Dances with Disney: Disrupting Indigenous Stereotypes in Children’s Media

By Rachael Nuckles

As Native American Heritage Month comes to an end, I’ve been thinking about media representation and how various stereotypes have been perpetuated in television throughout history. This month also marked the release of the new streaming platform, Disney Plus. The media powerhouse, while most often associated with children’s programming, is responsible for much of the media we consume. Most recently, Disney acquired Fox in a multi-billion dollar deal, meaning that the conglomerate now owns approximately 35% of movie production alone. Disney has a long history of problematic racial stereotypes in children’s media, so it seems relevant to consider both Disney and its representation of Indigenous people to honor this month’s theme. I want to look at one of the times I think Disney got it right: Pepper Ann. This series was Disney’s first animated series created by a (white) woman, running from 1997-2000, remaining the only one until 2015. Pepper Ann‘s creator, Sue Rose, originally wrote the character as a comic strip for a teen magazine. It was purchased by Disney TV Animation in 1996 in a push for more female characters.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month and my rediscovery of Pepper Ann, let’s consider the episode “Dances with Ignorance.”  Despite Disney’s long history of racist representations, this ten-minute episode is an outlier which challenges problematic media stereotypes through its title character. In the episode, Pepper Ann, a seventh-grade white girl, is thrilled to learn that she has Navajo ancestors, thinking that she will get to present something more “exotic” than her peers for a family genealogy project. It’s an all-too-common story of a white person appropriating an identity that is largely not hers to claim, othering the group in the process. As she researches, her friends express concerns that she is focusing too much on stereotypes and not enough on actual history. While Pepper Ann makes generalized assumptions about all Indigenous people, her friends focus on specificity to learn about the traditions of the Navajo people. Instead of taking her friends’ advice to look deeper than surface level, she invites some of her relatives over for dinner to show them just how much she thinks she knows about their culture. It is clearly a cringeworthy display. Consider this still of Pepper Ann and her relative, Dave, for a visual of her problematic behavior:

Screenshot of Pepper Ann in “Dances with Ignorance” (Source: YouTube)

As the dinner progresses, it becomes clear that Pepper Ann is less focused on actually learning about her heritage and more concerned about showing off. When her relative Carol points out that the braid she’s wearing is a Lakota tradition, not Navajo, Pepper Ann interrupts to explain she was going for a “Pocahontas thing.” This is worth highlighting as it refers to another animated Disney feature which has helped to construct the very stereotypes Pepper Ann has accepted as factual throughout the episode. Nearly every time her Navajo relatives try to correct her incorrect assumptions, she is unwilling to listen or acknowledge her behavior. They leave offended, which leads to the following exchange between Pepper Ann her immediate family:

Pepper Ann: What happened? I thought I was just learning about my background!

Moose: That’s just it, Peppy. You weren’t interested in learning anything. They barely got to talk.

Pepper Ann: All I wanted to do was show them how much I knew about our culture from stuff I picked up on TV, and in the movies, and in comic books…

Mom: Yes, but that’s what stereotyping is, Peppy. Even when it’s done with the best of intentions. You can’t believe things about any group of people without getting to know them first!

Indeed, while Pepper Ann might have had good intentions, she failed to acknowledge the way her actions might harm others. In fact, her actions have privileged her own voice while silencing those she supposedly wanted to learn about. So, she pays an apologetic visit to her Navajo relatives and spends the evening eating Chinese takeout and learning the real history of her ancestors, no stereotypes attached. In the end, they even come to support her giving the presentation to the class. 

What’s so important about this ten-minute episode is its ability to condense a critique of problematic media representation into cartoon format; it is accessible to the young people watching without diminishing the problem’s real-world importance. Pepper Ann’s behaviors throughout are inexcusable; everyone from her friends to her family visibly react with discomfort and verbally respond with disapproval. However, they also take the time to correct her behavior. Her family teaches her how to think more critically about media representations and her personal othering.

