Johnny Depp as Tonto: I’m still not feeling "honored"

In Hollywood stereotypes, Johnny Depp, Lone Ranger, Sattler, stereotypes, Tonto by Adrienne K.20 Comments

I guess we can put all the talk about Johnny Depp “honoring” Native people to rest now. Cause it’s been over a month since those first horrendous publicity pics of Depp-as-Tonto surfaced, and more information has been trickling out about Depp’s “inspiration” for his lovely costume. I think we’ll now see just how careful, respectful and honoring Mr. Depp was with his “research” for his role.

As background, Depp has said in numerous interviews that wanted to change the role of Tonto, and wanted to “reinvent” the relationship between Indians and Hollywood. He also cited his Native heritage–“Cherokee or maybe Creek”–as part of his reasoning behind taking the role. In this clip from MTV news, Johnny describes his plans for Tonto’s character, which, out of context, actually sound pretty good:

He says in the clip:

“I like the idea of having the opportunity to sort of make fun of the idea of Indian as sidekick…throughout the history of hollywood, the Native American has always been the second class, third class, fourth class, fifth class citizen, and I don’t see Tonto that way at all. So it’s an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.”

Based on all of these interviews, I was still holding out a shred of hope that there was some major piece of information I was missing, that maybe Johnny had actually done his research, or that maybe he had no control over the actual costuming of Tonto, and that all of this anger and blame should be placed on some wardrobe stylist on set. But Entertainment Weekly published a blog post on Sunday that confirmed what I had been arguing all along. Johnny Depp decided to “honor” Native peoples and “reinvent” our role in hollywood by relying on the most tired and stereotypical tropes imaginable. On his “inspiration” for Tonto’s makeup:

“I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it. The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.”

Though that quote makes absolutely no sense (“separate sections of the individual?), the picture in reference is below. The connection between the Sattler painting and Depp’s costuming was actually caught quickly in March by some fans of the Native Appropriations facebook page, one of whom even took the time to call Sattler’s studio. The PR rep on the phone assured her to wait until the movie came out and that she was certain “everything would be done in an appropriate manner.” I guess “appropriate” is relative?

The thing about Kirby Sattler, a non-Native painter, is that he relies heavily on stereotypes of Native people as mystical-connected-to-nature-ancient-spiritual-creatures, with little regard for any type of historical accuracy. He says, right off the bat, that the images come from his imagination:

“My paintings are interpretations based upon the nomadic tribes of the 19th century American Plains. The subjects are a variety of visual sources and my imagination…I purposely do not denote a tribal affiliation to the majority of my subjects, rather, I attempt to give the paintings an authentic appearance, provoke interest, satisfy my audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy.”

So he’s telling us, in so many words, that he makes these subjects up based on the (heavily stereotyped) images in his own head. Just listen to the language he uses to describe his paintings:

“Each painting functions on the premise that all natural phenomena have souls independent of their physical beings. Under such a belief, the wearing of sacred objects were a source of spiritual power. Any object- a stone, a plait of sweet grass, a part of an animal, the wing of a bird- could contain the essence of the metaphysical qualities identified to the objects and desired by the Native American. This acquisition of “Medicine”, or spiritual power, was central to the lives of the Indian. It provided the conduit to the unseen forces of the universe which predominated their lives.”

Note the past tense, since clearly Indians don’t exist anymore. Note the presumption that all Indians were/are the same, and that all our spiritual practices were/are the same. To refer to an entire population of diverse, living, breathing people of over 500 nations as “The Native American” is more than a little patronizing and offensive.

I say all this to establish the “credibility” of Johnny Depp’s source material. But Depp’s descriptions of why he was so drawn to the piece are even worse. On the striped make-up representing the “separate sections of the individual”:

“There’s this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, and angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual. That makeup inspired me.”

Because Tonto happens to be Native American, he has to be “wise,” “tortured and hurt,” “angry and rageful,” and “very understanding and unique”? That’s like Hollywood Indian Stereotypes 101.  Finally, on the hideous crow headdress itself:

“It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top. I thought: Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive…The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least — especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger’s assistant…As you’ll see, it’s most definitely not that.”

Right. So, I like the calling of the subject in the painting a “warrior,” based solely on the fact that he is Native and male (stereotype #1). Of course the “warrior” has to have a “spirit guide” (stereotype #2), and has a mystical connection that outsiders cannot understand–“It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him” (stereotype #3). I think, Mr. Depp, when you said you hoped to “mess around with the stereotype of the American Indian,” you actually meant “completely play into the stereotype of the American Indian,” because I’m really not seeing anything subversive or new about your language or this mess of a portrayal. If this is your “salute” to Native Americans, I’m really afraid to watch the actual movie. Also, since we haven’t seen a clip of the film yet, it remains to be seen if Depp will talk in the stereotypical broken-english “Tonto speak.” Let’s hope he drew the line somewhere.

