Repost: Why Tonto Matters

In Uncategorized by Adrienne K.14 Comments


AK Note: Hi Everyone, yesterday I posted my (rather scathing) review of The Lone Ranger, and reading through some of the comments I’ve seen here and on other outlets, I feel the need to repost this piece from 3/16/2012. I know there are a lot of new readers (welcome!), so I hope this helps you understand the lens with which I approach this blog and this work. I believe, very strongly, that these images matter and are important, and will continue to treat them as such. And as always, I don’t claim to speak for all Native peoples, I am just one perspective of many. I also have addressed all sorts of angles of this movie, and I encourage new folks to familiarize yourself with all of the other posts before launching into criticisms. Here they are: my initial reactions (including early thoughts on the casting), tearing apart Depp’s reasoning over his costume choicesthe controversy I dealt with for writing about Tonto, and Armie Hammer’s comments about Indians loving the movie. Thanks so much for all the support–y’all crashed my server yesterday, a total first! 

It’s been a week or so since the original photos of Johnny Depp as Tonto have surfaced, and the internet has been abuzz with Depp defenders and Depp defectors–and while the Native Appropriations community and my internet circle have been on the “oh dang, this is real bad for us” train, I’ve been surprised at how many people have basically told me and others with similar opinions to STFU and “get over it” (with also some more choice words than that…).
But I still stand by the fact that Tonto and his portrayal matter to Indian Country, and should matter to Indian Country. And here’s why.

Defenders of Depp-as-rodeo-clown-Tonto’s arguments basically boil down to the following: Tonto is a fictional character. The Lone Ranger is a fictional movie. Johnny Depp is a great actor. We should be glad to have him portray Tonto. No one thinks Tonto is representative of a real Indian. There are bigger things to worry about in Indian Country, this is so trivial it shouldn’t even be an issue.

Here’s the thing. Yeah, Tonto is a fictional character, and there are plenty of white actors and actresses who play fictional characters, and we don’t automatically assume that white people are fictional, so it shouldn’t matter, right? We saw Natalie Portman as an evil-crazy-swan-human in the Black Swan, and we don’t assume that Natalie Portman’s character is representative of her, or all white people, in real life. But that, my friend, is white privilege at work. Everyday we see millions of representations of white people in varied and diverse roles. We see white actors as “real” people, as “fantasy” characters, and everything in between.

But for Native people, the only images that the vast, vast majority of Americans see are stereotypical in nature. You go to the grocery store and see plenty of smiling white children on cereal boxes, contrasted with the only readily recognizable Native image–the Land o’ Lakes butter girl. In advertising we see plenty of non-Native folks participating in everyday life, and then we get ads like this featuring Native people. There are also hardly any (if any) Native people in current, mainstream television shows. And this carries over even more strongly into Hollywood.

The last big blockbuster series to feature Native characters was the Twilight series, and we are portrayed as wolves. Think of every recent major studio film that featured a Native character or Native actor. All of the ones I can think of off the top of my head were set in a historical context, were a fantasy film, or were offensively stereotype laden. There have been so few accurate, modern, nuanced portrayals of Native people it’s not even funny.

So, when we live in a world where there are other, more nuances portrayals of Native people for non-Natives to draw upon–when there are Native people featured in mainstream romantic comedies, dramas, sitcoms, even reality TV,  or news–then, maybe, will I be able to be looking forward to a stereotypical mess of a Tonto on the big screen. But I doubt it.
Comedian Ryan Mcmahon has a fabulous podcast series called “Ryan McMahon Gets Angry”, and he just did an awesome 5 minute rant on Johnny Depp as Tonto, and the responsibility we have as a community to question these representations. I can’t recommend it enough (language slightly NSFW):

Here’s a transcript of the end of his podcast:

So is Johnny Depp putting a bunch of Indians on the back of horses for this Lone Ranger Jerry Bruckheimer car crash gonna be good for us? Hell no. I’m not looking forward to it, I don’t think we should be happy about it, and I don’t think we should immediately go to that excited-happy-place everytime we see ourselves on TV. Because more oftentimes it hurts us more than helps us.

