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Johnny Depp’s New Comanche “Tonto”

by David Yeagley · April 24, 2012 · 16 Comments ·

Obviously, Johnny Depp isn’t an Indian (though suddenly claiming to be, from mysterious past generations). Nor is their anything Comanche about the costume he’s wearing in the new Silver Bullet (Disney) production of “The Lone Ranger,” to be released in May, 2013. But Depp is playing the role of “Tonto,” and has a costume more about his own flare for Gothic make-up than anything Comanche, or even Indian. His is a freak, fantasy Indian.

Johnny Depp as “Tonto” and Armie Hammer as “The Lone Ranger.” The new movie release date is May, 2013.

That’s fine. The white man has every right to play Indian in any way he sees fit. The white race is the conquering race. If he wants Indian mascots, let him have them. If he likes to play Indian, in his own way, or whatever way, let him. If he misrepresents Indians, it is his privilege to do so. What Indian would take him seriously, anyway?

At least Johnny Depp doesn’t claim to be Indian, any too much, or to be Comanche, like Rudy “Youngblood” Gonzales did when he took the lead part in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, or like Heart Hays (Katheryan Shay Greer) does as she tries to make herself the Pocahontas of Sunset Strip. Both Rudy and Heart actually claim to be Comanche, and neither are. Neither have produced one shred of evidence, of any kind that they have any Indian blood in them at all, let alone Comanche.

But Johnny Depp is into professional pretense. It’s Hollywood. It isn’t about authenticity. It is about make-believe, like, “a Kentucky great-grandmother’s ancestry” by which Depp says he’s Cherokee and Creek!

Depp says his “inspiration” for his costume comes directly from the painting of Kirby Sattler, a very white white man, who is famous for fantasy Indian art, not historically authentic renditions. American Indians are the subject of many non-Indian artists, and there is no outrage in their imagination. Just let it be understood by all that this is the privilege of the world–to dream about Indians, to imagine being Indian. The fantasy painting of Sattler has nothing to do with authenticity, but white fantasy about Indian things.

Sattler’s “Warrior” and Depp’s adaption. Nothing authentic about
either one, and certainly un-Comanche.

Depp’s selection of this impressive painting also shows he stereotypical, superficial impression of American Indian ambiance. He said to, “I thought: Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive.” Not words that represent profound education and knowledge of Indian lore, but a universal stereotype that is easily communicated to all non-Indian people, as well as to all Third World indigenous people.

I know for a fact that no Comanche tribal leader or authoritative elder was consulted in the matter. That is stunningly obvious to anyone who knows anything about the historical Comanches. Comanche never painted their faces, and certainly did not wear an eagle’s carcass on their heads; nor were there animal spirits procured as “spirit” guides. Not the Comanche way. (The abstract, pragmatic Comanches were generally above such obvious superstition.) Nothing about the nature of Tonto’s role in “The Lone Ranger” appears to be Comanche. After all, Tonto is supposed to be Comanche, no? He is hanging out with a ‘lone’ leftover of the Texas Rangers–the group of ruthless killers who were organized and designed to deal with the Comanche “problem” in Texas. Of course, the original Indian who played the part wasn’t Comanche either. Jay Silverheels was Canadian Mohawk. Why Hollywood has such an aversion to using an Indian to play an Indian part is beyond me. But, as I said, it is about fantasy, not reality. And the white man, in fact, anyone who is not American Indian, seems to die for the chance to play an American Indian. This is astounding, really.

Jay Silverheels, as the original “Tonto,”
in the 1950’s TV series, “The Lone Ranger.”

In any case, the film is a bit delayed in production, according to StarSeeker (January7, 2011). It seems the budget has been exhausted on special effects (“spirit” effects?), so that the release is not until May, 2013, a year from now.

If there is an offense in this Depped up version of Tonto, it isn’t because Depp is not Indian so much as the fact that it misrepresents Comanche Indians. But, even that is not so great an affront, as long as everyone understands that the movie is fantasy, not reality. It is not authentic, but imaginative. This is Johnny Depp. The Yahoo MovieTalk piece (by Mariah Doty), “Johnny Depp reveals why Tonto puts a bird on it,” has the best take. It’s all about Johnny Depp’s fascination with heavy make-up.

With that in mind, it’s for all (but Comanches?) to enjoy. I do believe the white man has the right to play Indian, however it suits his fancy. As long as it is understood by the public that these play roles are generally not authentic, what harm is there? Let the white man be his own Indian mascot. It is his right.

Posted by David Yeagley · April 24, 2012 · 7:09 pm CT · ·

Tags: American Indians · Arts · Bad Eagle Journal · Mascots · Race · White Race

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16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David Yeagley // Apr 24, 2012 at 7:16 pm   

    The Wiki piece (“Early Life”) on Depp shows that, as of 2011, (when the new “Lone Ranger” movie was begun), Depp started with his claim of Indian ancestry.

    “I guess I have some Native American [in me] somewhere down the line. My great-grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek”

    I’m afraid that’s not really good enough, Johnny. It is not meaningful, but fantasy. It does not authenticate you, your role, your acting, your identity, etc. It devalues real Indians who are in the acting business, and who really should have had the part you got–if we’re going to talk about authenticity.

  • 2 Sioux // Apr 24, 2012 at 7:26 pm   

    What harm is there? Well, we non-Indians are not very well educated on most things and if we see it on tv or in a movie, we believe it’s true, or at least partially true. Imagine my disappointment when I recently learned from Mel Gibson that “Braveheart” was all fiction – Geeez.

