Disneyland's Indian Village

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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The Vanishing American was a term coined by author Zane Grey in 1925 in one of his novels to refer to the mistreatment of indigenous peoples by white settlers and the disappearance of Native America culture.

In 1971, Native Americans disappeared from Disneyland where, with the assistance of tribal consultants, they entertained and educated park guests and were celebrated since July 1955.

At Disneyland, Walt Disney wanted Frontierland to be representative of the wild frontier rather than a settled town. Original concept art had the Indian Village located in front of the stockade entrance with "Indian teepees and Indians selling pottery, jewelry, and souvenirs" to emphasize that sense of the untamed wilderness.

By the time the park opened in July 1955, it was located near the border between Adventureland and Frontierland near Aunt Jemina's Pancake House as a collection of teepees on dirt with a dance circle and the palm trees of Adventureland in the background. The tribal symbols including the dance circle that represented the sun were done by Imagineer Sam McKim, who based them on information from reference books in the Disney Studio library.

In 1956, the village was moved to the area now occupied by Critter Country at a cost of $100,000 as part of Disneyland's expansion that year. During construction of the area, the signage labelled it as the site of the upcoming Indian Museum Village. By the time it finally opened, it was just the Indian Village and would remain so for the next decade and a half.


The "villagers" displayed traditions and dances of nearly 17 different American Indian tribes, including Apache, Comanche, Hopi, Navajo and Pawnee.

Some Disney fans have pointed out that this was yet another example of people taking the land and relocating the Native Americas to a remote location as far from civilization as possible and only accessible by a dirt path called Wilderness Trail (while other areas at Disneyland were paved) through a rocky pedestrian tunnel.

Aside from some additional enhancements in 1962, like the inclusion of the Indian Trading Post and an enlarged seating area that developed into a stadium-style log seating section with a rawhide canopy to accommodate larger crowds, the Indian Village did not change much over the course of following years.

The Indian Trading Post (that opened July 4, 1962) sold some authentic handmade Native American articles, like necklaces, headbands, turquoise jewelry, pottery, leather pouches as well as some typical amusement park souvenirs like cheap wooden peace pipes, drums and rubber tomahawks made by outside manufacturers.

In 1956, there was a sign proclaiming:

"This is an authentic reproduction of a typical encampment of Plains Indians and their way of life during the years when the white man first entered the vast Indian territory of the west.

"The teepees are decorated with symbols and figures telling of important family and tribal events or great battles.

"ALL OF THIS INDIAN EQUIPMENT WAS CREATED ESPECIALLY FOR THE NEW WALT DISNEY FEATURE MOTION PICTURE.....WESTWARD HO THE WAGONS."

Westward Ho The Wagons! was a 1956 live-action Disney feature film featuring actor Fess Parker and some of the Mouseketeers in an 1846 wagon train where Sioux warriors escort the pioneers safely through Pawnee territory, after saving the life of the Sioux chief's son. It was a clever re-use of some of the props from the film, as well as publicizing the movie.

Guests could look inside the teepees and see the decorations and artifacts, but not go inside most of them since rope netting prevented them from doing so. Signs throughout the area described how the parts of the village represented different Indian Nations and how the structures would have been used in daily life.

On the tanned skin outside the Chief's Council Tepee was the following description:

"The Tribal Council met in this tepee…The chief occupied an honored place, surrounded by objects symbolizing his authority…Colored sticks represent his warriors…The War Bonnet and the Indian Feathered Flag are badges of leadership and courage…In front of his Ceremonial Pipe is the eagle wing, mark of authority…the war shield, lance, bow, and arrows are displayed to remind the Council of his greatness."

Other teepees included the Plains Indian Teepee where facsimiles of "ceremonial pipes" were made, the Medicine Man's Ceremonial Teepee "filled with the mystic and intriguing objects of this vital craft", the Bead Worker Teepee where demonstrations were held, and the Warrior's Teepee with rawhide paintings.

In its publications and on park postcards, Disney described it as "full-blooded Indians in a peaceful and authentic village" unlike the savage war parties that burned down the settler's cabin and would occasionally attack Fort Wilderness on Tom Sawyer Island.

The "villagers" displayed traditions and dances of nearly 17 different American Indian tribes, including Apache, Comanche, Hopi, Navajo and Pawnee.

Disney publicity proclaimed that the "authentic dances from such tribes were performed with the permission of the respective tribal councils and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs".

The dances included The Omaha (commonly called the War Dance by white settlers), The Shield & Spear, The Eagle, The Zuni-Comanche, The Mountain Spirit, and The Friendship Dance that usually ended the performance with guest participation.

Disneyland Holiday magazine was published by Disney to primarily promote Disneyland but also other Southern California tourist attractions. It was a free magazine available in the hotels to encourage tourists to extend their vacation by visiting some of these places. The magazine later changed its name to Vacationland in 1958 and then Disneyland Vacationland in 1972. The summer 1957 issue described the park's Indian Village:

"One of the founding principles upon which Disneyland was designed was the preservation of our American heritage.