I think the time to take back our stories, to take back our pride, and to start empowering and helping each other to rise is the time that we’re in now. That’s what I look forward to, that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what a whole bunch of other people are trying to do. Is Johnny Depp being on the back of a horse with a g*ddamn crow on the his head supposed to help us? Probably not. But it’s definitely not going to. So don’t get happy when you see four or five other brothers sitting on the back of a horse in their loincloth. Don’t be surprised, don’t be happy about it, don’t celebrate it, cause it’s bullsh*t. The time to reclaim, recapture, redefine, our own stories, in our own ways is now, and g*ddammit we gotta do more of it. Demand more from the producers, demand more of the television people, demand more from the people who are writing these stories. Because the stories are there. We are strong, proud people, and we need to be represented, by ourselves, as such.

I couldn’t agree more. There are several sub-arguments that I’ve seen in the last few days, citing how many Native actors would miss out on work as extras if this movie weren’t made, or how Johnny Depp’s “star power” was needed to get the film made in the first place. Those arguments are upsetting to me. We need to demand more. We can’t be complacent with just going to that “excited-happy-place” every time we see any representation of an Indian on screen. We can’t be thankful that 50 Native actors are able to ride around bareback in the background of a film, or be psyched that a big name Hollywood actor put a crow on his head to “honor” us–talk about ongoing colonization of the mind. Our community is so much better than that. We are worth so much more than background roles and misrepresentations.

Ryan also said something that resonated with me beyond this issue alone, quoting his grandmother:

Everything you do, grandson, is going to be political because you’re Anishinaabe.

The way we represent ourselves is, therefore, inherently political. These “trivial” issues are representative of deeper, darker, larger issues within Indian Country. For those who live in predominantly Native communities, fighting against cultural appropriation and misrepresentation may seem like the cause of a privileged few who can sit in their ivory towers and point fingers all day, ignoring the “real” issues in Indian Country. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it as many times as I can until it sticks:

Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior–that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp’s Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.

How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, Nation Building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations? I argue that we can’t–and that, to me, is why Tonto matters.

Further background reading:

If you want to read Ray Cook call me out and tell me that my writing is “So much hog-wash, so much wasted cyber-space, so much wasted oxygen” (awesome!): Tontomania: Who are we’z anyways?

Guardian: Why I’m Willing to Believe in Johnny Depp’s Tonto

Reel Injun (documentary about stereotyping of Indians in Hollywood):

Academic Article on Hollywood Stereotypes: The White Man’s Indian: Stereotypes in Films and Beyond

Ryan McMahon gets angry episode 4: I Ain’t Gettin On No Horse

  • disqus_PgdLd0QQyA

    Think about how the Romanians feel every time some one who is fair complected does the “Dark Shadows” thing?

  • I was at 4th parade today (this one is always a political statement against the status quo) there was a man there with paint similar to Tonto’s and turkey tail feathers in his hair. I ask him “are you Native?” he said “no I am just trying to honor my native spirit from a past life” all I could do is shake my head and walk away. I just wanted to send him on to his next life. Some days I really dislike people of European Descent.
    Thanks Disney for giving him the idea to do his face paint like you conjured up figure.

    • blackops23

      Thanks to Disney and Hollywood for creating a mindless, rabid, consumerist fan culture that only sees its next fix of SF or fantasy ahead. Your cultural Indian heritage will now only be sold to fanboys in collectable action figures or Halloween costumes. Most of these people have been bred to even be totally detached from their own heritage and religion. Lost souls, truly, are at the wheel now.

  • crookedstick

    Thank You , for bringing truth to this celluloid fantasy. I live in Santa Fe where Ranger was filmed. I could see the cryptic yellow signs pointing the way to film locations back in the canyons. Real, unforgiving terrain, unless you are in your air-conditioned air-stream with catered lunch. Glorious whites horse for LR & Tonto.
    The Pueblos of Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe and Santa Ana are home to Bands of wild horses, just a few miles down the road from where they film. New Mexico is in the worst drought in history. These once beautiful animals are starving to death.
    Any one with two eyes driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe can not miss them. But Tonto rides into town and siphons off the beauty of our land, the beauty of the Native Spirit, The beauty of our Wild Horses. He notices nothing of the REALITY. He makes millions and rides off into the Hollywood sunset. And today, a few more horses drop to their knees , never to get up. Thanks Tonto.

