May 15, 2020 posted by Jim Korkis

Neverland Tribe

Suspended Animation #267

Today, the exaggerated stereotypes of Native Americans in Disney’s animated feature film Peter Pan (1953) sparks outrage.

John Darling discovers a single barefoot print and exclaims, “Indians! Ah! Blackfoot tribe.” Even as a kid, I knew it was just an obvious gag. However, “Blackfoot” is the English translation of the word siksika, which literally means “black foot.” It refers to the dark colored moccasins the tribe wore.

The Blackfoot lived in buffalo-hide houses called teepees (just like the Neverland tribe). Men wore buckskin tunics and breechcloths with leggings (just like the Neverland tribe). Blackfeet chiefs wore tall feather headdresses and wore paint on their faces (just like the chief of the Neverland tribe).

The Blackfoot didn’t fight over territory but rather to prove their courage, and so they rarely fought to the death. Instead, they preferred to “count coup” (touch an opponent in battle without harming him), steal an enemy’s weapon or horse, or force the other tribe’s warriors to retreat. It was more like a game.

All of that reminded me of Foxy, the Lost Boy, who tried to reassure John by saying: “Sure. When we win, we turn them loose. When they win, they turn us loose.”

Animator Marc Davis recalled, “The Indians were Ward Kimball’s stuff. Beautifully done. The Indians could not have been done that way nowadays. I like them. Very funny. Very entertaining, especially the big chief.”

The Indian Chief for Peter Pan was designed and animated by Kimball. Originally concept art depicted the solemn Indian chief as bare-chested with a more sinister realistic face and crooked nose. The unidentified tall actor hired for the live-action reference was photographed standing on a box to seem larger in proportion to the other characters. Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to locate the name of the actor.

“There was the Indian chief in the film,” animator Kimball remembered. “They had a sort of a chief on the storyboards. I made him a little heavier and changed the angle so you looked up to him like he was huge. It turned out pretty good and certainly he was funnier than the Lost Boys.”

That final design was influenced by the original voice of the character done by talented performer, Jonathan “Candy” Candido who had a trick voice that he was able to change from soprano to alto to tenor to even a bass that was a few keys lower than the lowest keys on the piano. Candido worked as a voice actor on several Disney projects.

“When I recorded [the song What Makes The Red Man Red?], I sang it with ten bass singers from around Los Angeles. And if you hear the song, you’ll notice my bass voice is almost twice as low as theirs” laughed Candido who later supplied the voice for the character of the stately Indian chief in the Peter Pan’s Flight attraction at Disneyland.

Candy Candido, dressed as a native American on his Nov. 29th, 1955 appearance on “The Mickey Mouse Club”

“You know, when you see the Indian chief, he’s fat. I’m not fat. And he’s real tall, and I’m kind of short. But you notice he looks like me. Also, he has the same dark eyebrows, and he plays with his hands like I do when I perform,” noted Candido who was known for constantly twiddling his thumbs even when he was out eating with friends.

One of the things that amused Candido was that he kept receiving regular royalty checks for his work on the film, but in later years they would be for the amount of 52 cents. He joked that it cost more to prepare the check and mail it than what the check was worth. He never cashed these small checks but kept them in a homemade scrapbook.

“Ward Kimball’s animation of the chief is full of the little visual gags that he always threw into his work, oftentimes just to keep himself amused,” noted animation historian John Canemaker when I asked him about the film. “I especially love seeing how wildly exaggerated the chief’s mouth shapes become, yet always manage to work well within the frame of his face.”

The chief’s adorable daughter, Tiger Lily, is indeed a true Indian princess (unlike Pocahontas), although the Walt Disney Company hasn’t utilized her in their popular princess franchise.

The defiant Princess Tiger Lily fearlessly endures being lashed tightly to a heavy anchor that will guarantee she will drown in the dark recesses of Skull Rock as the tidewater slowly rises to a threatening level.

