You know what I’ve learned in the last few months? Apparently I’m not a real Indian. Apparently, going to grad school and questioning how Native people are portrayed in pop culture makes me less “real.” I knew, in starting this blog, that being a white-looking Cherokee from SoCal trying to talk about Native issues would cause some problems, and my “legitimacy” would, at some point, be called into question. What I didn’t anticipate was the shit hitting the fan over Tonto. *TONTO*.
So a disclaimer: In the post that follows, I’m going to be departing from my usual don’t-engage-with-the-haterz approach, and calling some people out. This makes me immensely uncomfortable, and I fear what stirring the pot is going to cause in terms of repercussions. But I’m going to share my thoughts and opinions about how the things that were said to (and about) me in the last few months have made me feel, because if you haven’t noticed, the blog’s been silent for over a month. Also, this is about to be the longest post in the history of Native Appropriations (sorry!):
A Tonto Timeline:
March 8, 2012: Johnny Depp as Cultural Appropriation Jack Sparrow…I Mean Tonto
I wrote this post quickly after seeing the “first look” pictures of Tonto in the new Lone Ranger. I inadvertently caused a firestorm by making a snarky remark about Johnny Depp’s “Indian heritage”–which he says is “Cherokee or maybe Creek,” and saying he wasn’t an “Indian actor.” The commenters, rightly so, reacted. And in reacting, called into question my ability to call myself Indian if Johnny couldn’t.
March 15, 2012: Ray Cook writes a column in Indian Country Today called “Tontomania–Who are we’z anyway?“
Ray Cook straight up calls me out in this post, without referring to me by name. He said:
I read a blog earlier and the owner of the blog said she was pissed that Johnny Depp is playing Tonto because she did not believe he was Indian enough for that particular role, what ever the heck that means. The blogger guesses that Tonto was/is Apache and the whole Apache nation should have been consulted about the role, who should play it and what that actor should wear so as to project the right “image” in a politically correct way so as not to make restless the, er, ah, well, Natives. The blogger basically expressed, I am Native and I am restless over this affront to our good nature and reputation.
So much hog-wash, so much wasted cyber-space, so much wasted oxygen. Let’s set the record straight. Tonto is a radio, television, and comic book character. Period. No one, and I mean no one, will give two Indian head nickels what tribe Tonto is from, just as long as someone gets shot, hung, chased, rescued, skewered, or run out of town. It’s Hollywood for crying out loud. Babbbbababbababbaaa, that’s all folks!
He goes on to assert his Indianess by talking about his gorgeous Mohawk wife and tells us all to lighten up and that we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously. He tells us (me) to “get your head out of your computerized butts and live a little.” The not-so-subtle subtext here through devaluing my opinion as “wasted oxygen” is saying real Indians don’t give a crap about Hollywood.
March 16, 2012: Why Tonto Matters
Written directly in response to Cook and others who said we shouldn’t care about how Depp was portraying Tonto. I’m still pretty proud of this piece, and I constantly refer folks back to it when they say the issue doesn’t matter. I ended the post with this, which I still believe to be the crux of the issue:
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.
April 24th, 2012: Johnny Depp as Tonto: I’m still not feeling “Honored”
As the Depp drama continued to swirl, I compiled all of the quotes I could find in reference to Depp discussing the choices he made in costuming and creating his version of Tonto. I came to the conclusion that he totally missed the mark. The comments, however, still focused heavily on Depp’s background, and whether or not I was being unjustifiably mean to Johnny.
So before I continue, let’s notice that all of my posts focus on either 1) the choice of Johnny Depp to play Tonto 2) the costume and character choices Johnny made for his role, based on Johnny’s own words, and 3) What “Tonto” means on a larger level in terms of representations, stereotypes, and our future as Native peoples. I said nothing about the Native actors in the films, nothing about the Native involvement in the film, I just talked about Johnny Depp. A public figure, who, as such, is open to criticism and questioning.
This is where things get interesting. In the comments on the post, I received a comment from actor Saginaw Grant, wishing to speak to the “author of this blog.” I emailed him at the address he provided, and set up a time to talk with him, his publicist, and his personal assistant via phone. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I said yes, but I was also curious to hear Saginaw’s thoughts, since he has a role in the film.
Fast forward to the phone conversation. I spent 2.5 hours on the phone being berated for my coverage of Tonto. Saginaw told me over and over again that the “Indian way” was “not to criticize” and that if I did so, I had “no right to call [myself] an Indian.” I was told that “everything you know, you learned in books” and that all my degrees were just “pieces of paper.” I was told I was being disrespectful to all of the Indian actors on the film, as well as the broader Indian community, and that if I continued to write, no producer would hire Indian actors ever again because they would want to avoid the “controversy,” so I was hurting all Indian actors chances of working in Hollywood. They went on, and on, and on with all of the ways I had apparently messed up.