"This principle may be seen in many of the free shows and exhibits in each of Disneyland's realms—and one of the most popular among many free performances is the preservation of Indian traditions and customs in Frontierland's Indian Village.

"Built on the banks of the Rivers of America, the Plains Indian settlement is authentic in every detail. Animal hide tepees, a birch bark 'long house', spears and other implements and especially the population of real Indians take visitors into a World which has disappeared from the American scene.

"Highlight of a visit to the village is the performance of ceremonial dances by the representatives of 16 tribes.

"With bright feathers and beads decorating their colorful headdresses, moccasins and other articles of clothing, the Indians perform such generations-old ceremonies as the Friendship Dance, Indian symbol of welcome to visiting tribes; the Scout Dance, oldest Indian dance, keynoted by freedom of expression; the Horse Tail, Eagle, Buffalo and Warrior Shield dances.

"All have specific meanings for the Indians—messages that are related to visitors by Chief Shooting Star, a Sioux, while Lee High Sky (Shawnee), Little Arrow (Winnebago), Eddie Little Sky (Sioux) and other representatives of America's true natives perform.

"Nearby, as the sound of Indian chants and drums carry through the settlement from the Ceremonial Dancing Circle, Indian war canoes glide away from shore for a trip around the Rivers of America. Paddled by guests themselves, the canoes are guided on these journeys by Indian braves, skilled in the handling of their craft.

"Among the tribes represented in Frontierland are Apache, Shawnee, Winnebago, Hopi, Navajo, Maricopa, Choctaw, Comanche, Pima, Crow and Pawnee."

It wasn't just dancing accompanied by a representative at the side with a microphone sharing information and meet-and-greets. There were demonstrations of archery in what was known as the Pawnee Arrow Game, displays and demonstrations of arts and crafts like weaving and beadwork as well as short presentations about Native American culture.

The Native Americans in the village were considered ambassadors of their heritage and were encouraged to share their culture and traditions to educate Disneyland guests. They appeared at special events like Walt Disney Studio Day at Holidayland on October 5, 1957 to perform their dances.

Navajo Vivian Arviso was Miss Indian America 1960, which was more of a public relations position. Started in 1953, the recipient "had to be dedicated to the cultural well-being of her tribe; she must have a comprehensive knowledge of her people and be dedicated to their advancement. She must have the appearance, personality, and poise to represent her people in the white community."

Her year of service included a stint answering tourists' questions at Disneyland's Indian Village that she said helped boost her confidence. She was dressed in her native costume.

In 2013, she recalled, "The tourists really needed to be able to ask questions and not just watch Indians dance or do sand painting or do a textile weaving. I was unknowingly called an activist. And I think that was before the term came up in later decades, but I tried to share what I knew."

The cast members' wardrobe was not supplied by the Disneyland costume department. They usually brought their own costumes from home that were often made by themselves, family members or others skilled in the craft. According to Wardrobe Bulletins, the Indian Village was the only Disneyland land where employees were permitted to wear tan Indian moccasin shoes while working their shift.

The Indian Village started with representatives from 10 different tribes, but grew to nearly 17 tribes and became a meeting place for others of Native American heritage living in the nearby communities.

The Chippewa Longhouse was authentic and was built by Alexander Matthews Bobidosh, President of the Ojibwe (Chippewa) Tribal Council and a member of the First Nations. The structure had "sewn" Birch & White ash roof, and frame work made of saplings laced with leather.

The village also had a facsimile of a Burial Ground, a stuffed Bison (something most Americans had never seen) and a Navajo Sand Painting exhibit.

Walt felt that the Indian Village was a celebration of the cultural heritage of American Indians, especially since his wife Lillian was born on an Indian Reservation and grew up in Lapwai, Idaho, on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. Her father worked for the government there as a blacksmith and federal marshal. Lillian's mother enthralled Walt with stories of coming to the West in a covered wagon, including the Native Americans she encountered during that time.

In 1996, Lillian Disney donated $100,000 to the Nez Perce Indians, who were trying to buy some ancient tribal artifacts.

Certainly in the 1950s, Walt had quite a different approach to Native Americans than some of the other movie producers. 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 200 of the Native Americans that appear in the series were actual Cherokees from the Great Smoky Mountains although they portrayed Creek Indians. This was quite a change from the typical Hollywood productions that were casting Italians and Hispanics as Native Americans.

Walt had a fascination with the story of the historic Hiawatha, and shortly after World War II, tried to develop the story into a full-fledged 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. Walt even explored the possibility of Native American artists providing concept art to give the film an authentic look.

By late 1949, the project was shelved because Walt felt they hadn't found the right way to tell the story although publicity releases about the supposedly upcoming film still appeared as late as 1951.

The Indian Village debuted at Disneyland on opening day of the park in July 1955 and was instantly popular. Little Sky, the great-great-grandson of the 19th century Oglala Leader Crazy Horse was present on Monday, December 17, 1955, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to interact with guests.

People had a fascination with stories of cowboys and Indians because of the many television shows and movies that were popular in the 1950s and the chance to actually meet authentic Native Americans who shared with them their culture was hugely appealing.