    I am going to make a prediction on “The Lone Ranger and Tonto” – it’s going to stink….

  • 3 Sioux // Apr 24, 2012 at 7:30 pm   

    That’s why I liked “The Last of the Mohicans” so much – to see Russell Means run thru the forest was inspirational. It appeared that there were a lot of “real” Indians in that movie (probably from a wider variety of tribes). Is that correct?

  • 4 Sioux // Apr 24, 2012 at 7:31 pm   

    Authenticity – and the lack thereof throughout America – my kingdom for some Authenticity!!!

  • 5 David Yeagley // Apr 24, 2012 at 8:12 pm   

    Hate to disappoint you, Sioux, but Russell told me it was a stand in. He complained that he could have run, and made extra money! (If we’re talking about the same scene.)

    Hollywood is the antithesis of authenticity, by definition. Fantasy is a special capacity of the human mind–the one employed in the ancient worship of false gods…

    Theatre originated in the acting out of myths about the gods.

  • 6 Thrasymachus // Apr 24, 2012 at 8:19 pm   

    The multiculti inauthenticity bores me.

    If the part calls for an American Indian, I want to see a real one. I really do.

    This reminds me of watching a story in which I find a little Arab boy playing the part of a young English lord, about age nine or ten, of the late 1800s. Not offensive, certainly, but not convincing either. Yawn!

  • 7 Thrasymachus // Apr 24, 2012 at 8:30 pm   

    I realize that imitation is often the highest form of flattery. But flattery can be offensive.

    I’ve never seen or heard any “Elvis impersonator” who was not hideous — simply hideous! The whole idea of copying someone can sometimes become a silly mockery — even when not intended.

    I think that, deep down, this is a factor in why I do not want to see race and nation mocked or degraded. There is something repulsive and disturbing about that. There is cruelty in it.

  • 8 Thrasymachus // Apr 24, 2012 at 8:56 pm   

    The chief difficulty about motion pictures is the ignorance of the movie-going public! Far too many people learn their history entirely from movies and entertainment. Few are interested in truth.

    So many people mistake what they see in movies or on television for reality. Magic replaces Truth.

  • 9 Sioux // Apr 24, 2012 at 9:09 pm   

    Oh, I am disappointed especially if Russell wanted to do all the running — and that handsome young man who was running with Russell and Daniel Day, do you know him?

    Have you ever see the movie “Whale Rider” ?

  • 10 Mario // Apr 25, 2012 at 7:36 am   

    Dr.Yeagley, it seems that the American Indian is the only race that anybody can either claim to have some ancestry no matter how dubious.

    This can also refer to actors playing indians even if the actors do not have an ounce of indian blood in them.

    I can say assuringly that if one was to portray a racial group by a white actor, especially if the role is about a black person, imagine the uproar!

  • 11 Quartermain // Apr 25, 2012 at 8:16 am   

    According to Wikipedia, Tonto was Potawatomi originally.

    Various anime characters that was originally asian become caucasian not to mention Asguard becomes multi-racial.

    With the mention of special effects, I am assuming that the computer generated imagery takes precedent over story telling.

    Hollywood is a strange place with a strange culture.

    I don’t care for the modern Hollywood product much.

  • 12 David Yeagley // Apr 25, 2012 at 8:31 am   

    I have first hand information that Depp has been pushing for Indian roles for the past 15 years. I know that he was once up for a Chickasaw part, but that movie effort was aborted. So, he isn’t exactly just now claiming Indian ancestry.

    However, this inside information doesn’t doesn’t address the issue of any public claim of having Indian roots. This Tonto role is the first Depp public claim I am aware of.

  • 13 nettles // Apr 25, 2012 at 8:43 am   

    I heard about his Indian ancestry claim some time ago. You can find a long list of famous people who say they have Indian blood.on the net. Who knows if it’s true.

    Maybe Depp assumed that painting was the real deal. This sort of thing happens to us all the time!

    Lies everywhere. I wonder if one day our times will be known as the Fake Ages.

  • 14 David Yeagley // Apr 25, 2012 at 8:59 am   

    I guess I was mistaken then, Nettles. I’m not a movie buff at all, and I’m certainly not up on the movies news. I’ve never followed Johnny Depp, and know little to nothing about his movies. I’ve watch five or ten minutes, here and there, of his Pirates movies. Bits and pieces of others. All fantasy. Very creative.

    Creative means non-authentic, I think.

  • 15 Mario // Apr 25, 2012 at 9:48 pm   

    Dr. Yeagley, I am thinking this new Lone Ranger movie will be PC to the gills. I think the Lone Ranger will be shown as a racist, indian hating lawman and the the minroties, ie. indians, Mexicans, Blacks as model citizens who do no wrong except be victims of the racists whites.

    I remember watching the Lone Ranger television series and even had a pair of chromed plated toy revolver which would not be permitted to be sold nowadays with the anti-gun hatred where I live in California. I loved the series and still watch it when there is nothing worthwile to watch.

    This attempt reminds me of the 1981 flop called The Legend of the Lone Ranger, where due to bad press from the actor Clayton Moore not allowed to wear the costume let alone the trademark mask, and the actor playing the Lone Ranger voice was dubbed by another actor. The only bright spot was the actor that played Tonto was an indian by the name of Michael Horse.

    Anyways I probably will not be seeing this film unless I get dragged kicking and screaming plus being restrained at the sametime.

  • 16 agrneydgrl // Apr 25, 2012 at 11:23 pm   

    Didn’t a real indian play an indian in the movie code talkers?

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