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Does Disney's Tonto Reinforce Stereotypes Or Overcome Them?

The Lone Ranger has long been a fictional hero, taming the Wild West with his trusty Indian guide, Tonto. The faithful companion helps the white man fight bad guys, and does so speaking in pidgin English.

Tonto made his first appearance on the radio in the 1930s, voiced by a non-Native American actor, John Todd. In the series, Western settlers face down what they call "redskins" and "savages." And trusty Tonto is always on hand to interpret the smoke signals.

Beginning in 1949, in films and on TV, Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels, an actor who in real life was the son of a Canadian Mohawk tribal chief. "You Kemo Sabe," he would say to the Lone Ranger. "Me Tonto. Me take care of you."

Disney's version is out in theaters this week, and it's an action-comedy with Johnny Depp in the role of Tonto.

But audiences may wonder whether the new movie plays with old Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans.

Johnny Depp's Take On An Old Character

Johnny Depp, who helped create Tonto's character for the new movie, says he grew up watching reruns of the TV series, which he says was pure entertainment.

Adorned with a dead black crow, headband and face paint, Depp said he knew his Tonto would need to go "against the grain of what had been done before, [he] knew it would require a very, very important iconic look."
/ Disney
Adorned with a dead black crow, headband and face paint, Depp said he knew his Tonto would need to go "against the grain of what had been done before, [he] knew it would require a very, very important iconic look."

"But even at the ripe old age of 5 or 6 or 7, watching that on TV, I had the very distinct feeling that there was something very wrong," he says from a hotel room in Lawton, Okla., before a special screening of the new movie. "Tonto never deserved to be called a sidekick."

Depp wanted to play Tonto as the Lone Ranger's equal partner. "In my own small way, it was my attempt to right the wrongs of what had been done with regards to the representation of Native Americans in cinema."

Tonto is first seen in Disney's new The Lone Ranger on display at a sideshow diorama labeled "noble savage." Depp says the character is meant to be humorous — the Lone Ranger even kids him about the word Tonto meaning "dummy" in Spanish. Depp's Tonto is a deadpan spirit warrior from the Comanche tribe.

The 1950's Jay Silverheels' Tonto was calm and stoic, wore his hair in a braid and donned a headband and a buckskin vest. But Depp's new Tonto is tattooed and shirtless. His face is painted white with black stripes. And on top of his head sits a dead black crow.

"Going against the grain of what had been done before, I knew it would require a very, very important iconic look," says Depp, who says he took it from a painting by artist Kirby Sattler, which he saw on the Internet. "It was a warrior, and at first glance I saw a face split into quarters. I thought, 'Wow! That's a very interesting concept.' Then there was also a bird flying behind the guy's head, the warrior's head, and I thought, 'Wow, that's [an] amazing bird.' Well, he's not on his head, he should be on his head, as an extension of himself, a warrior, his spirit guide."

Asked if he's Native American, Depp says he grew up in Kentucky, where his great-grandmother and great-grandfather told him he had Cherokee blood. "But over there, could have been Cherokee, could have been Creek, could have been Choctaw," he says. "It was always something that I always felt very proud to have."

Disney's Outreach To Native Americans

Behind the scenes, Depp and Disney labored for months to court Native Americans. The studio gave proceeds of the movie's world premiere to the American Indian College Fund. During production, a local Navajo elder blessed the set in Monument Valley. And in Santa Fe, social activist La Donna Harris adopted Depp as an honorary son and member of the Comanche tribe.

"We gave him a Comanche name: Shape Shifter," says Harris. "He's able to change into all these different things he plays, from a Caribbean pirate to a Comanche."

In Lawton, the chairman of the Comanche Nation, Wallace Coffey welcomed Depp, presenting him with a beaded medallion necklace of his Tonto character. Then they joined a gathering of Comanche VIP's at a special screening of The Lone Ranger for tribal members.

Outside a movie theater, festive dancers greeted Depp on the red carpet blessed by a tribal elder. The Comanches who got free tickets to the screening seemed starstruck and gushed about Depp.

"He did a perfect job as Tonto; he was phenomenal," said Kimberly De Jesus. "When he spoke our language, he did pretty good at it. Must have practiced a lot, actually."

"I believe whatever Johnny says sheds some light on the way people look at our tribe different. Comanches. We're not savages," said Nolan Tedenopper.

"I was kinda scared: Is he gonna make fun of us?" offered Anthony Monessy. "There wasn't nothing that really put our people down."

"What it is, it's a fairy tale, and a good one," said Caubin Monessy. "Talking about a man who didn't even exist, but he was one of us."

But Does Johnny Depp's Tonto Actually Break Stereotypes?

But Disney's spin doesn't convince Hanay Geiogamah, a Kiowa tribe member. Frankly, the UCLA professor is offended. He says Depp joins a long list of white actors playing Native Americans in the movies, including Burt Lancaster, Robert Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Burt Reynolds.

Some critics aren't fans of Disney's Tonto and think that the character is a major setback for the Native American image.
/ Disney
Some critics aren't fans of Disney's Tonto and think that the character is a major setback for the Native American image.

"He could have, had he wanted to, cast himself as the Lone Ranger, and put a qualified, capable American Indian actor ... of whom there are quite a few now, in the role of Tonto," says Geiogamah, who used to head UCLA's American Indian Studies program.

Geiogamah doesn't like the way the 2013 Tonto talks. "That sort of monosyllabic stuttering, uttering. Hollywood Indian-speak."

And he doesn't like Tonto's new getup, either. "We've got Johnny Depp with a taxidermied crow on top of his head and painted to the nth degree with paint, and he looks like a gothic freak."

Geiogamah says no authentic Native American goes around wearing war paint outside of ceremonial pow-wows, and certainly not day and night in the Wild West frontier.

"There's no way you can look at this and not say it's odd, unusual, strange, arresting, startling," he says. "It's a major setback for the Native American image in the world because that's how millions of people will think American Indians are now."

In the 1990s, Disney called on Geiogamah as a consultant for its two animated Pocahontas movies. He advised the filmmakers how to authentically present American Indian life in the 17th century, even though the purported romance between Pocahontas and a white settler was pure fiction.

Geiogamah says he is shocked that Disney would turn around and present old cliches again with The Lone Ranger.

Johnny Depp pauses on the red carpet before the Comanche Nation premiere of <em>The Lone Ranger.</em>
/ M.J. Alexander
M.J. Alexander
Johnny Depp pauses on the red carpet before the Comanche Nation premiere of The Lone Ranger.

"After all these years and all this effort to try to get Hollywood to understand their portrayal of Native Americans, and some real good work having been accomplished, to see it all sort of pushed aside because a big star wants to play Tonto," says Geiogamah, who notes there has not been an organized reaction again the movie yet. "It's kind of [a] resigned, 'Oh well, what can we do about it? Johnny Depp's a big star. At least we got a major star playing an Indian.' That kind of resigned helpless response. ... Further hardening ... the notion that Hollywood just ain't ever going to get it right. The movies are never going to do right by the Indians."

For his part, Depp defends his Tonto, saying he was hoping to turn the stereotype on its head. "It's a very strange notion, but it occurred to me, in a weird way, certain cliches must be embraced for a millisecond, to have the audience understand. Just for that millisecond," Depp says.

"You know, I presented Tonto with, I hope, a dignity and a pride and with respect. And as far as Tonto being eccentric and at times considered aloof, he's a very wise warrior. To me, [he] always deserved to be what he is: a warrior," says Depp. "If I can get kids to understand how proud they should be of that heritage, I feel I've done my job."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.