An earlier storyboard, done in the 1940s, shows the little princess put in an even more dangerous peril in Skull Rock where she is shackled up against a wall in the cave, surrounded by the rotting skeletons of past victims in chains as the waters begin to engulf her.

As a princess, the royal Tiger Lily has special privileges, including being the only female allowed to participate in the dance celebration of Peter Pan being made an honorary member of the tribe.

A young unidentified actress was used for live-action reference for the character by the animators, especially for her energetic dancing on the large drum. That dance was based on an authentic Indian mating dance called the “Moon Dance” that is “characterized by circling, facing one another, forming crescents by bending, rising suddenly with a shout and sinking down” according to a book on Native American customs.

“Tiger Lily’s dance for Peter has always had, for me, an amazing fluidity and grace,” Canemaker said. “The animation of that section is just beautiful in the way her form moves and is accented by a flowing flow-through of her garments and hair.”

The principal credit for Tiger Lily’s animation goes to a skilled but relatively unpublicized Disney character animator, Ken O’Brien. He was a close friend and one-time assistant of the legendary Fred Moore, renowned for his skill at drawing attractive animated female characters. Animator Hal Ambro also did some animation on Tiger Lily.

“Hal Ambro specialized in animating the female figure. He brought a delicate charm to the character and his draftsmanship of the character was superb,” Canemaker said.

“Hal Ambro’s scenes with her were good. He animated the early scenes with Tiger Lily in the Indian Camp with her father. But Ken O’Brien was the animator who got the most scenes of Tiger Lily and the principal credit for the character should go to him,” noted animator and long time friend Mark Kausler when I talked with him.

O’Brien animated Tiger Lily helplessly trapped in Skull Rock, including animating the only word that she says in the entire film, a gurgling cry for help as the rising water almost drowns her. However, she proves very adept at using body language to communicate her emotions without speaking.

It is important to remember that Peter Pan was supposed to represent a young boy’s impression of pirates, mermaids and Indians and, as a result, these fanciful creations bore more of a relation to popular culture storybooks than reality.


  • “Squaw no dance! Squaw get um firewood!”

    The term “squaw” has several possible etymological derivations, all of them derogatory, and there’s ample documentation that Native Americans have always considered it opprobrious. “If I was to marry a white man and he would dare call me a ‘squaw’,” wrote novelist Mourning Dove in 1927, “I believe that I would feel like killing him.”

    Also, Ward Kimball’s distinctive, cartoony character designs tend to clash with those of the other artists working on the same film. That’s not so much of a problem with the cat in “Cinderella”, but with the Indians in “Peter Pan”, the effect can be seen as dehumanising.

    In any case, as you point out, it should be obvious to everyone that Neverland is the creation of a child’s (specifically a boy’s) imagination, and the depiction of the Indians bears no more relation to reality than Ralph Phillips’s conception of the cannibals in “Boyhood Daze”. The correspondence between the film and genuine Blackfoot customs is only an intriguing, but ultimately irrelevant, coincidence.

    If there are any legitimate objections to the “Red Man” number, we might remember what Joan McCracken sang in another show-stopper from the MGM musical “Good News”:

    “So if you want to be an all-right guy,
    Not a long-face, blues-in-the-night guy,
    Write that apology and dispatch it!
    When you quarrel, it’s grand to patch it!
    Pass that peace pipe and bury the hatchet
    Like the Choctaws, Chickasaws,
    Cherokees and Chippewas do!”

    • And, of course, the voice of that matronly Native American woman declaring, “Squaw get un firewood” is the always delightful and talented June Foray.

    • Absolutely love the Injun scene! My kids love it as well and they dance along. Squaw get um firewood 😀

  • Heaven forbid if a young impressionable child should see this travesty but it’s perfectly fine for the little tykes for a transvestite to read them a “Fairy” story in school. What a world.

