Disney Should Have Stopped

After facing backlash for its response to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Disney is under fire yet again, this time for a high school drill team’s performance at the Magic Kingdom theme park in Orlando. 

A video on Twitter shows the Texas-based Port Neches-Groves Independent School District “Indianettes” performing a routine at Walt Disney World. Clad in a purple uniform with white fringe, the students appear to mimic a tribal dance and at one point chant “scalp ‘em.” 

Disney said the performance was “not consistent with the audition tape the school provided” and that it has “immediately put measures in place so this is not repeated.”

“The live performance in our park did not reflect our core values, and we regret it took place,” an emailed statement reads.

Shannon O’Loughlin, CEO and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, called the performance “deeply horrendous.”

“Our children shouldn’t still be spouting this kind of language,” she told USA TODAY. “(It is) offensive to see Disney, of all places, who have been the perpetrators of racial stereotypes in history, allowing something like this in their park, this kind of song, regardless of the young, innocent voices singing it.”

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Cherokee Nation asks ‘offensive imagery’ to stop

Tara Houska, tribal attorney and co-founder of Not Your Mascots, a grassroots organization fighting against stereotypical Native representations in sports teams, said it was “not super shocking” when she came across the Indianettes’ performance online.

“I’ve seen iterations of leftover racism in the form of mascots in professional teams and collegiate level teams,” Houska, a citizen of Couchiching First Nation, told USA TODAY. “This one is unique just in the sense that it was really overt – like saying ‘scalp ‘em’ – and that it was at Disney parks.”

Houska shared the video of the performance in a tweet that has amassed more than 20,000 retweets, quote tweets and likes as of Friday evening. 

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Associated Press, USA TODAY

While Disney spokespeople said the performance was not consistent with the drill team’s audition tape, Houska pointed out that the group’s name and uniform are also offensive.

“(Disney) should not be giving a platform to overt racism,” Houska said. “If you’re a parent and you’ve got a small child there and your kid is seeing firsthand people being dehumanized right in front of them for fun – I mean, that’s not a good message to be sending our children.”

The school did not respond to multiple requests for comment from USA TODAY.

A spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation shared two letters that were sent to the school district in 2020 and 2021, asking the school to stop using “derogatory” imagery. The Cherokee Nation said the school district has yet to acknowledge its letters or requests.

A Friday statement from Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the traditions do “nothing but dishonor us and all Native American Tribes” and called on the school leaders to apologize after its performance at Disney World. 

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics says Port Neches-Groves high school had four students classified as American Indian or Alaska Native out of nearly 1,500 students in the 2020-2021 school year.

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The district issued a statement to KFDM-TV in Beaumont, Texas, saying it is “aware of the concern regarding the performance.”

“We are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our school district,” the statement reads. “Our district is nearing 100 years old and our Board of Trustees is committed to always making the best decisions for our students, staff, and the communities of Port Neches and Groves.”   

KFDM-TV reported this is the eighth time the school has performed the routine at Disney World, according to a school spokesperson. 

Disney’s history with Native American depictions

Over the years, Disney has been criticized for its depictions of Native Americans in films like “Peter Pan” and “Pocahontas.” Last year, Disneyland and Disney World removed racially insensitive depictions of Indigenous people from their Jungle Cruise attractions.

The parks are also making other changes when it comes to the representation of marginalized communities, like replacing Splash Mountain’s “Song of the South“-related theme with a new storyline featuring Princess Tiana of “The Princess and the Frog.”

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The drill team incident comes at a time when The Walt Disney Co. is taking heat for its response to what’s been called Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. If signed by the governor, the Parental Rights in Education legislation would prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels.”

Disney initially withheld public comment on the matter, despite calls from fans and employees to weigh in with such a large presence in the state. CEO Bob Chapek told investors the company spent weeks “working behind the scenes engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle” before the bill passed. Days later, later, amid calls to boycott the company, he wrote an apology to employees for not being a “stronger ally in the fight for equal rights.”

Disney has since paused political donations to all Florida lawmakers as it reviews its framework for its giving and pledged to donate more to advocacy organizations. While some fans and employees have said it’s a step in the right direction, others say it’s still not enough. Employee walkouts have been held every day this week and a larger walkout is planned for Tuesday.

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Native Americans respond to the video: ‘It’s wrong’

Danté Alexander, who is Dakota Sioux, said it doesn’t matter how long a school has had a Native American-inspired mascot or what its traditions are – “it’s wrong.”

While he’s happy to see changes with other teams like the Washington Commanders (formerly the Washington Football Team), he worries about the middle schools, high schools and colleges that continue to use offensive mascots. 

“(These schools) are going to just continue on teaching very impressionable students from a young age that saying ‘Indian’ or ‘scalp ’em’ is an OK way to reframe the Native American people,” he said. “This is such a poor representation. Native Americans as a whole should not be your mascot. We are not your mascot.”

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Natalie Masucci of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, a self-described Disney parks fan, said watching the video of the performance was heartbreaking.

“Disney has been so inclusive of every minority, and just seeing them kind of making a laughingstock of my minority, it’s a slap in the face,” she said.  

Masucci was an annual pass holder at Disney World before the pandemic and had been planning to visit the parks more after COVID-19 cases settled. Now, she’s not so sure.

“Seeing that at the parks still happening makes you lose trust in Disney,” she said. 

Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesperson for Indigenous Peoples Movement and advisor to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairwoman’s office, called the performance “a punch to the core.”

“They are appropriating from our dance, our song,” said Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock Oglala Sioux and enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. “We need leadership from Disney. We need leadership from (the school). Somebody has to step forward and recognize that this was wrong and say to all of our children and all of their children, our children collectively, that we want to make it right.”

Iron Eyes added that he hopes Disney, which he called “one of the largest purveyors of cultural mythology in the world,” commits to including more Indigenous voices in its work.

“We want to share our stories,” he said. “But we’re constantly running up against a lack of understanding or just a complete ignorance about how Indigenous nations have been deliberately marginalized.” 

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Masucci said she hopes Disney does more than just issue a statement following the performance.

“Include more indigenous people in things. Show us that you actually appreciate our culture,” she said. 

O’Loughlin hopes to see Disney take action as well, both by apologizing and investing in educating more students about the history of Native American genocide within the United States.

But she doubts she’ll see much come out of the controversial video.

“(Disney will) maybe look a little bit closer at their high school performance group. But I don’t think it’s going to affect them commercially,” she said. 

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