His team had written down tweets and quotes from my blog, read them back to me, and forced me to defend myself. I was in a horrible position, because if I defended myself and stood by my words, I would have been perceived as being “disrespectful” towards a “respected elder,” so instead I avoided directly addressing their questions, to which I was called “evasive” and therefore, “disrespectful.” I was so polite and tried to show the utmost respect, though I was shown none in return. I sat there, for over two hours, and listened as my identity was questioned and my writing torn apart. I listened carefully, because I know I’m wrong all the time–and if I was wrong about this, I wanted to know. But instead, the only message I heard was that I was not Indian if I dared question this film. At one point, after about the twelfth time I was told I had “no right to call [my]self an Indian”–I broke down and said (in Cherokee), “I’m Cherokee, not a white person.” I didn’t know how else to defend myself.
They did tell me that the spirit on the set was one of respect towards the Native actors, that care was taken to address any cultural concerns, and that there were Comanche advisors on the set making sure things were done right. They told me to wait until the movie, and things would make sense, and I would see how I was wrong. Considering that apparently Depp is speaking in broken English in the trailer…I’m not holding my breath. They told me that Johnny is such a nice and respectful man, and that he does many good things for Indian country. They’ve met him and interacted with him, and I haven’t, so I have no right to judge him.
Before the end of our conversation, I reiterated my intentions with the postings, and apologized for any harm I may have caused. But I remember I said I was going to keep writing the blog, because it was my way of empowering our communities and making my ancestors and family proud of me. I don’t ever remember saying I was going to refrain from writing about Tonto again.
Saginaw exited the conversation, and the tone noticeably shifted. His publicist and assistant shifted from anger to praise, telling me how my work was important, what I wrote was important, and things like hipster headdresses were a huge issue. They said I was an “inspiration” to younger Native students to see that I was at an elite university. I, admittedly, was surprised. I said that I would update the blog with the information they shared about the set, which they agreed to.
After I hung up the phone, I cried in my kitchen. The conversation was emotionally draining, and I felt like I had been given little recourse to defend myself. I had been judged for my perceived lack of respect or connection to my community, when they knew nothing of my family or my heritage. It hurt, a lot. To be told that this work that I put my heart and soul into was causing harm to my community felt horrible, even if I still believed in my gut that I hadn’t done anything wrong.
I took a week off from the blog, and talked to a lot of my friends about the situation. They agreed that it was probably a lot of misplaced anger–Saginaw has come under some intense criticism for roles before, so they were probably trying to head off anything before it got too major. I thought it had blown over at this point, and went back to work, cautiously.
May 8th, 2012: Nelly Furtado’s “Big Hoops” video: Native Dancer’s represent!
I was so excited to see Nelly’s video. I loved the way she incorporated the Native dancers, and thought it was a great example of positive Native imagery. But I, without thinking it would be a problem, noted:
“So far the video has 42,000 views on YouTube, so 42,000 people have seen Native folks representing themselves, showing off their skillz, not painted up with a bird on their head. These are the kind of representations I’d like to see on a more regular basis.”
The “bird on their head” linked back to one of my Depp posts. To which I received the comment from Saginaw’s assistant, Andrea:
I guess your privilege of hearing Saginaw Grant’s words of wisdom were not taken as advice, just words. I am witness to the conversation because the conversation was a conference three way, your words were that you were going to refrain from the movie in it’s entirety. You speak with fork tongue and you wonder why you receive negative and/or hate mail from many of the people. As I said, you are inciting animosity amongst people who don’t know better. You told Saginaw that you had much respect for him, well, that was untruth on your part and we are disappointed and furthermore, you do not speak a few words you have learned in Cherokee to a person who is Sac/Fox. Only his publicist new what you were talking about. Shame on you.
You can see my response and the whole comment chain here, which gets worse. I tried to, as always, be respectful. The team then took to Facebook to further disparage me on my own page and others, which seem to have been deleted, which is nice, I guess.
June 13, 2012: Crooked Arrows: The Good, The Bad, and The Flute Music
I went and saw Crooked Arrows, and had a lot to say about it. Again, I made the mistake of referencing the word Tonto in my intro paragraph. To which Saginaw responded:
“hello may I request that you leave the word Tonto out of your stories that does not pertain to this movie you are writing about. -Saginaw Grant Sac & Fox Nation Actor/Public Speaker”
I was upset. I felt really unsettled that I was being monitored so closely that I couldn’t even say the word Tonto. I responded, and then Andrea jumped in, as well as several other commenters. It got so out of hand so quickly, that I had to shut down comments on the post. Andrea’s first comment was as follows:
With all due respect Adrienne you say you are about representations of Natives on the big screen, well my dear, you are no authority regarding the movie industry or natives, you are only a young one and wet behind the ears trying to bring attention to yourself. If you are going to write on a story and believe yourself to be a writer, stay to the subject matter and do not go off course into another direction such as your continued reference of “Tonto”, a non-fiction story. Why is it that you are so adamant about your continual slamming of this movie. The movie will be made with or without you, and you cannot change the box office draw that it will bring, it is inevitable. Furthermore your continual disrespect of elders is abhorred because if you say you are Indian, it shows not because no traditional person would speak or question any elder’s words or Ms. Ladonna Harris choice which you have done. In closing you are very young and inexperienced and with very little track record behind you and have exhibited no traditional thought of mind just book learned and that is quite a shame.
