I love Disney history and recently I came across a letter written back in 1956 regarding a comic story that ran in the newspapers. Back in the nineteen fifties, comics were still widely read, especially if the particular story was based on a popular Disney character or motion picture. It’s interesting to note that the subject of Native American history was still a hot topic long before Walt Disney Feature Animation took on the task of producing the animated motion picture, “Pocahontas.”
A gentleman named Frank Reilly was the boss of Disney’s Comic Book Division at the time, and he’s a whole subject by himself. For the moment we’re dealing with an angry letter written by Pawnee Billy Howell who was a representative of the Pawnee nation. Mr. Howell took great offense at how the Native Americans were portrayed in the Disney Treasury of Classic Tales, and demanded an apology. The gentleman asserted the Pawnee tribe members were described as howling heathens by the author and further stated that the Pawnee Indians were Patriotic warriors and engaged in no such barbarous activity as described in the story. Further, the comic story was considered an affront along with being another example of western propaganda. As you can imagine, a studio executive immediately dispatched orders to Frank Reilly and Joe Reddy to quickly pen an apology to the Pawnee representative from Oklahoma and clarify that no offense was intended.
It’s interesting that all this took place at Walt Disney Productions over fifty years ago. I’m not sure how these documents came into my procession, however I did spend a fair number of years in Disney’s comic strip department. I may even have the particular western tale in my files and I suspect the author of the Disney story may even be a colleague of mine. Of course, the writer of this Classic Tales story passed away some years ago. It’s also interesting that the angry letter by Mr. Howell is dated December 4, 1956. I remember that Walt Disney still had a number of western properties in development and production at the time. I doubt the Old Maestro ever saw this letter by the Pawnee representative. I can’t help but wonder what Walt would have said had he known.