Johnny Depp’s Tonto Isn’t Offensive, Just Weird, Says the Director of the American Indian Museum

We sent the Director of the American Indian Museum to the Lone Ranger; here’s what he thought

©Disney, The Lone Ranger

I admit that I went to see “The Lone Ranger” expecting to be disappointed and quite likely offended by the portrayal of Indians in the movie. Both Disney and Johnny Depp, the star of the movie, had promised to remake Tonto, the iconic Indian from the television series of the 1950s. Mr. Depp’s Tonto, they said, would not be simply the “faithful Indian companion” to the title character. No, indeed. Mr. Depp’s Tonto, they said, would be the star of the movie, a character who would make Indians proud.

That is a lot to promise. Hollywood, after all, has been a leader in stereotyping and demeaning Indians. The Indians we have seen in the movies have largely been dim, hostile and violent. Along with the degrading practice of making Indians mascots for sports teams, Hollywood’s portrayals of Indians have created in the minds of much of the American public a thorough misunderstanding of how Indians were in the 18th and 19th centuries and how they are now. Much of our work at the National Museum of the American Indian is to challenge the misinformation and stereotyping about Indians to which the entire world has been subjected.

To show its bona fides, Disney actively sought tribal support for the project. It sponsored a thousand-dollar-a-ticket gala premiere, with the proceeds going to the American Indian College Fund. Mr. Depp himself was embraced by certain Indian tribes and organizations, was even “adopted” into the Comanche Nation, and appeared at a special premiere for Comanche citizens in Lawton, Oklahoma.

Still, many of us were concerned that the movie would just be one more exercise in stereotyping Indians. Fortunately, “The Lone Ranger” does little harm in this regard, in my opinion. Most of the Indians in the movie are articulate and thoroughly aware of their circumstances. They even have a sense of humor. All of the Indian characters—except Tonto, of course—are played by Indian actors.

Mr. Depp’s Tonto is understood by all—especially the Comanches in the movie—to be a very strange man. We learn from the plot that his eccentricity is actually a mostly good-natured madness arising from a childhood trauma. So Tonto’s weird dead-bird headdress, which has generated much discussion among Indian cultural critics, is not presented as traditional Indian dress. Rather, it is a manifestation of Tonto’s madness.

There is also a dark side to his madness. He believes his destiny is to hunt and kill men like bad-guy Butch Cavendish. Tonto believes the villain is a supernaturally evil creature that can only be destroyed by a silver bullet. Unfortunately, in what seems to be a failed attempt at authenticity, he refers to Cavendish as a “wendigo.” That is a mythological creature in a number of northern woodlands cultures, but not a part of Comanche culture.

The movie works self-consciously and a little too hard to overturn the old Hollywood stereotype of villainous Indians. Indeed, it is the Indians who are framed and brutalized by an evil robber baron in league with a mechanized U.S. military. (This is not a movie for children, so parents do heed the PG-13 rating.) The movie, which runs two and a half hours, would have done better by excluding this subplot. It added elements of drama and tragedy that were out-of-place in a mostly fun and funny movie. There were also some bizarre and unnecessary scenes about scorpions, fanged rabbits and the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver. In this telling, Silver is a “spirit horse” that is nearly as eccentric as Tonto. Spirit horse? Really?

Mr. Depp chose to have his Tonto speak in a rather solemn baritone that is too reminiscent of Tonto as played by Jay Silverheels in the television series. Though Mr. Depp’s Tonto engages in complex dialogue at times, he inexplicably reverts to Pidgin English at other times. It was unnecessary and rather annoying.

And there are problems with many of commercial accoutrements to the film. The “Lego Lone Ranger Comanche Camp” includes a Tonto figure, a canoe, and a “scorpion launcher.” Children are unlikely to discern that real Comanche villages had none of these. Also troubling is the Tonto costume for boys. Though the film makes clear that Tonto is eccentric and does not dress like most Comanches, a child will not likely understand. These are not trivial matters, and I hope that Disney will stop this sort of thing. Children get very little accurate information about Indians in their formal educations, and Indian people seem always to be fighting a wearying battle against lies and stereotypes in the popular culture.

Hollywood has often used non-Indian actors to play Indians. I share the concerns of Indian actors and film-makers about this practice, but complaining about that in this case seems to me to miss the point. ”The Lone Ranger” should be understood simply as a vehicle for Johnny Depp to create an iconic character and carry a summer blockbuster, no more, no less. Despite its flaws, much of the time it is an absolute romp. I laughed out loud when the William Tell Overture burst into the soundtrack; it was a perfect accompaniment to the thoroughly over-the-top action sequence that was the climax of the film.

The work of reforming the portrayal of Indians in the movies remains where it has long been: with the Indian actors and film-makers who labor—largely anonymously for the moment—to make movies that accurately portray Indians as they were and are. The work of these artists grows stronger all the time. Their work already succeeds as art, and I believe it is inevitable that Indian artists will find broader commercial success in the future.

If, as I believe, non-Indian Hollywood is incapable of reforming itself, Indians still have the right to demand that Hollywood do no harm. In this, “The Lone Ranger” succeeds. It does not revolutionize the presentation of Indians in the movies. It is not history. It is not drama. “The Lone Ranger” does not deliver on the promise to dignify Tonto and make him a source of pride for Indian kids, except in this sense: the talented Johnny Depp has created another memorable, offbeat character, and that character is an Indian. Perhaps one day an Indian film maker will make a Tonto who resembles a real Indian. Until then, if people think of Tonto as Mr. Depp’s wacky Comanche, I can live with that.

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