Native American Culture at Disney's Wilderness Lodge

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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Disney animated cartoons as far back as the silent Alice Comedies shorts in the 1920s featured caricatured stereotypes of Native Americans, and people forget that the song "What Made the Red Man Red?" in Disney's Peter Pan (1953) upsets Native Americans as much or more as Song of the South (1946) 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. It was merely a reflection of the popular stereotypes surrounding Native Americans at a time when children played at being "cowboys and Indians" and learned their history of the Old West from movies and television shows.

Walt did have respect for all cultures. After all, his wife Lillian was born and raised on an Indian Reservation in Spalding, Idaho, in 1899 where her father worked for the government as a blacksmith and federal marshal. In 1996, Lillian donated $100,000 to the Nez Perce, who were trying to buy some ancient tribal artifacts.

Lillian's mother enthralled Walt with stories of coming to the West in a covered wagon, including the Native Americans she met during the trip. Some of that perspective about how they really were ended up in the Davy Crockett series produced by Walt, where Davy defended different tribes.

Shortly after World War II, Walt tried to develop the story of Hiawatha, hero of the famous poem by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, into a full-fledged serious animated 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.

From an Associated Press newspaper account dated September 12, 1948:

"Dick Kelsey, one of Disney chief staff artists will spend six weeks (starting Sept 25) touring the Great Lakes Region sketching and documenting the settings of Longfellow's famous narrative poem. His Itinerary includes Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, the shores of Lake Superior; Ann Arbor, Lansing and Detroit, Michigan; across Lake Erie to Buffalo; then through Rochester; the Finger Lakes district; the Mohawk Valley down the Hudson to New York; and on to Washington for museum data. Color camera records will supplement his sketches.

"The finished cartoon likewise will be in color. Kelsey's will be no easy task in this modern era, since he insists he will try to recapture both the spirit and the look of Hiawatha's land. Every remaining forest, prairie, lake and river associated with the Indian legend will be visited by boat, automobile, train, horse or on foot, he declared.

"He has arranged to study museum material in Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis; Rochester at the American Museum of Natural History; and the Heye Foundation in New York; and the Smithsonian Institute and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. At Naples, N.Y., he will confer with Dr. Arthur C. Parker, director emeritus of the Rochester Museum, an authority on American Indian life and lore."

Press articles about the forthcoming feature continued to appear as late as 1951, but, like many other animated projects, it 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.

When Disneyland opened in July 1955, Walt included a rustic Indian village, representing many Native American tribes, where guests could interact and learn the true culture in Frontierland. There was a Ceremonial Dance Circle where, during the summer, weekends and holidays, Native Americans performed six authentic tribal dances (including "The Omaha" that white settlers often called the "War Dance"). Then guests could grab an oar and climb aboard one of the Indian War Canoes captained by a real Native American at both the front and back. Disney publicity proclaimed that the "authentic dances from such tribes as the Apache, Navajo, Comanche, and Pawnee were performed with the permission of the respective tribal councils and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs." The Indian Village closed in 1971.


Disney's Wilderness Lodge was inspired by rustic architecture, which incorporated authentic Native American elements.

Most Disney guests don't consciously realize that the lobby of the Wilderness Lodge Resort is a tribute to Native Americans with both real artifacts and reproductions displayed throughout the area.

The Whispering Canyon Café showcases the transition of the cowboys encountering Native Americans, and they are featured on the backs of the chairs and on the lighting fixtures. In addition, replicas of paintings by "cowboy" artists, like Charles Russell and Bill Gollings, are on display.

The Territory Lounge focuses on the explorers, like Lewis and Clark (whose map decorates the ceiling), and includes an authentic 34-star American flag from 1861 and a Wyoming State Flag from 1890.

Artist's Point honors the artists who visited and captured inspiring landscape images once the area became more settled.

I've written about the Wilderness Lodge before: The Forgotten Story of the Wilderness Lodge and The Walt Disney World Totem Poles.

The plan for Walt Disney World was for Disney-themed resort hotels on property so that guests could stay for an extended vacation and have easy access to the theme park and surrounding amenities like golfing. With the development of Epcot Center, the need for more hotel rooms on property to accommodate the hoped for influx of visitors became apparent, and so plans were announced for more resorts.

Disney executive Dick Nunis was quoted in the May 1982 issue of the cast newspaper Eyes and Ears: "We also have in design three hotels. The Mediterranean will be located between TTC [The Transportation and Ticket Center] and the Contemporary. The Cypress Point Lodge will be west of River Country and be themed as a western hotel. It'll include log cabins along Bay Lake."

