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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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But it was his halting speech that made Tonto such a memorable character — a halting speech pattern that would seem to be only slightly dialed down in  the trailer, in which Depp says, “A vision told me, great warrior would help me on my quest” and “You find treasure, you find the man who killed your brother.” In both clauses, a definite article has been sucked into the vacuum produced by an ethnic stereotype. Silverheels’ Tonto “didn’t have power to articulate his point of view in a way that had any eloquence with the viewing public,” said Joanna Hearne, a professor of English at the University of Missouri and the author of  “Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western.” “It didn’t reflect the eloquence of indigenous people  and it certainly didn’t reflect the knowledge embedded in the language systems of indigenous people.”

As for Silverheels himself, said Hearne: “He was typecast, but he did use his power to work behind the scenes for Indian actors in Hollywood. [...] He helped them with their professional careers, he helped them get on-screen. He helped politicize that work in a productive way.” Depp, for all that he has been adopted by the Comanche tribe (after saying that Indians “have to think, somewhere along the line, I’m the product of some horrific rape. You just have that little sliver in your chemical makeup”), is in fact undoing Silverheels’ advocacy by taking a role away from an Indian actor by playing Tonto.

“In some ways, [the so-called practice of 'redface'] has become less common,” said Hearne, “but Native actors aren’t always hired for lead roles. Think about the werewolves in ‘Twilight.’ Most of the actors playing the wolf pack have Native ancestry. But the lead actor doesn’t.”

And stereotypical portrayals of American Indians are still very much with us: “Look at the products on the shelf at the grocery store,” said LeAnne Howe, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois and Markowitz’s co-author. “Or the Jeep Cherokee. The Pontiac. Land O’Lakes butter. The Native American cigarettes [ American Spirits].” The white idea of that which is Indian — leaving aside the vast number of differences between tribes, American Indians are generally seen as exotic, stoic, “connected with the land” — is among the most easily monetized tropes for anyone seeking the patina of American-ness. The Disney corporation is surely hoping Americans will spend their Independence Day holidays indulging the exoticism of Tonto.

“Other stereotypes, whether Asian, African-American, Mexican-American — have become muted,” said Howe. I don’t think that’s the case with American Indians because we are fewer in numbers. People excuse it as saying they’re honoring us by having representations of Native Americans on butter.”

For some, perceptions of Tonto have changed with time. Howe initially found Tonto sympathetic: “I grew up in the ’50s. I grew up watching Tonto on television. Jay Silverheels for me was heroic. He was the only American Indian I would ever see on television, ever. I look at that today with different eyes.”

“It demeans and makes invisible modern American Indians today,” continued Howe. “No one can take us seriously unless we have some crazy headdress on.”

Every generation gets the Tonto it deserves, perhaps, and only the weekend box-office returns will tell if this one, as played by Depp, catches the imagination of the American public. But for an entertainment culture that evidently seems more concerned with rehashing old stories of itself than in telling a new story in which an American Indian has some agency beyond helping the white man’s quest, Johnny Depp’s the perfect actor; “American Indian” is just another costume he can throw on.

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