Recently there’s been much fanfare in Indian Country over Johnny Depp playing the role of Tonto in the new “Lone Ranger” movie. For those who aren’t aware, the movie isn’t due to be released until the summer of 2013, and will feature Depp heavily as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick. So what’s the issue?
The answer is twofold. Tonto is a character who has reflected inaccuracies at his best and racial stereotypes at his worst. When the radio show first aired, he was identified as a chief’s son from the Potawatomi nation. Yet the story takes place in the American southwest and the regalia that the television version of Tonto eventually wore was nothing like that of the Potawatomi nation. Furthermore, Tonto speaks in broken English, and the word tonto itself can be translated as idiot or stupid in Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish. It does not exactly add up to positive representation for Native communities to see plastered on movie posters.
The second objection lies with Depp himself. The simple guess of ancestry without the actual knowledge of what that means rankles for many Natives. Depp himself has guessed that he is “Cherokee or maybe Creek” but he does not really know. The perception is that a role for a Native American went to a non-Native.
However, there have also been counter-arguments raised. Depp has said that the role of Tonto is “an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans” through “(making) fun of the idea of Indian as sidekick.” He has also been involved in the character design and reportedly one of the driving forces in making sure the movie gets made, and he has acted courteously towards the Native advisers and actors on set. The perception is that he is trying.
Perhaps the true problem being raised with the movie is not so much that a non-Native is playing a Native role (it happens rather frequently), or even that Tonto is being revived as a character. The true problem is that there are so few representations of Native Americans in the media, and the ones that do exist are almost always relegated to the past. Most of the time when a Native American character pops up they: 1- exist in the past tense, 2- possess some magical/ mystical quality, 3- are seen as wiser or more connected to the earth than their white counterparts, 4- are brutal savages and will most likely be killed by the hero of the piece, or 5- are too gentle or backwards to save themselves and will rely on the white hero to do the saving. Excepting some indie flicks that generally come out of the Native community itself, almost all characters fall into one or more of these traps.
Only time will tell if “The Lone Ranger” manages to beat the stereotypical trap. In the meantime, Tonto has been re-imagined as a Comanche, and Depp has been adopted by the Comanche Nation. This makes him, by tradition at least, a real Indian.