    • How I feel sometimes. From one extreme to another I suppose you could say. The former still sounds more appropriate than the latter to me.

    • I don’t see how a drag queen reading stories to kids is worse than other costumed characters doing the same.

    • I’m glad your Archie Bunker views are becoming passé. It’s a new world toots. Now back to your step-n-fetchit shorts.

  • The Cheif sounds very much like the actor Robert Strauss.

    • Strauss did play an Indian chief in an episode of “Green Acres”.

  • There’s a moment in the original, non-musical play where Wendy is cooking dinner. Peter comes in and relates he caught and killed a pirate, and shows off the head in a sack. Wendy is quietly pleased with the gift. We never see the head, but the original “Peter Pan” is very much about the innocent vanity and unthinking cruelty of small children. “Peanuts” with blood.

    Disney pushes Peter, Wendy and Neverland females to just shy of adolescence. In fact, a major change in Disney’s version is that Mr. Darling decrees that Wendy is to be moved to her own room, putting an end to her storytelling and implicitly announcing adolescence starts now. Make-believe is something to outgrow and forget. In the play, the adult Darlings know from the start Peter is real, and in the end adopt all the Lost Boys. Barrie’s published script has an epilogue in which Wendy, almost too grown up for Neverland (she needs a broom to fly), makes a last visit and tries to persuade him that growing up is an adventure. He refuses and she leaves. Peter remains happily and eternally the little boy.

    An interesting angle in the play that’s emphasized in the movie is that the girls are all just mature enough to take preteen romantic interest in Peter (Tinkerbell’s interest is, ah, as mature as her figure). Peter likes being worshipped and takes it for granted, but doesn’t have a clue beyond that. Although there is that one weird moment when Tiger Lily’s flirty/seductive dance ends in a kiss, causing a near-Tex Avery reaction.

    • In my unpublished book about the history of Peter Pan, I argue that the story is not just about a boy who never grew up but a girl who did. This book is from back in the day when I was writing for Pioneer Press and I should probably dig out the manuscript and look at it again and see if any of it can be reused.

  • Ward Kimball is one of my favorite animators. I find it interesting that it is his scenes that offend the most in Disney’s animated features …Dumbo’s Crows, many elements of The Pastoral Symphony, the Siamese Cats in Lady and the Tramp, and of course the Neverland Tribe in this fine article. I think it fortunate that the people of Cheshire, England have no problem with the Cheshire Cat.

    • Thank goodness there I suppose (hopefully joking on the Brits never goes stale). Poor Ward was only doing his job, and I’m sure he enjoyed every one.

  • I love the background gag on The Simpsons where the ice cream truck has a wigwam on top and a sign reading: “NATIVE AMERICAN ICE CREAM formerly Big Chief Crazy Cone.”

    • The Simpsons certain predicted that.

  • It tends not to be the people supposedly degraded by the “racism” in 20th century entertainment who do the complaining, but white liberals–“Wonderful ‘woke’ me!”–who seem to feel they need to speak on behalf of the people (as if they can’t speak for themselves, which really is even more offensive than the depictions are alleged to be). It’s been said that the late Tom Bradley, former mayor of Los Angeles, who was black, loved “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.” As for “Peter Pan,” it’s highly doubtful that a British child’s impression of Native Americans would be very enlightened in 1901. If people can’t put their indignation in perspective, there’s no hope for human equality and mutual understanding.

    • There’s some truth to that. A white film critic named Richard Schickel was the first to complain in print about the crows in Dumbo — in 1968, after audiences had been enjoying it for 27 years. The claim that Tom Bradley’s favourite cartoon was “Coal Black” originated with Bob Clampett himself, so I’m inclined to take it with a grain of salt. But the campaign against Indian stereotypes in the media and sports has always been spearheaded, if that’s the word I want, by Native American activist groups like the American Indian Movement. White liberals, as well as African-American groups like the NAACP who have weighed in on the issue, are merely voicing their support rather than speaking on anyone else’s behalf.

