Writing to Decolonize Neverland

Native children matter. Their lives matter, their relationships with their communities matter, and their stories matter.

As a kid, my mom used to tell me lots of stories. One of my favorites was about a boy who never grew up, who stole children away and whisked them off to a fantastical island populated by fairies, pirates, mermaids, beasts, and (of course) the Natives of Neverland. Theatremakers, filmmakers, and adapters have been wrestling with how best to deal with Neverland’s fictional tribe for years. When I returned to the story as an adult with my own pie-in-the-sky idea of writing a story that centered on Neverland’s Native tribe, I soon realized that it would take more than putting Native people at the center of Peter Pan’s story. The play that ultimately came out of this process, Crocodile Day, became a story about Native kids telling their own stories.

Crocodile Day begins with Rooster, a storyteller and elder, asking the audience, “Every island needs a good origin story, right?” Many of our Native tribes, nations, and communities have held onto our origins, from the Diné Bahaneʼ to the Osage story of the Little Ones. The Neverland tribe presented me with a dilemma. Despite them living on an island, Barrie clearly described them as if they were a tribe from the Plains. I decided to use this contradiction to imagine my origin for the Neverland tribe. I was inspired by Old Lady Horse’s telling of “The Buffalo Go,” a Kiowa story in which the encroachment of settlers forces the Buffalo to disappear into the side of the mountain. I wondered, what if a small band of Kiowa followed the buffalo, and what if walking through that mountain led them to this strange island? Now, no longer were these people some generic, cowboys-and-Indians type of tribe. They were Kiowa, but Kiowa who had long ago been displaced from their land and their people.

Displacement became a central theme in the play going forward. While the tribe had escaped colonization temporarily, the influence of the British pirates and the Lost Boys has begun to creep in. Satesan, a kid who’s grown up on the island, is beginning to question how the tribe’s traditions are relevant to his life. Why are they preserving customs that made sense to them on the plains, but not on the island? Why do they keep insisting the island is their land when it’s not their ancestral land? How do they even know if the traditions they are preserving are still “Kiowa,” when they’ve been separated from most Kiowa for generations? “I love the old stories,” Satesan says, “but all they talk about is how our ancestors used to live on the Plains. What about where we live now?”

His twin sister Tho says that his questions are stupid. She doesn’t even think about these things. “Trust in the stories,” she says. But when the stories fail them, when she realizes how much the settlers’ influence has corrupted Neverland, she is forced to reevaluate her assumptions. Both realize that their world does not fit into their traditional stories any more.

Growing up, the only Native community I knew was my mom’s family. It was through my Grandpa’s stories that I came to understand what it meant to be Indigenous. But his stories always seemed distant to me, always taking place in the far-off land of Kansas, where neither I nor my mom had ever lived. Kansas was only further mystified by my Grandpa’s nostalgia for his childhood. I had trouble seeing my twenty-first century Californian self in the stories he told about his reverence for a buffalo hide his cousin owned or the heroic acts of Satanta. 

I had no trouble seeing myself in Peter Pan. I had a penchant for tricksters, so of course the irreverent, magical, spritely forever-boy made sense to me. Peter can be so many things— a brave child, a nostalgic dream, a descendant of British and Gaelic fae stories, an allegory for queer or trans masculinity— take your pick! Besides that, I was absorbing a century’s worth of movies, music, TV shows, plays, children’s books, toys, art, gardens, amusement park rides, and peanut butter telling me you are Peter, you are not that damsel in distress Tiger Lily or those nameless Indians. Peter is the hero, those people are set dressing.

Yet, I knew that wasn’t true either. I was not the lily-white boy with rosy cherub cheeks. I was somewhere on Neverland, somewhere between the thieving Lost Boys and the stereotyped Natives, but I did not have a map to show me where.

We have all grown up many generations in the wake of colonization. Often, a great deal of our identity is predicated on the values of (or in reaction to) the colonizer. This is a crisis and a confrontation that Indigenous people have to face every day. This is the challenge that young Native people are faced with as they, like all young people, explore their own identities. Through Satesan and Tho’s story, I hope to offer Native kids the language to reject the harmful narratives thrust upon them. I wanted to give voice to this struggle, the search for that place where Indigenous traditions passed down by our elders meets our modern experiences. I began to draw the map so that they can forge their own paths.You don’t have to be Peter.

Towards the end of the play, Satesan asks his sister, “Don’t you ever feel like there’s so many stories out there, but there’s a story that nobody bothered to tell, and it’s yours?” It’s nothing new for a Native writer to tell the stories of Native people, even Native children. But as the future of Native children’s relationship with their communities is threatened and the sovereignty of Native American nations is challenged on a national scale, I have noticed both the resurgence of harmful narratives about Native people and, strangely, a lack of focus on Native children themselves. When will they no longer be treated as collateral, as problem, as possession to be passed around by a court order? When will they be allowed to be brilliant, vibrant, irreverent, magical? (The answer is in their own tribes and communities, but I’m talking about in the larger cultural consciousness). When will they be allowed to fly?

There is so much more that I could write about in my attempts to decolonize Neverland by writing Crocodile Day, from the incorporation of Kiowa language to sewing in Indigenous storytelling and dramaturgy. Maybe I will. If you’re curious, you can check out Crocodile Day on the Playscripts website.

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