At a progressive liberal arts school with its claims of social justice and commitment to do good in the world, I think many of us understand why Christopher Columbus, mass murderer, rapist, thief and general symbol for colonization, is not exactly the sort of guy worth honoring with a national holiday. It’s important to delegitimize these symbols by doing things like changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but I also think it’s important to notice the ways our own communities uphold structures of colonization and oppression. Though I know some time has passed, in the context of this week’s holiday I think there is still a lot to say that was left unsaid about an instance of indigenous erasure here at Brandeis: this year’s 24-Hour Musical.
Hillel Theater Group and Tympanium Euphorium’s 24-Hour Musical is one of my favorite Brandeis traditions. The creative and energetic show tends to be many students’ first introduction to theater at Brandeis and to Brandeis itself. Why then did this year’s musical, “Peter Pan,” rely on racist stereotypes and perpetuate a long tradition of indigenous erasure?
First of all, I would like to acknowledge that I, like essentially everyone else at this school, benefit from settler colonialism. To the best of my knowledge, Brandeis is located on occupied Massachusett Tribe territory. I am here because of the systematic genocide of those people and indigenous peoples across the country.
It’s also important to note that the term “indigenous peoples” falsely groups together many distinct populations whose experiences of colonialism and the world in general are vastly different. That said, I am going to continue using it for lack of ability to talk about individual communities at length.
Peter Pan’s Neverland is a world full of mermaids, fairies, ticking alligators and “Indians.” The problem with such a whimsical, magical, irrelevant place is that indigenous people
aren’t whimsical, magical and irrelevant but rather are very much alive in the world today. They face oppression in the form of environmental racism, dispossession of land, trauma from boarding schools and sexual violence, placement of youths in foster care, social stigma and many more systems of violence.
It’s convenient to think of indigenous genocide as a thing of the past—something we can feel guilty about but separate from. Empty guilt is lot easier than daily grappling with decolonizing our minds and behaviors, but it’s unacceptable. We must pay attention to the ways our actions uphold structures of white supremacy and settler-colonialism.
Non-indigenous people using offensive stereotypes to portray “Indians” for entertainment is red face. The token “Indian,” Tiger Lily, wore a feather headband and spoke in broken English and so-called ancient Indian proverbs. The song sung by the “Indian Ensemble” was called “Ugg-a-wugg” and included the line “puff-a-wuff, puff-a-wuff, puff-a-wuff, powwow.” The messy
blend of culturally loaded symbols with nonsense sends the message that it’s acceptable (if you’re from a place of privilege) to draw freely from other people’s experiences to create an image that’s not grounded in reality or even an attempt at understanding.
I was in the 24-Hour Musical for a few hours before dropping out, and during that time, various members of the production staff used copyright laws to justify “Peter Pan’s” blatant racism. Essentially, this is saying that laws around a show written in the 1950s have more legitimacy than indigenous peoples’ right to be recognized and respected.
So many people on the 24-Hour production staff had the opportunity to come to the conclusion that such a racist display would be unacceptable anywhere and especially at a school that prides itself on social justice and especially after Brandeis Ensemble Theater did so much work last year to promote socially conscious theater on campus. That the musical was chosen anyway shows a dangerous amount of unchecked privilege.
I was told to view the racism in “Peter Pan” as an artifact to show how much progress we’ve made, but in a country that still celebrates Columbus Day, without any broader dialogue—without even so much as a note in the program acknowledging the ways we continue to benefit from settler colonialism and considering the decision to dress people up in brown-fringed cloth and call them “Indians”—I have to wonder if we’ve made any progress at all