What we have here is a case of an extreme mis-match between intent and impact. Johnny Depp might have entered this project with the nobelest of intentions, hoping to “honor” his heritage, “re-invent” the role of Natives in Hollywood, give Tonto more agency and move him from his sidekick status–but he went about it in exactly the wrong way. I don’t know what the right way would have been, perhaps going to talk to some Comanche community members (turns out Tonto is “full blooded Comanche” in this version, not Apache as I had reported earlier) to ask how they would feel comfortable being portrayed on the big screen–or if they even felt comfortable at all. I know the right way would have been doing a little more research into hollywood portrayals of Native peoples, and realizing that picking your costume from a non-Native painter who openly admits he has no regard for historical accuracy would probably be a bad idea. Many people have given Johnny a free pass because of his Native heritage, but I think that means we should hold him to a higher standard. If he is serious about honoring his ancestors and his past, he needs to realize that costuming Tonto like a fantasy Indian stereotype is not helping Native people, and his “intent” in the portrayal doesn’t save him.

Johnny Depp might have thought his intent cleared him of any criticism. That we would stand back and say “well, he didn’t mean to be offensive.” or “his heart was in the right place.” But that logic ignores the impact of his statements and his portrayal of Tonto. Think how many policies in Indian country were done by people with “good intentions,” and how all that turned out for us. The impact here is that millions of people will see this film, and they will walk away with this inaccurate and stereotyped image of American Indians burned in their brains.

So if Johnny Depp is serious about wanting to “salute” Native peoples, I would urge him to start a major PR campaign, since it’s presumably too late to change the costume. Admit your mistake, start a national dialogue about how American Indians are portrayed in film. Continue to support important Native causes (I hear Johnny has agreed to be the spokesperson for teen suicide prevention in Navajo?), and bring light to how issues of stereotyping are real and incredibly problematic. Because despite the best of intentions, these images continue to marginalize contemporary Native peoples, and no amount of face paint is going to hide that fact.

And if you’re still not convinced this is even worthy of talking about, check out my earlier post: Why Tonto Matters.

Entertainment Weekly (they link to me, which is kinda exciting!): Johnny Depp reveals origins of Tonto makeup from ‘The Lone Ranger’
Native Appropriations: Johnny Depp as Cultural Appropriation Jack Sparrow…I mean Tonto
Native Appropriations: Why Tonto Matters
Indian Country Today: Tontomania: Who are we’z anyways?
Guardian: Why I’m Willing to Believe in Johnny Depp’s Tonto
Ryan McMahon gets angry episode 4: I Ain’t Gettin On No Horse
Academic Article on Hollywood Stereotypes: The White Man’s Indian: Stereotypes in Films and Beyond

  • The Crow? Really? Haven’t they done that movie a few times?

  • Guest

    How can a white guy bust the stereotype of the Hollywood Indian? The white guy playing the Indian IS the stereotype!

  • joybuzzard

    Well, these accusations and such are sure getting the word out about this movie, keep it up and it’ll be huge, probably a dozen sequals….

  • Cristina Bilich

    I appreciate your discussion of this issue… the stereotyping of native american’s has always been out of hand and just because a big name “star” is “trying” to appropriate himself as some sort of “positive” representation/representative doesn’t make it any better.

    The stereotype appropriates itself… In this day and age where there is (thankfully) cultural and social acknowledgments of the wrongful portrayals of Native peoples on screen (literature etc) one would hope that the people in hollywood would be doing a better job of getting the story straight and casting appropriately for these roles.

    Putting Johnny Depp as Tonto might have worked, say, back in the Charlton Heston days of “ignorant” cinema but not now.. sorry Johnny but some of us care more about misrepresenting Native peoples than your acting abilities.

  • jamego

    Ahh, the Noble Ethnic Sidekick, whose very presence bears witness to the Authentic Righteousness of the Great White Protagonist! Sad, sick, insulting, frustrating! Problem is, Tonto, Pocohontas, Chief Wahoo, the Blood-thirsty Red Savage, et al., are much more than mere sterotypes, they are deeply imbedded archetypal symbols in the unconscious of White America, which keep on arising when they think of Native Americans. And Johnny is too naive or vain to realize he is reinforcing the problem and part of the problem and not solving anything!

  • Ziawoman

    This film is being shot in New Mexico – home of 19 Pueblos, 2 Apache Reservations, and part of the Big Rez (Navajo Nation). Surely a ‘real’ Native American actor could have been cast as Tonto.

    News Flash to Johnny-Every Indian Wannabe claims to be “Part Cherokee”………….

  • dumb white guy

    Wow….nothing like people looking for shit to complain about. “Because Tonto happens to be Native American, he has to be “wise,” “tortured and hurt,” “angry and rageful,” and “very understanding and unique”? That’s like Hollywood Indian Stereotypes 101.

    No, but the guy is an actor, and he is attempting to put some depth and interpretation behind his “character”. Besides, this isn’t a friggin documentary, it is a dramatic production. Fully open to interpretation and artistic touch. Jesus, get over yourselves, it’s a movie…we don’t really believe it! Even us dumb white guys…..

    • Unbelievable.

      Spoken like someone who has absolutely no idea how it feels to be marginalized.

      Bravo. Keep proving the point.

  • bootleg

    i guess depp fell asleep during

  • Just want to say I appreciate what you do Adrienne! Ts’ehdiya.