By the standards of the time, it was a respectful and authentic interpretation of Native Americans compared with other depictions in the media. McKim's concept artwork showed scalps on spears and Walt insisted those be removed because he felt they were not an accurate representation. However, there were other elements that were acceptable at the time but wouldn't be considered politically correct today. The restrooms were labeled "braves" (for men) and "squaws" (for women). Even the term "Indian Chief" especially, with an image of a war bonnet, is controversial today.

The Native Americans only appeared at Disneyland during weekends, summers and holidays. Starting in 1956, 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 and attempt to navigate the Rivers of America around Tom Sawyer Island.

Probably the most prominent figure at the Indian Village was Chief Shooting Star (Louis Heminger) who was of the Dakota Sioux tribe. In full regalia, he led the festivities and frequently appeared at publicity events like welcoming Disneyland's one-millionth visitor in September 1955 and in a variety of publications from the 1958 Disneyland guidebook to the 1964 Whitman Tell-A-Tale book titled Walt Disney's Disneyland. He had appeared in Disney's Davy Crockett television series.

Heminger found work for his son Ron to work at the village, as well. Ron went on to managerial roles at Disneyland and later at Walt Disney World where I got to meet him before he retired. "Dad got me a job there to keep me out of trouble during the summer," Ron told me. "Neither of us realized that decades later I would still be working for Disney."

Prominently featured in the Indian Village and in early publicity photos was Eddie Little Sky (also known as Edward Little) who was one of the very first Native Americans to play Native American roles in films. He was a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and had parts in three-dozen feature films and over 60 television shows. He was not the chief, just an Indian brave. He appeared as a Pawnee in Westward Ho the Wagons! (1956), as well as in the Walt Disney feature film Tonka (1958).

When Disneyland opened its gates, Eddie and his artist wife Dawn went to work there. She was a narrator hired to explain dances she also performed. Dawn had previously spent four years working in the ink and paint department at the Disney Studios. They had five children and lived in Anaheim during the time they worked at Disneyland.

Truman Washington Dailey was the last native speaker of the Otoe-Missouria dialect of Chiwere, a Native American language. Since Dailey's tribal name was Sunge Hka ("White Horse"), he was known as Chief White Horse when he worked at Disneyland. When the Indian Village closed in 1971, he returned to Oklahoma where he taught the Otoe-Missouria language in tribal classes and later served as a consultant for the University of Missouri native language project, in order to record Otoe-Missouria for posterity. He was the last elder to be able to explain the reasons and meanings behind the rituals during tribal gatherings and ceremonials of the tribe.

Chief Riley Sunrise was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma, and adopted by a Kiowa family. He lived at Second Mesa, Arizona, on the Hopi Reservation and acted in several films before becoming part of Disneyland's Indian Village. In 1957, the Soviet Press reported that Frontierland was holding Indians in captivity to amuse "capitalist visitors", [but] Chief Riley Sunrise retorted "Captivity my eye! How many Russians make $125 dollars a week?"

During Walt's lifetime, the Indian Village performers were treated very well, and paid an average of $35 a day during the late 1950s. Tribal performers were invited for a periodic contract with housing for the duration of their run at the park, much like the arrangement for college students working at WDW decades later.

The youngest performers working at Disneyland were at the Indian Village. From Disney News, spring 1967:

"Perhaps the best known Indians in the United States are the 14 young people who work in Frontierland, at Disneyland. With permission of their tribal councils, and in some cases, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, they perform ancient tribal dances for a million-and-a-half visitors each year.

"All are talented youngsters whose underlining purpose in working at the Park is to erase a long-held impression here and abroad that all Indians are war-whooping savages capable of little else than forever galloping across television and movie screens.

"They have a proud heritage to talk about, and talk about it they do. In their colorful performances, they contribute to a broader understanding of Indian traditions, while at the same time dedicating themselves to preserving the customs and arts of their people."

These young performers according to the article participated in "140 half-hour shows a week (throughout the summer and on weekends and holidays) before a million-and-a-half visitors each year and then returned to their reservations and schools in the fall."

With the passing of Walt Disney in December 1966 and the social unrest in the late 1960s, challenges began to arise in the Indian Village. Described vaguely as "labor problems" with the Native American performers and the increasingly reduced interest in the area by guests now more interested in spacemen and aliens, Disneyland officially closed the Indian Village October 1971, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

The Indian war canoes were still popular, and were renamed Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes, now piloted by frontiersmen and women, and lasted seasonally for another 25 years. The site was transformed into Bear Country to showcase the new Country Bear Jamboree attraction the opened in 1972.

While the Indian Village closed in 1971, some of its spirit lived on. At the Disneyland Hotel was a miniature golf course that opened in 1961 called the Magic Kingdom Golf Course and hole number 12 was themed to the Indian Village. Ironically, it outlived the actual Indian Village by another seven years before the course was closed in 1978.

The Pacific Northwest totem poles that appeared in 1965 were relocated to Walt Disney World's Frontierland to find a new home near the train station. Though based on actual cultural designs and elements, many of these poles were crafted by artists at Oceanic Arts rather than Native American artists.

The trashcans that were cleverly designed to resemble tree stumps were relocated to WDW's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground.