no clue. Disney America was shut down in 1994 and all our work was packed away to Disney archives.

In 1997, Disney, after the fray had settled down, restarted the Disney America Project. We didn’t get a call back. No Indians did. Disney had decided to use their non-Indian Imagineers to develop the new Indian section. They beefed up the river ride with one side of the story and with the shabbily dressed Indians attacking the white women. Disney failed again and their 1997 Disney America was shut down again, which was just as well for American Indians. Disney learned nothing about us from our efforts.

At best all I can say is, boycott Disney, all of it. Not just American Indians, but the millions of our allies as well. With so little on American Indians at Disney, it would be a disappointing trip for the young America Indian family that wakes up one morning, looks at one another and says, "Honey grab the kids, we’re going to Disney World!”

Dan (SaSuWeh) Jones is the former chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. He is a filmmaker and former vice chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, appointed by former Oklahoma Governor, Brad Henry.