    If intent were what this was all about, honest ‘good intent’ would mean people would have the heart to listen or seek out actual native voices prior to the production of garbage, if they don’t intend to produce garbage… Depp, who honors his heritage by making such casual comments about rape as being the likely source of his heritage, of some tribe or another, isn’t enough… That’s pretty much tokenism swinging on a tether of Depp being Native in the first place. I say that not because of blood politics, or anything like that. I just think he should be bothered enough as to be informed as to that heritage, if the legitimacy of an entire movie is swinging on it as put out there by the producers/promoters… If he doesn’t know, ok, but does’t he then have a responsibility to know something then? Maybe that’s what the visits to Diné people are about… but I don’t know, the whole thing seems contrived and wouldn’t it be nice if these things were thought of beforehand, and not to save face in public.

    This is a form of knowledge production, and these productions impact public consciousness, and thus our ability to navigate protecting and fighting for our rights and responsibilities very much under attack to this very day. The fact that people don’t bother to actually consult or collaborate with actual tribal peoples prior to production of such garbage shows how much that good intent is worth in relation to artist? sense of privilege in telling our stories… fictional or otherwise.

  • Guest

    you have so many revolutionary thoughts!! i have been following this Tonto case since the photo was released and you put into words what most of your readers are thinking or should think. Come on Johnny get it together.

  • I stopped reading when the writer asked, “where do I put all this anger and blame?” To me, that’s a bigger problem in indian country. Anger and blame.

  • Unbelievable.

    This is definitely disappointing. First his support for Roman Polanksi, then his ignorant comment comparing being photographed by the paparazzi to “rape,” and now this. In the past few years, his comments have really proven that he is just another Privileged White Guy.

  • Maybe I am assuming a lot about what he does and doesn’t know, but I just think such things about one’s own Grandma shouldn’t thrown around so casually… I’ll wait for this one to come out on netflix. The idea of seeing this in the theater just to have a more informed opinion, and probably being the only two natives in the theater (if I go with my BF), hearing everyone laugh at all the parts natives are butts of jokes (sidekicks are for that), or everyone being weirded out by likely convo’s with the dead bird on his head (he said that right?), or whatever else this movie has to ‘honor’ natives, is somewhat anxiety producing… With this Ishi play having gone on, I am good for being in the audience for a long while… I think the first time I had this experience was going to see Pocahontas as a kid and being disappointed and sad at that… She wasn’t like anything I saw myself or other people being, something about that hurt and was embarrassing I remember, but I didn’t have the words as to why…

    Again, thank you Adrienne for putting these words out there for people. People can have their opinion about them, but damn, at least they came in to read them and can’t ignore them so easily, and its something of a conversation rather than getting beat over the head with the same shiz as to who we are, and the people we come from, over and again…

  • L Ponce

    I don’t feel honored.

  • Anonymous

    Please WAIT until you see the film to judge the character. To waste this much energy on bashing Johnny Depp’s choices and creative genius actually put the spotlight on your own issues. There is so much more behind this character that you have no idea about (because you do not know plot points) and your ignorance of that prevents you from seeing the things that completely run right along with traditional Comanche culture. Don’t speak before you have ALL the information! People in general, (whether Native American or not) have spirit guides, and people in general have “medicine”. You seem quick to throw around the word “stereotyping” when you are doing just that with your judgements. I suppose that you would feel that to call all humans the “human race” would be a stereotype?
    It is clear that you lack the vision, and creative spirit to see this through until the final product is released. You’ll feel pretty silly about this diatribe once you’ve seen all the behind the scenes footage and the support given to Johnny by the Comanche advisors of the film, who also agree that many aspects of this character mesh with traditional Comanche culture. Oh, you didn’t know there were Comanche advisors? Silly me.

  • Anonymous

    Teen suicide prevention in Navajo? I believe you meant teen suicide prevention in the Navajo nation. It’s actually a huge issue. Not just in the Navajo nation but amongst Native American teens. It’s actually an epidemic. Don’t say it in those 5 words as if you are disgusted by him speaking to teens, trying to give them hope. Someone can turn this around on you and ask if you yourself are of a nationally federally recognized tribe? I think there are more life threatening issues that need to be recognized across the tribes other than Johnny Depp portraying a native American. Such as mining on native lands and the great bodily harm it can do to people living in those areas.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder why this country is obsessed with appropriations still ummmmm across the continents are similar dress extra as natives here. Oh and I grew up on reservations and the oppression that’s there is a self.inflicked continued mess that they choose sipping um move on folks and get over it

  • Anonymous

    …then we also need to reinvent the Gathering of Nations, because tribes are not using their own tribes dances and clothing. And some dancers know nothing about history as long as they look good and can get some money at the end of the competion.

  • DD

    Cherokee, or maybe Creek?! He doesn’t even know? He is about a sixteenth or an eighth at best, native american, and he wants to star in a film that in his mind will honor ‘his people’. Making a mockery of real native americans and bastardizing an old movie franchise is all he will accomplish. The studio execs didn’t want to make this movie and had pulled the plug on it, but Depp pushed until he got his way.