Emphasis is mine, and I think she meant “fictional” not “non-fiction”. Ladonna Harris is the member of the Comanche Nation who “adopted” Johnny Depp recently, which E! Online interviewed me about here. Notice I did not actually criticize LaDonna in my quotes.
The irony of this whole situation kills me–I’m not allowed to criticize Johnny Depp, a public figure, and we’re supposed to lay off of him because he has “Indian heritage,” is a “good person,” and doing “good things” for Indian country.
But me, a Cherokee woman going to graduate school so I can give back to Native communities and help more Native students go to college, who puts herself out there for criticism and hate because I dare question how Native people are situated in our society, is not an Indian or even a good person. Why does Johnny get a free pass?
Let me remind you that this is all over TONTO. Tonto. A character that has gone down in history as one of the worst and lasting stereotypes of Native peoples, and continues to affect us today.
I’m not asking you to agree with me, I’m not saying I’m right–when I make mistakes, I own up to them, often. But don’t feel I made a mistake in questioning Johnny Depp or Tonto, I don’t feel my writing about the Lone Ranger makes me any less of an Indian, and I certainly don’t feel I’ve shown “continual disrespect of elders.” But taking this conversation from the words I’ve written to the realm of my family and my identity is not productive, and unnecessarily hurtful.
You can read my entire comment history on the blog, or this post I wrote after halloween last year to see how I’ve constantly noted that I don’t speak for all Indians, and how I constantly reiterate that my Indian experience is unique to me. I try very, very hard in writing Native Appropriations to be real, gracious, and admit when I’m wrong.
I’m constantly told I’m not “Indian enough” to write this blog, which is frustrating, but admittedly comes with putting your thoughts and identity on the internet. I acknowledge that my white privilege has meant that I’ve been given hella opportunities, and am now in a privileged position to be able to sit here and write these ideas. But part of dealing with privilege is working actively to dismantle it. If I didn’t use my strange combination of oppression and privilege to openly question, critique, and start conversations, I’d just be playing into the system that benefits from Native subjugation and white privilege–and that would be something to be concerned about.
I’ve been reading Scott Richard Lyon’s X-marks: Native Signatures of Assent lately, and his thoughts about modern Indian identity, “acculturation,” “assimilation,” and even “nationhood” are fascinating, and have been super empowering to help me theorize and understand these blog-o-sphere interactions. He said, in a blog post about his book:
In my book, I argue for a greater recognition of the actually existing diversity in Native America, and I further posit the suggestion that indigenous people have the right to move in modern time. That means, first, acknowledging differences that already exist in the Fourth World, and, second, seeing those differences as by-products of modernity, hence nothing to be ashamed of. Native shame is rarely justified. We require a little self-forgiveness for being the people we are, and we should remember that the flip side of forgiveness is a promise. Our ancestors promised that their descendants would be part of the modern world while continuing to maintain that activist sense of community that Jace Weaver has called “communitism.” Sometimes that means adopting new ways of living, thinking, and being that do not necessarily emanate from a traditional cultural source (or, for that matter, “time immemorial”), and sometimes it means appropriating the new and changing it to feel more like the old.
These interactions and comments admittedly made me feel ashamed. I felt ashamed that I had somehow disrespected my community, ashamed that I didn’t know how to defend myself better, ashamed that because of history of my ancestors and policies of the federal government, I ended up growing up away from my community and not being more of a “real Indian” in their eyes.
But instead of feeling ashamed, I’m trying now to turn the tables and think that I, instead, am the colonizer’s worst nightmare. Because history has tried to eradicate my people by violence and force, enacted every assimilating and acculturating policy against my ancestors, let me grow up in white suburbia, and erased all the visual vestiges of heritage from my face–but still tsi tsalagi (I am Cherokee). My ancestors gave their “x-marks”–assents to the new–so that I could be here, fighting back against misrepresentations, through a keyboard and the internet.
So I care about how Native people are represented, and I will fight for our right to be portrayed with accuracy, dignity, and respect. So while “real Indians” might not care about Tonto, I do, and despite what others might think, I’m just about as real as you can get.