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Johnny Depp’s Tonto Misstep: Race and “The Lone Ranger”

The actor's turn as a Comanche character is another chapter in an ugly racial history, experts say.
 
 
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Johnny Depp has tossed on a lot of outlandish costumes in his long career. In the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, he plays a buccaneer; in “Dark Shadows,” a vampire; in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” an androgynous confectioner.

And with today’s new release “The Lone Ranger,” he’s adding “American Indian” to the pile of personas he’s tried on — and scholars of American Indian history are not pleased.

Depp, who has claimed in the past to have Indian heritage (a claim that Indian Country Today, a media network for the American Indian community,  has contested), is playing Tonto, one of the longest-running Indian characters in American media. It’s also an intensely problematic one. Depp, who was  adopted into the Comanche Nation after signing on to “The Lone Ranger,”  claims that his role is a “salute” to American Indians, and “Smoke Signals” director Chris Eyre, an American Indian, has said, “ I completely respectJohnny Depp for making this movie happen and for him to try and rewrite Tonto for a new generation.” Some critics, including  Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, have found bright spots in the film even while acknowledging the problems inherent in its casting. Depp  has screenedthe film for the Comanche nation — with many leaders of various tribes in attendance — and Disney donated proceeds from the Los Angeles premiere to the American Indian College Fund.

But for all the trappings of enlightened cooperation, the new Tonto may read as more of the same — and less a salute than an insult.

 

Tonto, the loyal sidekick of the Lone Ranger (played in the 2013 film by Armie Hammer), has evolved a great deal even prior to the current incarnation. “He may be the most pervasive American Indian character of the 20th century,” said Chadwick Allen, the coordinator for the American Indian studies program at Ohio State University and the author of a forthcoming book about Tonto. “And he’s purely fictional, unlike Pocahontas, Sacajawea, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull or Geronimo. It’s not surprising he keeps getting recycled. He’s perfectly malleable for whatever the dominant fantasies are for native culture.”

Those fantasies have included, said Allen, an “older, diminutive in stature, explicitly half-breed” version of Tonto, one who perpetually needed saving and didn’t have his own horse, in the early “Lone Ranger” radio serials (on which Tonto was played by a white man). He was portrayed as bloodthirsty rather than concerned with justice, dovetailing with what Allen called “the savage stereotypes of the Indian.”

But in 1936, as the Lone Ranger empire continued to blossom, “Tonto becomes full-blooded, taller, more robust, and around the same age as the Lone Ranger” — coinciding with the implementation of the Indian Reorganization Act, a law that allowed some self-government to American Indians along strictly proscribed lines that resembled American government. When Americans needed Tonto to be a bumbling incompetent or a bloodthirsty savage, he could do that; after the Reorganization Act, effectively intended to help “Americanize” the tribes, he became slightly less than equal in the quest for justice. Harvey Markowitz, the co-author of  “Seeing Red: Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins” and an assistant professor of sociology at Washington and Lee University, described the Tonto character as “justification for treating [American Indians] as children, putting them on reservations, and training them to be white people as you take away their land.”

The best-known iteration of Tonto remains the one played by Jay Silverheels in “The Lone Ranger” TV series, which ran from 1949 to 1957, a time during which “Indian termination policy” saw Indians forcibly “integrated” into society and reservations’ special status revoked. Allen described the TV Tonto as “skilled and robust and detached from any native loyalty.” It was Silverheels who popularized a certain halting pidgin-speak and the term “Kemosabe,” as well as a renewed loyalty to the Lone Ranger that felt like a white ruling class reassuring itself.

 
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