    • Thank you for those words. I often fear of such a backlash because nobody ever has perspective on the past. It’s why you get people wanting to rewrite history in the way they see it in their heads or rule out different opinions on the matter because it doesn’t fit their worldview.

    • Paul Groh, a film critic named David Platt was the first to complain in print about the crows in Dumbo, in the October 29, 1941 issue of the American Communist Party’s Daily Worker. Groh argued that African-American stereotypes, such as the crows, were a gimmick promoted by entertainment companies to keep white and black workers at odds with each other and less likely to organize.

      In 1955, an editorial in a a Black community paper, the Los Angeles Tribune, was called “Disney and a Betrayal of Negro Children,” and “expressed the many protests received from Negroes” about Dumbo’s revival on television due to the characters of the crows. Cottrell Laurence Dellums, African-American labor activist and organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, took up the cause and announced a boycott of Disney at the time. (The Daily Worker, by this time a labor union magazine rather than a Communist product, wrote about these events on October 7, 1955, as a follow-up to their earlier 1941 coverage.)

      This idea that long ago, thicker-skinned minorities didn’t let the likes of Peter Pan and Dumbo offend them — and that only “wonderful ‘woke'” liberal whites started the complaints, decades later — is itself an example of what Chris Sobeniak calls “people wanting to rewrite history the way they see it in their heads.”

      Unfortunately, what I see happening in this comment section is something like a mutual back-patting society, with old-time fans convincing each other — inaccurately — that offense at cartoons is only a modern, SJW thing, and seemingly younger fans like Sobeniak being misled to assume this is correct. In truth, some minority members actually were offended by this stuff back in the days of legal discrimination. If you want to argue that they weren’t justified even then, go ahead.

  • Thank you, Annabel, my information was clearly faulty. I feel chastened, and deservedly so.

    I’ve read about the protests by the NAACP against cartoons like “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” and “Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat” in the 1940s, and I mentioned earlier in this comments section that Native Americans took offence at slurs like “squaw” a century ago. I’m certainly not going to argue that they weren’t justified. Of course they were. I’m not trying to convince anyone that this is only a modern phenomenon, because I don’t believe that for a minute. If I took an inappropriately frivolous tone in discussing what is, after all, a serious matter, I apologise.

    May I close with a quote from Carter Meland and David E. Wilkins, two professors of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, with whom I completely agree:

    “Since the first Europeans made landfall in North America, native peoples have suffered under a weltering array of stereotypes, misconceptions and caricatures. Whether portrayed as noble savages, ignoble savages, teary-eyed environmentalists or, most recently, simply as casino-rich, native peoples find their efforts to be treated with a measure of respect and integrity undermined by images that flatten complex tribal, historical and personal experience into one-dimensional representations that tell us more about the depicters than the depicted.”

  • I don’t know why, but somehow the contrasts between Wendy and Tiger Lily remind me of those between Amy Kane (Grace Kelly) and Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) in Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon.”

  • So at what point is the line drawn between being sensitive and completely sanitizing or white washing a culture and heritage? Just asking since it seems so easy to criticize 20th century caricatures of Indian tribes that were fictionalized cartoons. I also ask since there is criticism of the former Indian village at Disneyland just how sensitive can one be without being offensive or being insensitive by portraying a bland insincere representation of various subject matter. Is banning movies and books the solution since imagination can be misinterpreted or too offensive?

  • I’m Native American and I happen to find the Indian scene funny. The stereotypes are hilarious and for someone not Native American to tell me what is supposed to be offensive towards me or my people is even funnier. I would really like to meet the so called Natives who are offended because more than likely they are a bunch of Elizabeth Warrens who know nothing of the culture or have lived the life of Native culture. Lol keep your articles to yourself and let us Native decide whether things are offensive or not.. Peter Pan is a great movie.

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