Pepper Ann, as a whole, is a revolutionary show that has been largely forgotten. While I’ve only been able to rewatch a few episodes so far, I love its accessible messaging and unapologetically feminist undertones. If you haven’t been introduced to this quirky, red-headed seventh grader, I would recommend viewing an episode or two to draw your own conclusions about its messaging. Cartoons are often dismissed as unimportant artifacts of popular culture, but the role they have in shaping ideology is undeniable. So, next time you’re watching a “kid’s” show, pay attention to its messaging and ask . . . what is this programming really communicating? While stereotypes about Indigenous people typically involve generalization, “Dances With Ignorance” is careful to reject this strategy and uses specificity in its representation of Pepper Ann’s Navajo relatives. Moving forward, we can look to this episode as a positive example of representation that works to break down, rather than reinforce, stereotypes.


Resources


Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and “bedroom culture,” technology-based activism, and performance studies.

Appropriating Indigenous Culture through Body Modification

By Marian Phillips

We’ve all seen the image of a young white woman in a traditional Native American headdress prancing around Coachella. Every year, the image grows increasingly distasteful and racist. Despite the internet’s call for festival goers to abandon this appropriation of a culture that is not theirs, they have not. Recently, it was brought to my attention that a cast member of the television show Love Island (2015-), Chris Taylor, has a tattoo of a woman in a Native American headdress. Understandably so, Native American groups have criticized the permanent piece that features symbols of Indigenous cultures that this man does not identify with. 

The Native American Rights Fund group stated that the piece is not only inappropriate and offensive, it is damaging to their community. The popular culture website, Heart, interviewed the group to comment on the situation. They resonded with, ““The use of these images was often rooted in an extensive history of abuse, discrimination, and conquest. The growing body of research around the use of these images shows that they have a harmful impact on our youth, and the youth of non-native people as well.” [1] This made my wheels turn. I am a heavily tattooed individual who has been deeply invested in the body modification community for nearly ten years. The conversation on the negative impact of permanently displaying a symbol of someone else’s culture, identity, or trauma is constantly happening and being argued over. 

For instance, in the early 2010s, the popularity of tattoos of dream catchers or Native American headdresses was at an all time high. One google search of either will show you an overabundance of these images, almost always on individuals that do not identify with or belong to the tribes these images are derived from. Even worse, it is not uncommon for a tattoo featuring any Native American imagery to be a gross amalgamation of multiple tribes, completely disregarding the importance of a specific symbol to a specific tribe’s identity. When a white person takes a symbol that does not belong to them and permanently places it on their body, it is another form of cultural appropriation and conquest. 

The ownership of Native cultures has been torn from them through the violent processes of colonization. Murder, rape, and the forced removal of Native peoples from their land was how white colonizers stole their culture (via Native bodies). To speak of Native cultural symbols as belonging to Native people, is to acknowledge the continual act of reclaiming their culture from white colonizers. There is no single Native American culture; however, all of them have experienced the violence of colonization. Therefore, when white people tattoo their bodies with unspecified indigenous cultural symbols, such as the dream catcher, the body modification represents white colonial power, not respect for Native culture.

While there is a strong debate within the tattoo community over appreciation versus appropriation, we must turn to the model of the Coachella incidents of white women wearing headdresses. These festival goers did not take into account the deeply symbolic meaning of the headdress, the purposes of eagle feathers, and who receives the honor of wearing it. Therefore, they appropriated Native American culture and heritage. This is just the same when one considers tattooing this symbol on their body permanently. Yes, some people may do their research and gain some semblance of knowledge on it, but ultimately, they have no ownership over these symbols. When non-Native people put a Native American headdress or dreamcatcher on their body, they are staking a claim of ownership, which is inherently disrespectful towards Native people.   

This piece does not serve the intention of trash-talking someone who already has these symbols tattooed on them or tattoo artists that specialize in them either. Rather, I would like to assert that we reconsider what we place on our bodies, what it actually means, what it can perpetuate, and our position when we actively participate in damaging a Native American community by asserting that we can own their cultural symbols. 


Notes

[1] Alice Dear, “Native American Group Slams Love Island Star Chris Taylor’s ‘Offensive’ Tattoos,” Heart, Heart, 12 July 2019, http://www.heart.co.uk/showbiz/tv-movies/love-island/chris-taylor-native-american-tattoo/.


Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s and Gender History department at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include LGBT History, Horror, Gay Liberation Movements, and 18th Century Literature.