‘Peter Pan Live’ is fixing Hollywood’s ‘Ugg-A-Wugg’ problem

It”s been a high profile year for American Indian and First Nations people. From Pharrell donning a sacred headdress as a fashion accessory, to the ongoing struggle to change the name of the Washington Redskins to something not associated with the butchery and scalping of American Indians, Native Americans and their allies have been pushing back against stereotypes. 

For centuries, America has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the lasting aftermath of the genocide our country is built on. But the effects still reverberating in modern times, skewing our perception of what is and is not “offensive.”  While Blackface and Yellowface are rightfully condemned and shunted off into the dust of history, you can still be a “sexy Indian” for Halloween. You can still cast Johnny Depp as Tonto or Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily and not even blink an eye.

But not all corners of the media machine are content with the erasure and marginalization of America”s original inhabitants. NBC and “Peter Pan Live!” are stepping things up. When the musical airs Thursday night, newcomer Alanna Saunders will take on the role of Tiger Lily. Saunders' Cherokee Nation heritage might be slight – her claim comes from her paternal great-grandmother – but NBC actively sought out a Native American singer/actress for the role. Better still, the song “Ugg-a-Wugg” has been updated. If you”re unfamiliar, here”s the original rendition.

Ahead of live broadcast, NBC enlisted the help of Amanda Meron – daughter of “Peter Pan” lyricist Adolph Green – to overhaul the song. Meron in turn sought the services of Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha” Tate. Together they reworked the song into something more appropriate, entitled “True Blood Brothers.”

According to Meron, from an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

“Amanda has consulted with our Native American consultant [Jerod Tate], just in terms of replacing ‘Ugg-a-Wugg” with something more traditionally Native American-which has been approved by them and the rights holders. Now and forever, this will hopefully be the version [in the show],” Meron said. Green said the process involved “stripping it down and taking out things that were silly in the day it was written and offensive today.” The new version of the song has Native American phrases, while “nonsense syllables” have been replaced with nursery rhymes.

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. In response to these changes, Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian and member of the Pawnee Nation, shared the Smithsonian's approval.

“The National Museum of the American Indian commends NBC for taking the initiative and reaching out to Native artists to consult on the production of Peter Pan to ultimately create a new version of Tiger Lily for this generation of Peter Pan fans,” said Gover.

As to the argument that Tiger Lily can be played by any race due to her fictional nature, Gover continued. “Tiger Lily was an imaginary Indian – she was created decades ago for a storybook. Although a character, and a beloved one at that, she didn”t (and her song didn”t) represent the American Indians of the past nor today. This new interpretation of Tiger Lily is closer to our heritage, our culture and portrays a deeper sensitivity and helps diminish the many stereotypes surrounding Native Americans.”

Perhaps one day there will be discussions on if the Native Americans portrayed in J.M. Barrie”s original work were based on stereotypes children conjure when playing make-believe. Or perhaps one day children will no longer stereotype native peoples as an exotic “Other,” and we”ll look at Barrie”s work for what it is: a problematic product of its time. Either way, moving forward to a place where a traditionally oppressed and caricatured minority is treated with dignity and respect is something we should all strive for. “Peter Pan Live” is a good a place as any to start.

“Peter Pan Live!” airs on NBC, Thursday December 3 at 8/7c.