The third hotel would have been the Grand Floridian, since preparation for the area had already been done years earlier for a proposed but never built Asian Resort. All three hotels were officially announced in 1980.

The November 4, 1982 issue of Walt Disney World Eyes & Ears provided the following description of the rustic, moderate resort:

"Cypress Point Lodge will be a medium-sized hotel facility, located on the south shore of Bay Lake near our Fort Wilderness Campground Resort. Encompassing 550 rooms and 50 log cabins on the beach, Cypress Point Lodge will offer a romantic notion of a turn-of-the-century hunting lodge secluded in a deep forest.

"Neither the trees nor the buildings dominate the entire area; but blend together in a natural harmony. One can almost hear the crackling fireplace and feel the large wooden beams offer a haven of security and comfort.

"Cypress Point Lodge will also include: two restaurants, a pool, extensive beach, and lake dock. Guests will commute in and out of Cypress Point Lodge by watercraft."

Obviously the location and theme echoed Disney's Wilderness Lodge Resort, which would open in the same location in 1994, but with several key differences.

The land in the area had been cleared of trees by 1971, although some claim that this was originally meant for additional campground. The 1973 WDW souvenir guide states that an unnamed "Lodge" was planned to be built at Fort Wilderness for guests. A rough replica of the resort was featured in the model in the post show area of Magic Kingdom's The Walt Disney Story attraction.

However, cost overruns for the building of Epcot Center resulted in Cypress Point Lodge being cancelled, and it is no longer mentioned in any documentation starting in 1983.

With the arrival of new CEO Michael Eisner in 1984, he chose to develop both Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, and a lodge-themed resort but with much different approaches.

"In our architecture, Disney continues to produce the kind of groundbreaking entertainment that keeps the Disney name magical to people around the world. Our architecture is part of the show," said Eisner in August 1992 at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Wilderness Lodge.

Peter Dominick Jr., who headed the Urban Design Group of Denver, Colorado, and was an avid outdoorsman, had been commissioned to design the now-premium resort. he was well known for having a great passion and understanding of the building traditions of the Rocky Mountain West.

As part of their research for the Disney resort, Dominick and members of the Disney Development Company visited lodges at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks.

Dominick's primary inspirations for the Wilderness Lodge were clearly the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone Natural Park and the Awahwanee Lodge in Yosemite National Park that are referenced in the final design.

"[Disney's Wilderness Lodge] does, in fact, capture the spirit and sense of place one associates with our National Parks, icons of our American heritage …with their art, architecture and dramatic landscapes," Dominick said. "There are romantic and endearing qualities associated with the early national parks movement—the Northwest, the Native Americans, the great lodges. All of these elements have been combined in wonderful detail, creating a unique wilderness experience."

Dominick was inspired by Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, who insisted on using whatever building materials were indigenous to an area in building a hotel so that it blends all aspects together and becomes more organic to the setting. This style was known as "rustic architecture." The concept was that art, architecture and landscape should be fully integrated in the design and construction of the building.

He set out to create a log hotel from the early 1900s in the Northwest Rockies, incorporating authentic Native American elements, natural lighting and wherever possible traditional building materials like natural limestone.

Eighty-five loads of lodge pole pines were harvested from "standing dead forests" (meaning the trees had been killed from a natural cause like insects) in Oregon and Montana to build the resort. No living trees were chopped down to create the lodge poles and Disney replanted wherever they took trees. Stretched end to end, the lodge poles would be 40-miles long.

The wood floor in the lobby is composed of Brazilian cherry, white oak, bird's eye maple, and burl walnut. It actually mimics a Native American Hopi rug that tells a "storm story".

There is the center of the earth, and from it flows four rivers in a lightning pattern to the four corners of the earth where lodge poles extend upward to hold the canopy of the sky. Standing on an upper level looking down into the lobby, the design is clearly prominent.

Cast members will tell you the "carpet design" also depicts the symbol of unity among the four seasons, wildlife, man, and the cosmos.

A variety of Native American tribes, including Cheyenne, Crow, Sioux, and Blackfoot are represented in the lobby and throughout the lodge.

Hanging above the lobby are four massive, 500 pound floating tepee chandeliers. Made from actual rawhide that was stretched over the framework, each of the tepee shades are hand-painted with geometric Native American symbols in red and black. Inside each tepee is a 48 bulb fixture which provides 2,880 watts needed to illuminate the entire lobby. The tepees are approximately 10 feet in diameter at the base and 10 feet high at the peak. Additionally, they are framed with a bronze and steel ring (with an aged finish) of silhouetted buffaloes and Native Americans on horseback. The images were inspired by photographs and the work of artist Thomas Molesworth.


