Archives For Tonto

I know things have been quiet around here for a few weeks, and I apologize. I’ve been traveling all over the place talking, and talking, and talking some more. I had great visits to ASU and Columbia, and was supposed to be on an awesome panel with Phil Deloria, Suzan Harjo, and Carla Fredericks in NYC, but it was unfortunately postponed (I’ll keep you posted when we decide on a new date). I also finally got to meet Simon Moya Smith, the man behind I Am Not A Mascot, and we had a great conversation about Native activism in the 21st century, hate mail, identity, and more. It was great to connect with folks and hear so many ideas about the future of this fight and how my blog might fit into that larger movement, and hearing stories and words of encouragement from fellow activists who have been at this longer than me was so inspiring.
So I’m back at my desk in Boston, and ready to tackle some big things. But first, a lot of great Indian videos have crossed my path in the last few days, so I thought I would share some inspiring and entertaining Native videos to start the week off right. 

First up, my good friend H. (won’t call him out in case he’s embarrassed because he’s wearing tons of eyeliner) makes his 1491s debut playing none other than Johnny Depp. So I know it’s been awhile since we’ve chatted about our dear friend Johnny Depp-as-Tonto, but in case you forgot, posts here, here, here, and here. Backstory: Johnny Depp was adopted by LaDonna Harris (Comanche). This is an actual account of what happened at his adoption ceremony:

Next, as some of you know, I work closely with an amazing organization called College Horizons, and a couple of years ago one of our students, Koli, sang this song at our Traditional Night. She’s a Yurok, Karuk, and Hupa student who’s now at UH, and in this song sings about the politics of “looking Indian.” Love it. She also comes from an awesome family, her dad is a Stanford alum and filmmaker, and her sister is a current Stanford student (you know how I love my Stanford connections):

Then, this beautiful and tear-jerking letter to Native Youth is powerful and important (it was inspired by the 1491s/Dallas Goldtooth’s letter to Native women, which I’ve shared here before, and is also worth a watch):

Finally, one of my twitter-follower-friends R. Vincent Moniz tweeted out this fantastic video of a poem about Halloween/Cultural Appropriation/Redface that he performed at a Native poetry night. It’s awesome. I love the Native Approps references sprinkled throughout. :) The poem starts at 6:48 (though his other stuff is good too!):

Ok, a personal plug too. Back in October I was interviewed by a cool Native filmmaker/scholar Myrton RunningWolf for a webseries called “Well Red”. The trailer for the series is here:

and then the teaser trailer for my interview is here (full interview will be up soon!):

Hope these help you get through the remainder of your Monday, and if you’ve got more Native videos we should see, share the links in the comments!

(Thanks H., Koli, Carly, Lyla, Vincent, and Myrt!)

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.

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

Why Tonto Matters

March 16, 2012 — 51 Comments

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 Anishinabe.

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.

Native Appropriations: Johnny Depp as Cultural Appropriation Jack Sparrow…I mean Tonto. 

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

PS- There are other things that I think need to be addressed with the controversy, but I didn’t have space here. The issue of Depp being “Indian enough” is a big one, or what “Indian enough” even means, or the historical accuracy of his costume, or the role of Native people in the film overall. I’d recommend a read through the comments on my first post for some great, interesting, and intelligent conversations.

EDIT 3/20–I switched out the cartoon at the top of the post because of my complete ignorance to the homophobic undertones to the original. My deepest apologies to the LGBTQ community for using an insensitive image, it was definitely not my intention to marginalize anyone. I definitely try to be aware of when my hetero/cis privilege comes out–so please continue to call me out on it, and I’ll definitely do better moving forward. Wado!

Entertainment Weekly just posted the “first look” of Johnny Depp as Tonto in the new Lone Ranger movie. I’m really at a loss for words right now. I…can’t.

There was a bunch of controversy over the casting of Johnny Depp to begin with–and I was right on board, mad that they hadn’t cast a Native actor in the role. The Johnny defenders note that he has Indian heritage that he’s proud of…so proud that he says it probably started with a rape:

“The interesting thing, if you find out you’ve got Native American blood, which a lot of people do, is you think about where it comes from and go back and read the great books, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee or [John Ehle's] Trail of Tears, you have to think, somewhere along the line, I’m the product of some horrific rape. You just have that little sliver in your chemical makeup.”

and this:

“I guess I have some Native American (in me) somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek.”

That’s a whole ‘nother post. But I think it gives you some context as to how “connected” and “proud” Johnny is of his ancestry. Always the Cherokee great-grandma, amiright?

Every article since the casting decision has stressed how this version of the Lone Ranger is going to be much more about Tonto, and he’s going to be given a bigger role, and that Depp hopes to “reinvent” the relationship between the two characters:

“When the idea came up [for the movie], I started thinking about Tonto and what could be done in my own small way try to — ‘eliminate’ isn’t possible — but reinvent the relationship, to attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans, not only in The Lone Ranger, but the way Indians were treated throughout history of cinema, and turn it on its head.”

If this horrific image is “an attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans…and turn it on it’s head”, I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.

He looks like they just took the Captain Jack Sparrow costume and removed the pirate hat, put a bird on it, and added some menacing facepaint.Or wait, they already did that:

(Pirates 2)

(Lone Ranger)

The Tonto costume is a mish-mash of stereotypical Indian garb, a Plains-style breastplate with a southwest-style headband (minus the effing bird), random feathers and beads–but the face paint that makes him look evil, forlorn, and angry all at once is a nice touch. Then, the fact that the publicity photo shows the “wild” and “unruly” (ok, I’ll say it, “savage”) Tonto behind the clean, polished, (and white) Lone Ranger is a great “honoring” to Native people too, and shows how much agency Tonto has, right? (/sarcasm)

You guys, I’m pissed off. Like for real. I had a teensy-tiny bit of hope that this wouldn’t be another othering-stereotype-filled-horror, but clearly I was so wrong. This movie has a budget of like $215 million. That big of a budget, and you couldn’t have hired a Native consultant, or shoot–even asked  a Native person from the community you’re purporting to represent (Tonto’s Apache, right?) what the character should look like?

Yeah, I know this is *fiction* I know it’s not supposed to be *real*–but 99% of audiences aren’t able to separate images like this on the screen from real, live, Native peoples. History and every other stereotypical hollywood portrayal has taught us that.

But if the movie comes out and I am totally, totally wrong. I’m prepared to eat crow. Starting with that hideous one on Johnny’s head.

Entertainment Weekly: Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer as Tonto and The Lone Ranger — FIRST LOOK
Entertainment Weekly: Johnny Depp wants ‘The Lone Ranger’ to back off Tonto: ‘Why is the f–––ing Lone Ranger telling Tonto what to do?’


UPDATE: here are the other blog posts in my “Tonto series”

3/16/2012: Why Tonto Matters

4/24/2012: Johnny Depp as Tonto: I’m still not feeling honored

7/16/2012: Real Indians Don’t Care About Tonto


(Thanks @deluxvivens!)