Injun Trouble: The Neverland Tribe

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

I guess it is a lifetime of too many elementary school pageants and projects, but when Thanksgiving comes around my thoughts immediately go to Native Americans.

Recently, I had to write an article about the Indians in the Disney animated feature Peter Pan and once again I was shocked at how little information existed about these exaggerated stereotypes, other than the usual outrage at the song “What Made the Red Man Red?”

Apparently, even during the initial release of the film, there was hesitation to focus on the Indians since, even the original pressbook for the film omitted references to the Neverland tribe in its prewritten publicity blurbs for newspapers.

While restudying the film, I noticed that, at the end of the “following the leader,” sequence, the serious John Darling, brother of Wendy, finds a single barefoot footprint that is black.

“Indians! Ah! Blackfoot tribe. Belongs to the Algonquian group. Quite savage, you know,” remarks John just before they are surrounded and captured by the Indians.

Even as a kid, I was smart enough to realize that all the Indians in the film wore moccasins so they couldn’t have made that single footprint unless it was intended for a trap. I suspected it was just an obvious sight gag: A black bare foot print meant it must be the Blackfoot tribe. Ha. Ha.

However, as I was researching the article, out of boredom I looked at information about the Blackfoot Indian tribe. After all, writing articles about Pocahontas educated me to the fact that there were many different North American Indian tribes that had a wide variety of specific customs and lifestyles including the fact that Pocahontas’ tribe didn’t have royalty, so she couldn’t be a princess.

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. Yet, Peter Pan has an authentic Indian princess.

"Blackfoot" is the English translation of the word siksika, which literally means "black foot." It refers to the dark colored moccasins the people wear.

The Blackfeet Indians are original residents of the northern Plains, particularly Montana and Idaho. The Blackfoot lived in buffalo-hide houses called teepees (just like the Neverland tribe). Blackfoot women wore long deerskin dresses. Men wore buckskin tunics and breechcloths with leggings (just like the Neverland tribe).

Both Blackfeet women and men wore moccasins on their feet.

Blackfeet chiefs wore tall feather headdresses. Men wore their hair in three braids with a topknot or pompadour, and women wore their hair loose or in two thicker braids.

Blackfeet people painted their faces for special occasions. They used different patterns for war paint, religious ceremonies, and festive decoration. All of this was evident in the Neverland Tribe.

The Blackfeet usually communicated with other tribes using the Plains Indian Sign Language Plains. The Blackfoot treated war differently than European countries did. They didn't fight over territory but rather to prove their courage, and so Plains Indian war parties rarely fought to the death and almost never destroyed each other's villages. 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. The Europeans who first met them were surprised by how often the Blackfoot tribe fought with their neighbors—even the different Blackfoot bands often fought one another—yet how easily they made peace with each other when they were done fighting.

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.”

n 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 10th 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. Of course, Idaho was also the home of the Blackfoot tribe.

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. 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, 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.

Peter Pan wasn’t as serious a project. It 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.

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.” (Davis ran into similar challenges when he was designing the never-built attraction Western River Expedition for Walt Disney World that would have featured funny Indians to match the funny cowboys, outlaws and more.)

The Indian Chief for Peter Pan was designed and animated by the legendary Ward Kimball who was the supervising animator on countless memorable Disney animated characters, including Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio (1940). He had just finished work doing the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland (1951).

Originally, the solemn Indian chief was 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 Ward 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. Besides portraying the Indian Chief in Peter Pan (1953) he supplied the original voices for one of Maleficent's goons in Sleeping Beauty (1959) the Captain of the Guard in Robin Hood (1973) the Graveyard Executioner in the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland and Fidget the bat in The Great Mouse Detective (1986).

"When I recorded [the song “What Makes The Red Man Red?”], I sang it with 10 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.

The awe-inspiring Indian chief was always one of Candido’s favorite characters and he was proud that the face of the memorable character was partially modeled on his own facial expressions. However, not all of Candido’s distinctive physical aspects were copied by the animators.

"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. "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 an Indian princess, although the Disney Compnay hasn’t utilized her in their popular princess franchise. A single image of her was used by the storyman in his story pitch to successfully convince the executives at the Disney Company to make a feature-length animated film based on Pocahontas.

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. The evil Hook’s tormenting reminder that there is no path to the Happy Hunting Grounds afterlife through water never sways her courageous resolve to keep the secret that she promised never to share with the villain.

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

She is beautiful, courageous, playful and dignified and completely forgotten by Disney today.

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. Other female members of the tribe must watch quietly, take care of their baby papooses or gather firewood, but perky Tiger Lily is free to express herself with a private dance for Peter Pan.

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 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 animator, Ken O’Brien.

O’Brien was a character animator who started doing work at Disney on animated features, including Pinocchio (1940) and Bambi (1942) and continued producing memorable animation for the Disney Studio through the release of Sleeping Beauty (1959). He later moved over to WED and worked on Audio-Animatronics.

He was a close friend and one-time assistant of the legendary Fred Moore, renowned for his skill at drawing attractive animated female characters, including the female centaurs in Fantasia (1940) and the appealing teenage girls in All The Cats Join In (1946).

O’Brien was known around the Disney Studio as Moore’s “biggest fan” and he incorporated what he learned from Moore in the design and movement of Tiger Lily to make her cute, as well as athletically resourceful.

Animator Hal Ambro, who also did some animation on Tiger Lily, joined the Disney Studio in 1939 and was known for his strong craftsmanship on many of the supporting characters in Disney animated features like Alice in Wonderland (1951), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Sleeping Beauty (1959).

“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 Mark Kausler.

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 body language to communicate her emotions.

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.

As much as I love parts of Pocahontas and its attention to authenticity, I have got to admit that my heart belongs to the Neverland Tribe and the cute Tiger Lily who added tremendously to the adventure and fun of Peter Pan, despite their relatively brief appearance. I would welcome them to my Thanksgiving table.