The Racist History of Peter Pan’s Indian Tribe

Even in the early 20th century, though, critics saw Tiger Lily and her fellow “Picaninnies” as caricatures

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

When Peter Pan opened in 1904, it was an instant hit, "from beginning to end a thing of pure delight," wrote The Times of London that December. Part of that delight was Neverland—a place where all the imaginings of the Darling children came to life.

Peter Pan's creator, J.M. Barrie, described Neverland as an island of "coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers...and one very small old lady with a hooked nose." This was the cast of characters that populated turn-of-the-century playtime in Britain, and in the play, as one New York Times reviewer wrote in 1905, "Mr. Barrie presents not the pirate or Indian of grown-up fiction but the creations seen by childish eyes."

In practice, that meant portraying the fierce tribe that lives on Neverland in a way that even in the early 20th-century looked like a caricature. As The Times of London wrote:

"...the Never-Never-Land is peopled by Red Indians and Pirates, who lose no time in showing us that they know how to 'behave as sich.' [sic] The Red Indians always lay their ear to the ground, then give vent to unearthly yells, and prepare for scalping somebody—a Pirate, for choice."

At the time, this portrayal wasn't controversial. But while much of Barrie's original work is just as delightful today as 110 years ago, Tiger Lily and her tribe have become a problem for contemporary productions. There's no real reason for a tribe of Native Americans —"not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons," Barrie wrote—to live on Neverland, where they are impossible to excise from the story. But it's almost as impossible to depict them in a way that's not offensive.

In the play, Peter refers to the tribe as "piccaninny warriors," and in Peter & Wendy (Barrie's book-long adaptation of the story, published in 1911), they are introduced as the "Piccaninny tribe"—a blanket stand-in for "others" of all stripes, from Aboriginal populations in Australia to descendants of slaves in the United States. Barrie's tribespeople communicate in pidgin; the braves have lines like "Ugh, ugh, wah!" Tiger Lily is slightly more loquacious; she'll say things like "Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him." They call Peter "the great white father"—the name that Barrie had originally chosen for the entire play. A tom-tom pounded in victory is a key plot point.

"It was a popular fantasy trope," says Anne Hiebert Alton, a professor of English at Central Michigan University and the editor of a scholarly edition of Peter Pan. "Barrie was telling the story in the very early 1900s, and so part of it, I think, was: this was a good story, this'll stage well. He was very Victorian—and that's the age when British people were still proud to brag that the sun never set on the British empire."

Peter Pan grew from Barrie's relationship with a family of boys, the Llewelyn Davies brothers, and the games they used to play. In the biography J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, the writer and filmmaker Andrew Birkin suggests that theirs was "a world of pirates, Indians and 'wrecked islands'"—a sort of mish-mash of Victorian adventure stories. Barrie likely would have been influenced by James Fenimore Cooper's stories, Alton says; he also loved "penny dreadfuls"—trashy adventure novels. Birkin writes that one book in particular, The Coral Island, provided the outline for the adventures that Barrie created for the Llewelyn Davies boys. The book does have "natives" in it: shipwrecked on an island, the white heroes come upon two groups of native people, one in pursuit of another. When they see the pursuers threaten to kill a woman and her children, the heroes come to the rescue; they befriend the tribe they've saved and, in particular, the chief's beautiful daughter. It's not so unlike how Peter and Tiger Lily become friends—when he saves her from doom at the hands of Captain Hook's pirates.  

However the tribe ended up in Peter Pan, Barrie's work has not been scrutinized as closely as the portrayals of native people in children's books written a generation later—Mary Poppins, for instance, or A Little House on the Prairie—which were subject to more serious criticism, both popular and academic.

First written in 1934 (more than 20 years after Barrie published Peter & Wendy), Mary Poppins included a chapter in which the famous nanny takes her charges to visit the four points of the compass, where they meet, in author P.L. Travers' words, "a mandarin in the East, an Indian in the West, an Eskimo in the North, and blacks in the South who speak in a pickaninny language." By the 1980s, this chapter was considered so objectionable that the San Francisco public library took the book off the shelves; Travers rewrote the chapter to feature "a panda, dolphin, polar bear, and macaw."

Some books were so obviously offensive that they were altered almost immediately: Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None was first published in Britain in 1935 as Ten Little Niggers. The title was changed in 1940, for the first American edition. And while Laura Ingalls Wilder’s A Little House on the Prairie, first published in 1935, has never been revised, there's an extensive body of scholarly criticism examining the portrayal of the Osage people the Ingalls family encounters as a frightening "other."

By contrast, Peter Pan has gotten off rather lightly. Occasionally the play's content derails a performance—in 1994, one Long Island school canceled a planned production— but there's little critical academic work focused on the tribe that Barrie created. And the original text still stands unrevised.

"Peter Pan is really weird in this sense, because it's protected," Alton says. Barrie gifted the copyright to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, in London, and when the copyright expired in 1987, the British Parliament passed a special extension that gave the hospital the rights to receive royalties from stage productions, radio broadcasts, e-books and other adaptations, in perpetuity.

For years, the hospital kept tight control over who used Peter Pan and how. "Nobody could touch it," Alton says. In the United Kingdom, anyone adapting the story or anyone performing it—even schools—still has to apply to the hospital for a license.

The earlier adaptations that were approved, though, did not do much to update Barrie's portrayal of native people. If anything, the 1953 Disney movie doubled-down on racial stereotypes; one of the film's songs is "What Made the Red Man Red."

Disney's Peter Pan - What Makes The Red Man Red ?

The heralded 1954 musical (with a completely different song list from the Disney movie) still had the tribe running around the stage saying "Ugga-wugga-wigwam." "Sondra Lee, as Tiger Lily, the Indian maid, is uproarious," Brooks Atkinson, then nearing the end of his long term as the New York Times' theater critic, wrote. "She dances and acts a sort of gutter Indian with a city accent that is mocking and comical." The 1960 televised version of the musical became a stalwart of NBC's programming for decades to come.

Best Of Peter Pan-Indians

More recently, though, directors who take on Peter Pan have tried to update these ideas, a tiny bit. Hook, the 1991 Robert Zemeckis movie, leaves the tribe out altogether. When the British director Tim Carroll staged Peter Pan for the Stratford Festival in 2010, he turned the tribe into Amazons.

"The role of the Indians in the play is to be both exotic and a bit savage," he wrote in an email. "But the use of the term (and the stereotyped language) could only cause offense to a North American audience. It seemed to me that 'Amazons' was a neat way of killing two birds with one stone: as mythic warriors they satisfied the 'exotic and savage' criterion; but it also allowed me to cast a group of women."

2015's Pan, a film that imagines Peter's first years in Neverland as an orphan kidnapped by pirates and forced to work in a mine, made a similar choice. The film features Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily but dresses her tribe in a sort of outlandishly bright array of pinks, purples, browns and bright blues that manages to be fantastic enough that no one would ever confuse this tribe with an American Indian tribe.

NBC's 2014 version of the 1954 musical is going in the opposite direction, in search of something like authenticity. Unknown actress Alanna Saunders, whose paternal heritage has distant ties to the Cherokee nation, will play Tiger Lily, and the song "Ugg-a-Wugg" was updated to include actual Native American phrases. Perhaps these changes will keep today's directors from looking, in another hundred years, like purveyors of crude racial stereotypes; perhaps they'll seem just as clumsy as Barrie's original conception of the tribe's relationship to Peter—"We redskins — you the great white father."

Editor's note: This story initially misspelled the name of the hospital in London. It is the Great Ormond Street Hospital.

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