Disney’s action flick The Lone Ranger hits theaters this week just in time for July 4. And while the movie is sure to celebrate some of the better parts of American culture (the thrill of the American West, the triumph of the vigilante hero), it has also dusted off some of the skeletons in this nation’s closet, namely the treatment of Native Americans, and the depiction of Native characters throughout Hollywood history. Already, Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the Lone Ranger’s Native sidekick, Tonto, has created a storm of controversy, with many saying that the character is racist.
People were justified in raising eyebrows at this latest depiction of Tonto given the character’s history. Tonto was first played by White American actor John Todd on the Lone Ranger radio series in the 1930s. When the show came to television in the early 1950s, Native Canadian actor Jay Silverheels had the role of Tonto. And while he was played by a Native actor, Tonto’s character remained one-dimensioned, subordinate, and flat-out racist, as can be seen in the painfully stereotypical clip below.
So is Johnny Depp’s Tonto much of the same? Is it another stereotypical, insensitive portrayal of Native Americans? It’s difficult to tell. To his credit, Depp, does identify as having Cherokee heritage. He also went out of his way to consult American Indian leaders about the movie’s script and the development of Tonto’s character. He even went so far as to be ceremoniously adopted into the Comanche Nation, and received a traditional Navajo blessing.
Depp appeared to be very intentional about the entire process, and it’s clear that he took into account the cultural implications of his role. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he said, “I started thinking about Tonto and what could be done in my own small way 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.”
For some though, these intentions are not enough. While Depp has every right to claim his Cherokee heritage, the reality is that he is still perceived as a white man playing a minority role. And for all of his intentions about reshaping the image of Native Americans in film, he must realize that he does not have the cultural authority to single-handedly solve this problem for Native Americans.
And there’s still the fact that Tonto just rubs some people the wrong way. Apparently he still speaks in a sort of broken English, and some critics take issue with his excessive makeup and the large black bird he wears on his head. Michelle Shining Elk, a member of the Colville Tribes of the Pacific Northwest who works in the film industry believes that this movie will only perpetuate negative stereotypes about Natives. She says that the movie sends a message “that we are uneducated, irrelevant, non-contributors to society living in teepees out on the Plains.”
Other Native filmmakers, like director Chris Eyre have a different perspective. Eyre says, “I'm not looking to this movie to be the Native Schindler's List, but I completely respect Johnny Depp for making this movie happen and for him to try and rewrite Tonto for a new generation."
Ultimately, the important thing to keep in mind is something that is often forgotten in our culture of well-meaning attempts at solidarity and support: The conversation about whether or not Tonto is a racist character is a Native conversation. Non-Native Americans (and I include myself in this category) can theorize all we want about what Tonto means for Native people. But ultimately, as the people being represented (or misrepresented), their voices will serve as the ultimate authority on Tonto’s character.
Of course, those voices will not always speak in unison, as has been evinced here. But varied though they may be, these Native voices should be heard the loudest.