'Lone Ranger' film worries some Native Americans

SEATTLE — Gyasi Ross grew up decades after the "Lone Ranger" aired on TV, but his friends would still call him "Tonto" when they teased him.

The making of a new "Lone Ranger" Disney movie, and the announcement that Johnny Depp is playing sidekick Tonto, have reawakened feelings about a character that has drawn much criticism over the years as being a Hollywood creation guilty of spreading stereotypes.

"Everybody understands who Tonto is, even if we hadn't seen the show, and we understood it wasn't a good thing," said Ross, a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana who lives and has family in the Suquamish Tribe, outside Seattle. "Why else would you tease someone with that?"

The film is still in production, but Native American groups have been abuzz about it for months, with many sharing opinions online and in a national Native publication running an occasional series on the topic.

Some Native Americans welcome the new movie, slated for release next summer. Parts were filmed on the Navajo Nation with the tribe's support, and an Oklahoma tribe recently made Depp an honorary member.

But for others, the "Lone Ranger" represents a lingering sore spot — one that goes back to the 1950s television version of Tonto, who spoke in broken English, wore buckskin and lacked any real cultural traits.

Depp's role attracted particular attention in April when producer Jerry Bruckheimer tweeted a picture of the actor in his Tonto costume. He had on black and white face paint, an intense gaze, a black bird attached to his head and plenty of decorative feathers.

"The moment it hit my Facebook newsfeed, the updates from my friends went nutso," wrote Natanya Ann Pulley, a doctorate student at University of Utah, in an essay for the online magazine McSweeney's.

For Pulley and her friends, the portrayal of Native Americans in Western movies is getting old.

"I'm worried about the Tonto figure becoming a parody or a commercialized figure that doesn't have any dimension or depth, or consideration for contemporary context of Native Americans," she said.

Native Americans are far from a monolithic group, and many are opening their arms to the new movie. Some are just excited to see Depp take the role.

In New Mexico, where some of the movie was filmed, the Navajo presented Depp, his co-star Armie Hammer, director Gore Verbinski and Bruckheimer with Pendleton blankets to welcome them to their land. Elsewhere, the Comanche people of Oklahoma made Depp, one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, an honorary member.

"In my niece's mind, I met Jack Sparrow," said Emerald Dahozy, spokeswoman for Navajo President Ben Shelly and a member of the Navajo group who met with Depp. "My personal view, I like him playing in a character which he can embody well."

Dahozy said the "Lone Ranger" production brought something more palpable to the reservation: money. The actors and the large crew lived on Navajo land, eating at local restaurants and staying in towns that rely heavily on tourism.

Native Americans aren't the only ones conflicted about the character of Tonto, which means "dumb" in Spanish. For Mexican Americans who grew up in the Southwest, the character draws up memories of one of the first dark-skinned heroes in popular culture and anger over a white man calling a brown-skinned person "dumb," said Rosa-Linda Fregoso, author of "Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture" and a Latino Studies professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"I remember rooting for him as a kid, but even I was a little bit offended as a child," said Fregoso. "For a grown white man to call someone 'Tonto' meant that you were less than human, not fully human or childlike."

In fact, Tonto's character has historically been called "Toro," which means "bull," in Spanish-language versions of early films, and Spanish language stories about Depp's role in the new film refers to his character as "Toro."

Disney representatives declined to comment, but Depp has said the film will be a "sort of rock 'n' roll version of the Lone Ranger" with his Tonto offering a different take from the 1950s show.

Cheyenne and Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre is willing to give the actor a chance.

"Based on Johnny Depp as an artist, and him going all the way and making this film happen, in my book (he) deserves some credit," Eyre told Indian Country Today for its occasional "Tonto Files" series. "He wants to change the view of Tonto, and he put his reputation and his career on the line."

The "Lone Ranger" began on the radio in the 1930s. Tonto was played by an actor of Irish descent, according to the Lone Ranger Fan Club.

The show rocketed in popularity and made a seamless transition to television, running on ABC from 1949 to 1957. In 2003, a TV reboot flopped. That version featured a Native Canadian actor playing Tonto.

But the 1950s portrayal of Tonto by Jay Silverheels, a Canadian Mohawk, is by far the most recognized.

He spoke in pidgin and was the loyal partner of the crime-fighting ranger, often bailing out the masked avenger from treacherous situations.

"Here hat. Me wash in stream. Dry in sun. Make whiter," Tonto says in an early episode setting up his relationship with the Lone Ranger. "Here gun to kill bad men."

