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In the Disney+ ‘Peter Pan & Wendy,’ Alyssa Wapanatâhk plays Tiger Lily : NPR


After decades of offensive portrayals of Native people in Peter Pan — both the original and the remakes — the new Disney+ movie Peter Pan & Wendy, cast Cree actor Alyssa Wapanatâhk as Tiger Lily.



AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

After more than a hundred years, Peter Pan still refuses to grow up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “PETER PAN & WENDY”)

ALEXANDER MOLONY: (As Peter Pan) There are no rules, no schools, no bedtimes, no mothers and fathers. And most of all…

EVER ANDERSON: (As Wendy Darling) No growing up.

MOLONY: (As Peter Pan) That most of all.

RASCOE: A new version of the old classic is streaming on Disney+. And the filmmakers made an effort to fix a character now widely considered racist. In “Peter Pan & Wendy,” Tiger Lily is played by Native actor Alyssa Wapanatahk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “PETER PAN & WENDY”)

ALYSSA WAPANATAHK: (As Tiger Lily) Wendy, (speaking Cree)?

ANDERSON: (As Wendy Darling) Pardon?

WAPANATAHK: (As Tiger Lily) Are you the Wendy?

RASCOE: NPR’s Elizabeth Blair takes a look at how that process went.

WAPANATAHK: I am from the Bigstone Cree First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in Canada, but I grew up in a very small town called Conklin, Alberta.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: And in that small town, Alyssa Wapanatahk says she loved Disney movies.

WAPANATAHK: Every Disney film was, like, my jam. That’s how my family was. We loved all the classics.

BLAIR: Including the 1953 animated version of “Peter Pan.”

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “PETER PAN”)

KATHRYN BEAUMONT: (As Wendy Darling) How do we get to Neverland?

BOBBY DRISCOLL: (As Peter Pan) Fly, of course.

BEAUMONT: (As Wendy Darling) Fly?

DRISCOLL: (As Peter Pan) It’s easy.

WAPANATAHK: But, of course, there was some stuff that was not done accurately.

BLAIR: Among the racist depictions of Indigenous people is a song called “What Makes The Red Man Red.”

WAPANATAHK: We all grew up with that. As Indigenous people, we saw representation that was not done right.

BLAIR: So Wapanatahk was thrilled that Disney+ not only cast her, a Native actor, but also sought out her feedback.

WAPANATAHK: I was able to bring my culture into it and bring my language into it and just do what I wanted with the role.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “PETER PAN & WENDY”)

WAPANATAHK: (As Tiger Lily, speaking Cree).

Her costume is taken from a lot of the archives that we looked at. And taken from this day and age are dance regalia that we would use in powwow. So you’ll see a lot of the same type of work that’s on there, like the beadwork, the handmade quill work that’s on there. Same with on her horse. Her horse’s saddle is also very similar to her costume.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

BLAIR: Tiger Lily watches over the Lost Boys on Neverland.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “PETER PAN & WENDY”)

DIANA TSOY: (As Birdie) ‘Cause if you don’t know stories, then you’re an imposter.

FLORENCE BENSBERG: (As Curly) And you know what we do with imposters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARROW SHOOTING)

BLAIR: Some of the Lost Boys wear moccasins made by artisan Jamie Gentry.

JAMIE GENTRY: I am Da’naxda’xw and Mamalilikulla from the Kwakwaka’wakw nation.

BLAIR: Gentry says one day, out of the blue, a costume designer she didn’t know reached out to her asking if she’d like to make moccasins for a Disney movie.

GENTRY: I was kind of flabbergasted at first and – like, I’m just, you know, one person in the world. And how she managed to find me…

BLAIR: Gentry says viewers might not even notice her moccasins.

GENTRY: It’s not like, you know, there’s a spotlight on them or anything, but I know that they’re there. And so that felt really special to be able to do that.

BLAIR: In the original J. M. Barrie story, Peter Pan rescues Tiger Lily after she’s kidnapped by Captain Hook. But in the new Disney+ movie, it’s Tiger Lily who saves Peter – more than once. In one scene, Peter is knocked unconscious after falling down a giant vortex. Tiger Lily heals him with a medicinal plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “PETER PAN & WENDY”)

WAPANATAHK: (As Tiger Lily, speaking Cree).

MOLONY: (As Peter Pan) Where is everyone? Where’s Tink?

ADRIENNE KEENE: Peter Pan would not be alive at the end of the film without Tiger Lily’s intervention and without Indigenous knowledge intervention.

BLAIR: Adrienne Keene is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a faculty member at Brown University. She says the authenticities in the new “Peter Pan” movie are remarkable but not enough.

KEENE: No matter how authentic and nuanced and perfect the portrayal of the Native people is, the bottom line is you are still placing actual Indigenous folks alongside fairies and mermaids and all of these fantasy creatures. And that’s not something that is ever going to be positive for Indigenous people today.

BLAIR: Both Keene and Alyssa Wapanatahk do see signs of progress in Hollywood. They both cite the recent movie “Prey.” But, Wapanatahk says, it’s just a start.

WAPANATAHK: And I feel like it’s going to just blow up. I imagine it’s going to blow up. And I hope so because I have a few projects that I would like to bring out, as well (laughter).

BLAIR: In addition to the new “Peter Pan” movie, Disney+ is streaming the old 1953 version. A disclaimer before the film begins reads, this program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. The statement continues, rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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