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Wednesdays with Wade: Walt and the Indians

Wednesdays with Wade: Walt and the Indians

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In 1996, Mrs. Lillian Disney, the widow of Walt Disney, donated $100,000 to the Nez Perce Indians, who were trying to buy some ancient tribal artifacts. She was born Lillian Bounds on an Indian Reservation in Spalding, Idaho in 1899 as the tenth and last child of Jeanette Short Bounds and Willard Pehall Bounds. Lillian grew up in Lapwai, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. Her father worked for the government as a blacksmith and federal marshal. Lillian's mother enthralled Walt with stories of coming to the West in a covered wagon and Western history including the Indians she met.

Disney animated cartoons as far back as the "Alice Comedies" featured caricatured stereotypes of Native Americans and people forget that the song "What Made the Red Man Red" in Disney's "Peter Pan" upsets Native Americans as much as "Song of the South" troubles some African-Americans. However, it is important to remember that animation is based on exaggerations (how many real people can bounce back from an anvil crushing them?) and Native Americans were no more exaggerated than any other cartoon character but merely a reflection of the popular myths surrounding Native Americans.

The myth of the American Indian was perhaps refined by frontiersman William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. In 1883, Cody formed Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a traveling show with a mock battle with Indians, played, for the most part, by members of the Lakota Sioux tribe. Because Buffalo Bill's Wild West was as close as most Americans got to "real" Indians, Sioux traditions became, in the public mind, synonymous with all Indian customs. By the time "Injuns" made it to the Western movies and television shows of the 1950s, Hollywood generalized many Sioux traditions such as hunting and feather headdresses to all Indians. In fact, the hundreds of Native American tribes each have their own customs.

Don't expect to see Pocahontas at a Princess Breakfast. The Indian princess is strictly a European concept. For the most part, Native American tribes did not have kings, queens, or princesses. A few American tribes, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, did have royalty as did the great Indian civilizations in Central and South America but they were the exception not the rule.


Despite the traditional "cartoon Indians" that popped up in animated shorts to cause trouble for Mickey Mouse and Goofy and Pecos Bill, the Disney Studio did try to produce films that cast Native Americans in less Hollywood stereotypical roles.

"Little Hiawatha" (1937), a Disney short that was very loosely based on the epic poem "The Song of Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, featured a little Indian boy who wants to be a mighty hunter and goes off into the forest alone to prove himself. When he can't bring himself to shoot a young rabbit, he endears himself to the woodland creatures, who help rescue him from an angry grizzly bear. Hiawatha's pants are continually falling down so that he moons the audience in a typical Disney "gag" that appeared in other cartoons.

Walt had a fascination with the story of the historic Hiawatha but he had difficulty explaining to the men working at his Studio how he envisioned the story being told. Shortly after World War II, Walt tried to develop the story into a full-fledged feature film and had his artists research the customs of the tribes of the northern Great Plains. At one point, the characters were going to deliver the narration in authentic sign language and that was researched as well. Walt even explored the possibility of Native Americans providing concept art. By late 1949, the project was shelved because Walt felt they hadn't found the right way to tell the story and he faced some opposition from some of his top people who felt that it would be difficult to sell to an audience.

In the "Davy Crockett" series, even though Davy is identified as an "Indian Fighter", he spends much of the series helping and defending Native Americans. Nearly two hundred of the Native Americans that appear in the series were actual Cherokees. Quite a change from the typical Hollywood productions that were casting Italians and Hispanics as Native Americans. Davy goes to Congress to stand up for the rights of Indians. When River Pirates dress up as Indians to attack boats on the river, it is Davy who comes to the aid of the Native Americans.

Around the same time, Disney released "A Light In the Forest" (1958) about a young white boy captured and raised by Indians and later returned to his real family. Technical advisor was Iron Eyes Cody. Delaware Indian Village-artist Sam McKim drew layout sketches after a considerable amount of background research to ensure that the Indian lodges were authentic. McKim had also worked on the original designs for Disneyland.

Native Americans made their appearances at Disneyland from the cigar store Indian on Main Street (Cigar Store Indians appeared outside tobacco shops because Indians gave us tobacco and for a populace that was illterate a visual example helped explain what the store sold.) to the Pendelton Woolen Mills Stores where interesting old photographs alongside the stairway featured pictures of the Indians with whom the company founders traded.

On the Rivers of America, the Mark Twain steamboat passed by the victim of an Indian arrow who lay sprawled in front of a burning settler's cabin. In the middle of the gas crisis of the 1970s, Disneyland turned off the flames for roughly a decade. When the park began using a simulated flame in 1984, the settler was replaced with a moonshiner who had passed out. Then when drunkenness became taboo, there was nothing out there by the cabin but wildlife that is endangered by a fire caused by a careless settler.

Further down the river was a friendly Indian chief on horseback wearing a full headdress even though a headdress was indictative of the Plains Indians and log cabins were associated with the East. Still, this mechanized marvel raised his arm in welcome to each passing steamboat.

To offset these inaccuracies, Frontierland was also the home to a rustic Indian village representing many Native American tribes. There was a Ceremonial Dance Circle where on Summer, weekends and holidays, Native Americans performed six authentic tribal dances (including "The Omaha" that white settlers often called the "War Dance"). Then you could go grab an oar and climb aboard one of the Indian War Canoes. In 1972, a new land, "Bear Country" displaced the Indian village and the canoes were re-named "Daby Crockett's Explorer Canoes". The Indian Trading Post where authentic Native American crafts could be purchased remained until 1989 when it became "The Briar Patch" to theme in with the new "Splash Mountain" attraction.

In 1995, the Disney Company produced "Pocahontas". Disney hired Shirley (Little Dove) Custalow-McGowan, a Powhatan who travels through Virginia teaching the history and culture of her people, to work as consultant for the film. Wherever possible, Disney sought out advice, comments and participation from prominent Native American educators, leaders and groups. Jim "Great Elk" Waters, a Native American tribal leader and an artist/musician/poet, was brought in along with his ensemble to provide authentic Algonquin music and speech. Indian choreographers and storytellers were also consulted to ensure that the Powhatan lifestyle and customs were portrayed with a high degree of accuracy.

According to Russell Means, the voice of Powhatan and a passionate activist who has dedicated his life to Indian causes, "I think 'Pocahontas' is the single finest work ever done on American Indians by Hollywood. When I first read the script, I was impressed with the beginning of the film. In fact, I was overwhelmed by it. It tells the truth about the motives for Europeans initially coming to the so-called New World. I find it astounding that Americans and the Disney Studios are willing to tell the truth. It's never been done before ... and I love it. The cooperation I got with every suggestion I made, even the smallest little things about our culture, have been incorporated into the script. I'm very proud to be associated with this film. There are scenes where the English settlers admit to historical deceit...their animated settlers say they are here to rob, rape, pillage the land and kill Indians. This is the truth that Disney is entrusting with children while the rest of Hollywood won't trust that truth with adults."

In an interview with "The New York Times", Eric Goldberg, the film's co-director (with Mike Gabriel), said, "We've gone from being accused of being too white bread to being accused of racism in 'Aladdin' to being accused of being too politically correct in 'Pocahontas'. That's progress to me."

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