Paper Topic: Media Representations of Native Americans as Children in Catlin, Apess, Disney’s Peter Pan

For my final paper, I intend to look into the portrayal of Native Americans as children both in 19th century readings (Apess, Catlin) and more contemporary media (“What Makes the Red Man Red?” from Disney’s Peter Pan; I plan on finding others as well but have had some trouble with my off campus library access today!). In all of these works, natives are portrayed as lesser beings than their white counterparts, but in a sense that it is not “their fault” because they are ignorant, naïve, and unruly, just like children. Apess is especially interesting when delving into this topic because he comes from a “white” upbringing, but still feels a connection towards his Native American brethren.

The crux of this issue is that, in the 19th century works at least, the authors are attempting to further the image of Natives to the American society by using the “child” argument to give excuses for the natives’ differences. I would like to look into how natives are portrayed in the more recent media, and whether or not this twisted “charity” aspect is present, or if it has just become the norm to display natives as lesser beings.  Finally, I will look into implications this has on the current Native American community both in the 19th century and today.


The link to the Peter Pan clip I plan on using:


  1. Do Apess and Catlin realize their rhetorical strategies regarding Native Americans in fact do more harm than good?
  2. What impact did this childish portrayal have on the Native American community in the 19th century? More recently?
  3. Have there been any attempts by Native American groups (or others) to dissuade audiences from believing this portrayal?
  4. How have the childish portrayals, and motives for such a portrayal, shifted from the 19th century to now? What implications does this have?

***If anyone has ideas for more recent media portrayals regarding natives, I would especially love that feedback!


13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by lpeake on October 27, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    I really think this is a great topic, and not one I’d really thought about before. While I’ve read a bit on the racist portrayal of Native Americans in Peter Pan, it’s never looked at them being treated as children.

    I think it would be relevant for you to also look at the Peter Pan novel.

    5. In what ways is the depiction of Native Americans in the Peter Pan novel similar or different than the Disney depiction? Are the same stereotypes represented?

  2. Posted by al002 on October 27, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Very interesting topic perhaps the movie “The Indian in the Cupboard” would help. Although he is not a child, being reduced to the size of a small action figure-size has made him helpless and naive requiring the help of the ‘white’ boy who brought him to like. The question I found most interesting was “1. Do Apess and Catlin realize their rhetorical strategies regarding Native Americans in fact do more harm than good?” Another question I would suggest would be:

    6. By portraying Native Americans as childish or children relate to them being a part/offspring of the feminized nature?

  3. Posted by rebsheppard on October 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    I think your proposed topic of the implications of Native Americans being portrayed as childlike in the works of Catlin, Apess, and in “Peter Pan” is thought-provoking worthy of research.

    I think your last question would be a good jumping-off point for your research, as you asked “How have the childish portrayals, and motives for such a portrayal, shifted from the 19th century to now? What implications does this have?” However, I think that you’d need to provide solid evidence that the trend of the infantilization of Native Americans did in fact begin in the 19th century, and trace the roots of this phenomenon to its origin before you begin to synthesize your texts in your research. Good topic.

  4. What a fun topic! This is definitely thinking outside the box! My favorite question is the first one: Do Apess and Catlin realize their rhetorical strategies regarding Native Americans in fact do more harm than good.

    Another questions I might propose in addition to that one: Does relating Native Americans to children somehow link them closer to nature (childlike innocence that does not exploit that land for personal gain)?

    Check out this website:

    I didn’t know any of the movies but the few mentioned above (and Pochahontas) but you might! And I know some children’s movies were mixed in there too.

  5. Posted by brightgirl04 on October 28, 2011 at 12:07 am

    I think everyone has given you good advice so far as to look at the novel but I think you need to consider whether Peter Pan is enough to go off of could adding more movies to compare help you lose your focus or will you not have enough space to write on more than one or two movies. Don’t let adding too many examples muddle your argument. I am especially interested in question three about whether Native Americans have combatted their negative portrayal.

  6. Very fascinating ideas!! I wonder why it is considered so naturally that for Indians to be portrayed as children that makes them lesser beings. Because they’re less evolved or less civilized? I think question #1 is interesting.

    Question: If Native Americans become civilized adults do they cease to be Native Americans?

  7. Posted by kwalley on October 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Awesome idea! I have always enjoyed Peter Pan and never gave a second thought to its depiction of Native Americans. I particularly like your third question about the attempts of Native Americans to dissuade audiences from these stereotypical portrayals. Another question to consider might be:

    9. What literature or media is there to provide a contrasting opinion on Native Americans? From what point of view was this created and was it effective?

  8. 3.Have there been any attempts by Native American groups (or others) to dissuade audiences from believing this portrayal?

    This is a good question because it adds more complexity to your arguement instead of just focusing on the negative images. It will be interesting to know whether other people took the time portray an accurate reflection of Native Americans.

    Another question: How is nature portrayed alongside the stereotypes of Native Americans?

  9. Posted by christys21 on October 28, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    I like the way your heading with your topic.
    Another question, or two, I would ask is:

    If there are any legitimate works trying to correct the indian’s “childish” portrayals, are they working. Are people who see more recent and accurate depictions of indians changing their mind about how they portrayed the individual beforehand?

    and the other would be analyzing the exact way that Catlin uses to portray the indians in such a manner. What words or actions does he use that make this argument?

  10. Posted by teagueoreagan on October 28, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    I like question one because it opens the door for the consideration of Christianity’s affect on the depiction of natives. If I may, to answer the question in part, Apess distinctly does more harm than good as he looks upon natives as needing to accept Christ. This is a prevailing mentality and interestingly enough it is provided here by a man who is Native American himself.
    I would add the questions:
    To what degree does the prevailing colonial mentality of needing to civilize the savage play into their depiction as children? What is the role of religion in this equation (I believe it is an important role)? And how is it convenient to portray such hackneyed and incorrect concepts in media and why is it still regarded as not a travesty to perpetuate these false and hurtful ideologies?

  11. I think it is interesting that you assume being compared to a child/ having childlike qualities is necesarily a negative thing. In some cultures the freedom, honesty, and equality of a child’s mind is well respected. For example in Apess’ piece he is combating the portrayal of Indians in a positive light by quoting scripture to appeal to his primarily Christian audience. So I think another perspective might be

    13.) Does being represented as children show admiration/respect to Indians in any literature? if so, in what ways are childlike behaviors actually a good portrayal of them? Is there any truth in the portrayal of Indians as children or is it a complete misconception?

  12. Excellent topic! I like your question #4 the most because it establishes good reasons for reading these texts together. Within this context, it could make sense to bring in Pocahontas as well. You could also take a look at “The Indian in the Cupboard,” as al002 suggested. And although not solely a children’s film or one focused on Native Americans, “Avatar” did infantilize native peoples a bit.

    The answer to question #3 is definitely yes, but you’ll need to do some research for examples. Here’s one to start you off:

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