Challenging Stereotypes in 'Peter Pan'

I was putting my 6-year-old son to bed recently when he excitedly announced that he was going to be in the school play. “Peter Pan,” he said.

I was putting my 6-year-old son to bed recently when he excitedly announced that he was going to be in the school play.

“Peter Pan,” he said.

My blood went cold. How could my son be in a play without my knowledge, especially one I dislike so much? It’s not only the sexism of the story that I despise so much, but the racism towards native people. Fearing that he was playing an “Indian,” I asked my son what he would be.

“A merman,” he smiled. “And I have a fancy costume.”

A boy in a merman outfit I could handle, but I really didn’t want him to be in this play at all. I am Native American. Alaskan Native to be more precise. I am Haida. I am Raven moiety, Brown Bear Clan.

My son is proud to be native, but he is continually confused by the ongoing racism and misrepresentation we experience daily. He is beginning to understand stereotypes and how they don’t fit with his view of native people. 

My concern was not only for my son, but also with the rest of the children. They absorb the prejudices that surround them. Adults need to be aware that silence perpetuates biases. This play reinforces stereotypes already abundant in our culture. 

Native Americans are characterized, marginalized, counted in number books (see Ten Little Rabbits by Virginia Grossman), depicted with incorrect images, and otherwise represented in hurtful, derogatory ways. Growing up in America, we are bombarded with images, toys, and stereotypes.

Stereotypes surround us and we, as a native culture, become invisible. Only the stereotype remains. Think of the hundreds of images surrounding native people like sports teams, car brands, cigarettes, etc.) What’s missing is the honor for and the context of a culture rich in traditions.

I emailed the school about my concerns. I asked if there were to be props such as tomahawks and feather headdresses. I wondered if the children would use the Hollywood “war cry.” The response was yes to everything.

I asked to see the script. After reading the line when the Indians say to Peter, “You are our Great White Father,” I wanted to burn it. Do we really want to teach our children that native people are subservient to whites?

Although I couldn’t stop the play, I did open some eyes.

The school responded. They added a scene in the beginning to explain that the story was written 100 years ago by J.M. Barrie, who never actually visited America. He wrote a completely fictional story about completely fictional humans. 

The line about the white father was changed to “Great White Feather.”  The headdress and tomahawks were taken out. The children playing Indians wore nondescript brown tunics with the school logo painted on the back, creating a kind of “tribe” of the school. 

My son went on stage as a merman, although we had many conversations about stereotypes. The families enjoyed the production, and while I hope the school tosses out this script, perhaps including more resources will be a good start.

Bliss teaches at Sierra College and lives in California.

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