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Tonto Racist: 'Lone Ranger' Johnny Depp Character Understandably Offends Native Americans

When Disney’s The Lone Ranger comes to theaters on July 3, audiences will experience director Gore Verbinski’s heroic and fanciful vision of the Old West. In Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion, they will see the reprise of a character that many Native Americans believe has a hurtful and offensive legacy.

The Lone Ranger will be released just weeks after a controversy sparked by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s angry promise never to change the name of his football team despite widespread condemnation. While perhaps a coincidence, the release of The Lone Ranger, in which non-Native Johnny Depp plays a Native American character abounding in stereotypes, comes at a moment when Snyder, a billionaire, is willfully ignoring protests by Native Americans and their allies.

Disney’s decision to release The Lone Ranger and Dan Snyder’s refusal to rename the Washington Redskins are examples of powerful entities ignoring the wishes of a minority and highlight the need for our society to pay more attention to the rights and feelings of our Native communities.

The story of The Lone Ranger, created by George W. Trendle as a radio program in the 1930s, solidified its place in the collective consciousness of the Baby Boomer generation in a television series that ran from 1949 to 1957, starring Clayton Moore as the ranger. Famous for fairness and honesty, the Lone Ranger always traveled with his trusted Native guide Tonto, played by the Canadian Mohawk Jay Silverheels. In the 1950s series, Tonto speaks in a pidgin, dresses in buckskin with fringe, and refers to the Lone Ranger as “Kemosabe,” a term created for the show meaning “trusty scout.”

While the relationship between the ranger and Tonto was supposedly one of mutual respect, the stereotypical portrayal of Indians in The Lone Ranger has been a source of anger and disappointment to many Native people, including the writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie, who told the Los Angeles Times: “In the movies, Indians are always accompanied by ominous music. I always feel that something bad is about to happen. I am always aware of how my whole life is shaped by my hatred of Tonto. Whenever I think of Tonto, I hear ominous music.”  

If the character Tonto reflects the social and cultural attitudes of mainstream Americans in the 1950s towards Native Americans, Disney’s decision to remake The Lone Ranger in 2013 is troubling. Perhaps Jerry Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and the folks at Disney have made an effort to learn about native groups still living in the West. Perhaps they have sought the input of Apache, Hopi, or Ojibwe tribal members. However, the decision to cast Johnny Depp as Tonto, paint his face, and place a large vulture on his headdress suggests that they have not. I am willing to bet this is in part because they do not expect many native people to see the film, much less to complain about the enduring legacy of its stereotypes. Maybe they are right, but if they are anything like Dan Snyder, they don’t care.

Snyder faces a trademark lawsuit filed by Native American plaintiffs including Navajo spokeswoman Amanda Blackhorse, challenging the copyright of a racial epithet, a letter from members of Congress urging a name change, and protest from several Washington news outlets that refuse to refer to the team by name. His view is that tradition is more important than progress and that the majority opinion of those not personally harmed by racist imagery is more important than the feelings of a minority for whom it is deeply hurtful.

What Disney and Dan Snyder have in common is the power to ignore the protests of Native Americans. Underlying that power in part is the apathy of those outside of Native Communities and the notion that our country is beyond racism. However, the fact that Johnny Depp will play Tonto despite the feelings of those like Sherman Alexie, and Dan Snyder refuses to change the name of the Washington Redskins despite its offensiveness, shows that the opposite is true. 

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