  • jodyk

    They didn’t choose a Native actor to play Jacob in the Twilight movies – a HUGE role in the eyes of so many young people, and in the movie industry in general, considering the guaranteed audience for those movies. Where was the outrage then? I wholeheartedly agree that these perceptions need to change, but there was less complaint over inventing a system belief out of whole cloth than a different, but also fictional, portrayal that at least attempts some acknowledgement of history, however inadequate it may be.

    • RapidDescent

      Excellent point.

    • Terrie_S
      • jodyk

        Thanks Terri – I hadn’t seen these. I just didn’t hear or see any discussion of that issue when the movie was coming out, and it bothered me.

        • RMCoyote

          I also remember coming across a couple of interviews at the time where they mentioned the controversy, and he brought he found out he was actually part Native and was happy because he never would have realized that before this role, and as he was far more unknown- which is to say he was like a clueless puppy vs. Johnny Depp’s rich butt who could have had any role he wanted.

          I also think part of the lack of outrage had to do with the time and the product. I’ve noticed in the last couple of years there has been a severe upspike in concern about these issues- I think in part because of how off the deep end a lot of political figures have gone bringing how much work needs to be done right up front and center and screaming in their face in a way that most people can’t dismiss. Not to mention with the way people are getting more and more restless with those in power thanks to events over the last couple of years.

          Plus, part of it is the medium. Romance novels and teen lit are taken even less seriously then old TV. Male coded things are considered more serious than female, old stuff is given heavier weight, and teen lit is sometimes considered less serious then even children’s work. And a lot of people who normally would have been up in arms had already completely dismissed and mocked the series because of the book and everything about it.

          TL’DR: I think there probably was less outrage at the time for various reasons. Not that that is a good thing, but I am thankful we seem to be going on a upswing rather than getting worse at calling out this bull. Remember- first twilight movie was 5 years ago now. God I feel old.

  • Windcatcher

    Adrienne, I have read your comments regarding The Lone Ranger film and
    support you very strongly. I am not a Native American, but I am working
    on a very important historical feature film and it is of utmost
    importance that the Native American history and character be portrayed
    in the most accurate and honest light. She is an icon, a role model and
    one of the most honored and respected heroines in American history.
    Would you be willing to speak with me regarding this project? Thank you for taking a stand.

  • conbot

    I read your various posts, on the Tonto issue, some time ago and just wanted to give you a link to one sample of Canadian media reaction.

    The Problem With Tonto:

  • AADalton


    Wanted to make sure you know that the LA Times quoted you in an article on Tonto, since I am not sure if they have to notify people they are quoting. Here is the URL:,0,984352.story

  • Stacy Genobles

    Adrienne, you are really a very insightful blogger and I like the way you phrase your concerns about how Hollywood perpetuates stereotypes. It’s sad that such portrayals still dominate the movie industry. I think Depp may have meant well but his costume choice was atrocious and the movie seems horribly inaccurate in regards to both Native American cultures and locations (I get miffed at any movie that claims to take place in one location but is clearly filled in another state. This is more of a problem in Lone Ranger because the location is s’posed to be integral to the story and the character’s histories.) I also find it problematic that the reinvented Tonto has gone from Apache to Comanche as if all tribes are interchangeable and do not have their own languages, culture, etc. While there are tribes that share some cultural elements because they were neighbors or allies they still are not the same. I would not consider an Algonquin to be the same as an Iroquois simply because they both lived around the modern New York area. They had different clothes, buildings, customs, etc. Depp reinforces the mistaken belief that all nations can be lumped together easily when he blithely comments about having maybe Creek or Cherokee heritage. While he might very well have one or both of those tribes as part of his bloodline, it matters which tribe(s) he is referencing, and he shouldn’t make such a vague claim of ancestry.

  • Iko’tsimiskimaki

    Did you call the Comanche Nation before publishing this post?