The lobby of Disney's Wilderness Lodge has four massive 500-pound tepee chandeliers.

Behind the front desk are a beautiful collection of reproductions of cradleboards, a wooden frame and a soft skin pouch used for the protection of a baby or "papoose" if it fell.

The Spirit of America Discovery statue in the show at The American Adventure pavilion at Epcot has a Native American woman with a cradleboard on her back. The statue is meant to suggest the 16 year old Sacagawea, the Native American woman who helped guide the Lewis and Clark expedition, along with her newborn baby. Within the first few weeks after a baby was born, the mother would begin to lace the baby into the cradleboard so that it could be carried on the woman's back or hooked onto a saddle.

Left to right, the cradleboards behind the front desk represent the North American Indian tribes of Crow, Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Ute, Kiowa, Navajo, and Comanche.

A striking and unique garment is the Elk Tooth Dress located near the lobby elevators. It is made of red wool blanket or Stroud Cloth which was considered a desirable decorative fabric. This type of dress was typical of one that might be worn by the Kiowa and Arapaho Plains tribeswomen. This particular dress was obviously the possession of a great hunter's wife since elk teeth are a great display of wealth. An elk only has two teeth and a dress might take hundreds of them. Most hunters saved the teeth as a memento of the hunt or traded for them with other warriors. This rare dress, which has been determined to be from around 1875, was worn for special ceremonial occasions like a wedding, a special dance or a young girl entering womanhood.

An authentic display of moccasins made by the Plains Indians is at the far end of the lobby near the fireplace. Hard rawhide soles were hand sewed to a soft buckskin upper piece. Often, they would chew on the material to make it softer and more pliable. The footwear was then ornamented with dyes, quills, beads, cloth, buttons, fur and fringe, and this work varied greatly among the different tribes. Using no measuring tools or patterns, moccasins were each one-of-a-kind made to fit a specific foot of a child or adult. Intricate designs existed only in the minds of the Native Americans making them and sometimes the design evolved as it was being worked on.

Another display case specifically showcases some actual beadwork for a variety of different articles. The "seed" bead, a small round opaque Venetian glass bead, became available to the Native American cultures around 1840 through the pioneers entering their territories. Because "seed" beads were partly handmade, they were somewhat irregular. The delicacy of the bead pattern determined the size of the bead chosen. When settlers began to crowd into the Sioux country about 1860, beadwork became a major industry for the Native Americans that was highly popular until around 1900, although examples of this beautiful craft are still produced in smaller quantities today.

Headdresses are displayed in the lobby. Some Native Americans believed that by wearing the feathers of the eagle, one of the most respected and revered birds, it was possible to impart the characteristics and power of the eagle to the wearer. It was usually the chief who would wear such a headdress and it was hoped it would provide wisdom and a different perspective. Today, it is illegal to use eagle feathers so the WDW Imagineers had to adapt turkey feathers when they recreated headdresses for display. There are four headdresses in the lobby: the Double Trailer (circa 1875) from the Sioux tribe, the Feather Duster (circa 1890) from the Crow tribe, the Ermine-Tipped Raven (circa 1830s), and the Single Trailer (circa 1835) from the Mandan tribe.

While I constantly warn people to pay attention and document what they see, even I am a victim when it comes to things quietly disappearing. When the Wilderness Lodge first opened, and for many years afterwards, every November as part of Native American Heritage Month, there would be a ceremony performed called the Blessing of the Four Directions, which is rooted in the belief that human beings are tied to all things in nature. It is this belief which assigned virtues to the four cardinal directions; East, South, West and North. It was conducted by James Hansen (Black Wolf) and Anita Hansen (Quick Silver) and the ceremony symbolically drove out negative energy and purified the resort for the year ahead. The Hansens also told stories and answered questions for guests about Native American culture.

I believe the last ceremony I personally attended was in 2009. It was a great shock to me to recently discover the ceremony has not been performed for about seven years. Apparently, the Hansens decided they no longer wanted to travel to do it and Disney decided not to find another alternative. There are many versions of the blessing ceremony and I am sorry it is no longer performed.

I've talked about the entire story of each totem pole and a very shortened version of these stories are on plaques near the bottom of each pole. Interestingly, if you stacked each of the two poles on top of each other and added the character pole in front of the Merchandise shop, the make-shift structure would be as tall as Blizzard Beach's Summit Plummet or close to 130-feet tall.

For me, every time I enter the lobby of Disney's Wilderness Lodge it is a breathtaking experience, but I fear that too many guests just take for granted the thought and effort that went behind its design and its tribute to Native Americans.