That Tonto has been criticized as being generic and subordinate — a character with no individuality and no life beyond helping the Lone Ranger.

Reportedly costing more than $200 million, plus yet-to-be-added marketing costs, Disney's "Lone Ranger" is the type of film that can make or break a studio's summer. It's already been plagued with budget woes. The movie's release date in 2013 was recently pushed back a month.

Having Depp in the cast assures more eyeballs will be on the screen. Depp led the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise and anchored "Alice in Wonderland." Three of those movies surpassed the rare billion-dollar mark at the worldwide box office.

By MANUEL VALDES -The Associated Press (Source)

VIDEO Tonto, Johnny Depp at Monument Valley on Navajo Reservation

Responses to "New Tonto, familiar feelings for Native Americans"

  1. Anonymous says:

    Looks convincing enough. Would rather have a real native American play Tonto though.

  2. Muddy Dog says:

    In the original TV series The Lone Ranger and Tonto where childhood friends and Tonto saves Lone Ranger when the posses of Rangers he was riding with was massacred by a gang of outlaws. Thus, The LONE Ranger.

  3. Unknown says:

    Granted the lone ranger is a movie for entertainment. Although being native myself; a Powhatan Renape;I think this is a set back for us Indigenous people. Again there are no white men playing in black face in an acting cast as a black man. Furthermore even if Depp has native blood, that is not the issue the fact is he lives and breaths as a white man. I guess what concerns me is that more Americans will go back to only thinking of us as ugh Indians and not as real people. I don't live on a reservation and never have and see to many people refer to us as cigar Indians or think we speak in that t.v. broken English. I'm sure its a fun movie, but my heroes have always been NDN.

  4. Remona says:

    Can't hear him with the ind blowing. I have no idea what was said. Is it just me or does his nose look more prominent? Great make up.

  5. Muddy Dog says:

    I am enjoying the TV show Longmire. It is set in Wyoming about a white man sheriff living in proximity of a res. He is looking into his spirit also.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Isn't Johnny Depp metis?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Jay Silverheels came to our town in the early 1960's. We had just built a new Shopping Center called 'Valley Plaza'. All of the 'Grand Ole Opry' stars, Roy Rogers with Trigger, Porter Wagoner with (the then brand new star at that time) Dolly Parton (with brown hair) and also The Lone Ranger and Tonto were all there for the grand opening. My mother met Jay Silverheels while they were in town. They were all here for 4 days. He took my mother out to dinner (she was a widow, my father had been buried alive in a construction accident 3 years earlier). During the brief time they were together they got into a heated disagreement. My mother asked him how he could sell his self respect and culture like he did by letting them cast him they way they did (the way he spoke and acting as though he was 'less of a man' than the Lone Ranger). He laughed and said it was just a job and he just did it for the money! It didn't mean anything!!! She became angry and walked out of the restaurant leaving him sitting!!!!! But I kept the signed picture he gave me for many years. :)

  8. Anonymous says:

    My understanding is that Depp is Cherokee by blood and Comanche by adoption. I'm hoping he reinterprets this character with a good dose of sarcasm which is so endemic to native humor. I dunno -- the pidgin and stereotypes do need to go the way of all racism BUT to remember that the very actors who participated in that were talented entertainers who generally did more accurate stuff in their other lives; They knew it was show biz. Viva the Native Entertainer in American Culture, from Elton John, to Rita Coolidge, to Joanne Shenendoah -- All ruby throated hummingbirds. (Comanche is really Numunu anyways... we keep having to get things MORE right, more traditional, more accurate as we decolonize history.)

  9. Anonymous says:

    I'm wondering if he is wearing that crazy makeup for the whole movie, if that's the case, neither he nor the director understand the first thing about native culture.

  10. Muddy Dog says:

    I am so confused with my own heritage. I go by Muddy Dog because of so much mixture of blood. I have Scots, Irish, Dutch, German and Cherokee blood. I am not a wannabe.

  11. Unknown says:

    and lou diamond Philips is filipino

  12. Anonymous says:

    Face facts, the movie is being made, it will come out. It would have been nice to see someone more Indian play Tonto and play him correctly but I have faith in Depp. We'll see next year. If he does he usual great job, Indians could come out on top and that would be a step forward, no matter what.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I am discussed with just finding out the meaning of the word "tonto". When I watched the Lone Ranger as a very young child, Tonto was my hero. His character often got the lone ranger out of tough situations, and to me appeared to have a knowledge beyond that of his "partner". I hope Depp is able to bring this quality out so it is obvious to all. Rose Walk.

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