In Hollywood, Natives on the big screen are barely represented, and if they are represented the role usually goes to someone who does not have Native heritage. This is why, when Marlon Brando won an Oscar in 1973, he famously did not attend and he had a Native woman (Sacheen Littlefeather) go on stage and reject the Academy Award. On stage in full regalia, Sacheen announced that Brando was rejecting the Oscar because of the poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry.
I am puzzled as to why -- 41 years after the Oscar rejection, and countless Hollywood stars portraying Natives with redface -- Rooney Mara is in negotiations to play Tiger Lily in the new version of Peter Pan. The announcement by Variety this week caused uproar, not only in the Native community, but also by many people who are outraged by another non-Native being cast as a Native character.
Now let me give you a little background on Tiger Lily. She is an Indian Princess who gets kidnapped by Hook because he thinks she has information on Peter Pan. In the Disney version, she does not speak except to say one word (“Help”), but she does give Peter a kiss, which makes Wendy storm off in jealousy. Many people say Peter Pan is already quite insulting to Native American people, with the Natives being stereotypically stoic and saying, “How.”
There are also the songs -- in the Broadway Version there is “Ugg-A-Wug” and in the Disney version there's the song “What makes the Red man Red?” It gives us lyrics like, “Once the injun didn’t know all the things that he know now, but the Injun sure learn a lot, and it’s all from asking ‘how'?”
If they are going to go with Mara as Tiger Lily, I should hope that don't have her remain a Native American character. I would hope that all Native American elements would be taken out of the role. We cannot have another actor in redface and have young people think it's OK. This is not the first time Hollywood in the last five years has done this, with the casting of some of the Native characters in Twilight and the casting of Johnny Depp (his heritage is questionable, though he’s said he has Native American blood) in The Lone Ranger. We have a very talented field of actors who could and should be cast in these high profile big budget films. Native Americans cannot make it to the A-List if even the roles designed for us are taken away.
The casting of Mara is part of a bigger issue. Now there has been talk that they are mixing up the whole cast, originally they were looking at Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o to play Tiger Lily. If this actually happens, and they don’t just white wash Peter Pan it might be great. But what does this mean for Native actors? Is Hollywood going to switch it up for us and have, let’s say, Wendy be a Native American -- or even Peter Pan? It’s time that Hollywood realizes that there is Native talent out there. There are beautiful women who could have blown Hollywood away auditioning for Tiger Lily, but they didn’t even have that option. We are not an option in their eyes.
The fact of the matter, in view of the world, is that we do need that role. This is about one of our people being in a big budget movie so that we can break into the mainstream. It will take that one role for an actor to start changing the way people around the world perceive our community. It will take that one actor, or singer, or artist, to break through and make people realize we are still here. We are still waiting for that moment, and this was an opportunity lost for that to happen.
There are not a lot of mainstream roles out there for Native actresses, although we have some great actresses: Devery Jacobs (Rhymes for Young Ghouls), Tanaya Beatty (Twilight, Arctic Air), and Julia Jones (Twilight) -- among many others who have both the talent and the beauty to be an A-List actor.
We can only wait and see what they do with Rooney and the character. Although I do hope that especially after the fiasco of Johnny Depp playing Tonto, that they at least refrain from painting her in redface -- because that, along with barely-there buckskin and a headdress, would be an even greater slap in the face.
Give us a chance Hollywood, I guarantee we will surprise you.