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Disney: Fantasy American History

Dan Jones
11/26/12

At Walt Disney World you can have the world at your convenience, cultures of the world with many native cultures from abroad. At Epcot Center you can have the American experience of history with one exception: contemporary American Indians. The view they present of American Indians shows the lack of understanding prevalent in mainstream American society.

I first went to work at Disney in Imagineering. The Disney America project was to be a giant theme park in Virginia located near the old Manassas battlefield. The new theme park was to tell American History as only Disney could. We hardly got started before an outcry began from scholars, historians and academics. They argued that Disney, given its history with American and world history, had no damn business in the American history business!

This project started in the early 1990s and was canceled in 1994. At first, we were free to use any research or source and as many books by as many authors on American Indian history as we wanted. We could bring in consultants, so we started with Indians like Scott Momaday (Kiowa); Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek); and many others. Michael Cywink (Anishinabe) and Dr. John Pohl, were on staff. Dr Pohl is one of the leading authorities on Mesoamerican culture. When we had finished the storyboards to show the concepts we were working on, we brought in Michael Haney (Muscogee Creek) of the American Indian Movement for his opinion. We wanted this to be something special, something all American Indians would be proud of.

Even though the critics had never seen our designs, our historically correct works were cast into the lot with the rest and shut down. Our project was caught in Disney’s well deserved reputation as a purveyor of culturally inadequate and historically misaligned interpretations. Disney is not what you think it is. It's not about building something to educate your children; it preys on your children to get into your pockets, which is a great American shame. We scream about American Indian studies or history being a part of the American school system, but it’s not even in the mainstream. They say history belongs to the victor but that’s just not true—history belongs to the future so we collectively can build a greater union, to learn from the mistakes of the past. It’s a deliberate and shameful thing Disney has done to history and more pointedly to a whole people, namely American Indians. Without our participation, Disney will always be a hollow experience.

One day we were notified that a Japanese team from Tokyo Disney was in our shop; they had heard what we were doing and wanted to talk with us. We met with them through an interrupter. They explained to us that recent visitors from America had complained that the Indian portion of their river ride was offensive. They had 8x10 photos of the Indian automatons and the exhibits they were in. Michael Cywink (Anishinabe) and I poured over the photos. We noticed the regalia was sloppy. We tried to identify the tribe, but it was a hodgepodge. What was most offensive was what the Indians were doing: dragging a white woman off into the woods, while another group burned the house with occupants still inside. So we told the Japanese team that yes, some Indians may be offended by these things. The regalia was one point, but mainly this is only one side of a story. Indians were not the antagonists in every situation; there were atrocities carried out by both sides in war. We suggested some changes and some research they needed to make it fair and more historically correct so it would be educational as well. We didn’t think much more about it after they left. Until another Imagineer who had been listening made the comment, “That’s the same ride we have at Anaheim.”  Cywink and I had the same expression, that blank look. “Yeah, same thing!” he echoed.

Cywink and I got on the phone and made arrangements with security at Disneyland in Anaheim to visit the exhibit. So we cleared the visit with Imagineering. When we arrive at Disneyland, security escorted us through the back lot to the river ride. The first person we met outside the ride was a man in suit, who immediately informed us that the ride had been closed down. We told him all we wanted to do is see the Indian exhibit and that the ride didn’t need to be operating. Nope, no way—the ride was shut down! Cy told the guy it was working an hour ago when we called. His only response was, “It happens.” That was a major disappointment, when reality hits you in the head like a sack of bricks. So what the hell was this all about?  To this day I have no clue. Disney America was shut down in 1994 and all our work was packed away to Disney archives.

In 1997, Disney, after the fray had settled down, restarted the Disney America Project. We didn’t get a call back. No Indians did. Disney had decided to use their non-Indian Imagineers to develop the new Indian section. They beefed up the river ride with one side of the story and with the shabbily dressed Indians attacking the white women. Disney failed again and their 1997 Disney America was shut down again, which was just as well for American Indians. Disney learned nothing about us from our efforts.

At best all I can say is, boycott Disney, all of it. Not just American Indians, but the millions of our allies as well. With so little on American Indians at Disney, it would be a disappointing trip for the young America Indian family that wakes up one morning, looks at one another and says, "Honey grab the kids, we’re going to Disney World!”

Dan (SaSuWeh) Jones is the former chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. He is a filmmaker and former vice chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, appointed by former Oklahoma Governor, Brad Henry.

 

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Anonymous's picture
I can appreciate what Mr. Jones has to say about Disney. As advocates (AIIFT) for the accurrate portrayal and images of our Native people, my direct consultations with Disney in regards to Johnny Depp and their latest contribution of 'TONTO & THE LONE RANGER" have been dismal at best. We (AIFT) join Mr. Jones in calling for an INTERNATIONAL BOYCOTT of all Disney Parks and films portraying our people. We will no longer stand idly by and allow our peoples culture, images and history to be maligned or mocked for the benefit of Disney corporate profit margins.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
The more things seem to change, the more they stay the same.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Finally, somehone has the courage to tell it like it is: Disney is P H O N Y.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I feel the story of the Native Americans has been poorly represented in our public and private schools. All my life I grew up thinking one thing about Native Americans, as my daughter grew and was learning about Native Americans through a friend I was introduced to a series of videos narrated by Kevin Cosnter called Five Hundred Nations written from diaries, letters, military documents, and journals of the pioneers, government officials and the like. I had always had an interest in your culture & carry with me many of your beliefs in my religion. I became so enraged at what really happened as apposed to what I was taught in school and media about your culture. I became very ashamed at my people for doing such a thing, all in the name of greed for money and power. I cried because our government has not honored their treaties and promises to the Native Americans. As we know from resent discoveries Christopher Columbus was not the first white man to discover America. I wish there was something I could do the make it right for the Native Americans. We get dinged every time we are late to pay a bill or sent to collection which ruins our life, so why not ding our government for not honoring their promises? That's just how I feel about the mess we created for the Native American people. If all the rich people gave a 10th of their fortunes to the less fortunate people our lives would be much richer with less struggle. My daughter has a small amount of Cherokee blood in her & my Great grandfather used to feed and help the Natives who camped on his wheat ranch in Eastern Washington, some of the gifts bestowed on him by the Native Americans are now displayed in Washington State in the Waterville museum. I feel or what has happened here and if there is any way I can ever help repay our dept or help the Native Americans I pray our heavenly father will put that in my path in life. If you have any positive comments please feel free to e-mail me yshbtdarci@gmail.com.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Boycott the Rat!
Anonymous
jamessimon500's picture
Perhaps one of your problems was bringing in a member of the American Indian Movement, especially if he peddled the falsified legacy of this violent group of thugs from the 1970s. On the other hand, AIM’s makeover in the history books, one would think, should have fit nicely with what you call Disney’s “…well deserved reputation as a purveyor of culturally inadequate and historically misaligned interpretations.” What went wrong?
jamessimon500
Anonymous's picture
I for one boycott Disney for many reasons all ready but this one SEALS THE DEAL! I would love to hear what AIM has to say on the matter (o:
Anonymous