Stereotypes of Native Americans Spur School To Scrap 'Peter Pan'

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School officials in Southampton, N.Y., are finding their bearings in the Land of Oz, having shied away from the modern-day controversy involved with a trip to Neverland.

Southampton Intermediate School's production of "Peter Pan'' was six weeks into rehearsals when school officials last month ditched the play, deciding instead to perform "The Wizard of Oz.''

Members of the neighboring Shinnecock American Indian tribe had objected to some of the lyrics in the play's songs. Particularly objectionable, said Sherry Blakely-Smith, a Shinnecock in charge of the school's services for Native Americans, is the scene where the Lost Indians, wearing war paint and headdresses, dance and sing "Ug-a-Wug,'' which uses the words "noble redskin'' and "squaw.''

"There are 150 Shinnecock children at the school,'' Ms. Blakely-Smith said. "There was no way we wanted them to see Native Americans portrayed as whooping and wailing and carrying on that way.''

School officials had wrestled with trimming the offending scene but concluded that "performing 'Peter Pan' would have been seen as a perpetuation of a negative, unfair stereotype,'' Superintendent Richard C. Malone of the Southampton schools said.

"I found that a negative cloud overshadowed the whole production,'' he said. "We could have continued, but there was such an emotional context that no matter what was done, it would not go away.''

Shinnecocks make up 9 percent of the school district's student population, and the intermediate school is one of 13 under contract with New York to teach Native Americans who live on reservations. The school recently committed to incorporating multiculturalism in the development of its staff and curriculum, according to Mr. Malone.

Questioning the Classics

The script used by the school was the same basic adaption of the 1904 J.M. Barrie play that was performed in the 1950's with Mary Martin as the flying hero and later cast with Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby in the role of Peter Pan.

Native American advocates contend that "Peter Pan,'' widely considered to be the world's most popular play for children, is not the only classic that demeans Native Americans. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series presents American Indians as "smelly savages communicating in grunts,'' says Doris Seale, author of Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children.

Critics of multicultural teaching argue that Southampton's grounding of "Peter Pan'' amounts to political correctness run amok. "It's foolish, and they've made themselves the laughing stock of the country,'' said Diane Ravitch, a New York University research scholar and a critic of New York's multicultural programs.

Vol. 13, Issue 26

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