Code Switch
11:05 pm
Mon July 1, 2013

Does Disney's Tonto Reinforce Stereotypes Or Overcome Them?

Originally published on Tue July 9, 2013 8:00 am

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.

"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.

"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.

"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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Narrator) A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty, hi-yo, Silver, The Lone Ranger.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Ah, The Lone Ranger, long an iconic fictional hero taming the Wild West with his trusty Indian guide, Tonto. Disney's newest version is an action comedy that opens tomorrow, with Johnny Depp playing the role of Tonto.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco traveled to the capital of the Comanche Nation to meet up with Depp and get his thoughts on playing the character, and also about Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Tonto has always been the Lone Ranger's sidekick; the faithful Indian companion who helps the white man fight bad guys, speaking in pidgin English.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

JOHN TODD: (as Tonto) Maybe him talk Sioux Indian language.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

TODD: (as Tonto) Sioux Indian dangerous, but Crow Indian friendly.

DEL BARCO: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LONE RANGER")

JAY SILVERHEELS: (as Tonto) You, you Kemosabe. Me, Tonto. Now me take care of you.

JOHNNY DEPP: You know, it was entertainment, pure entertainment.

DEL BARCO: Actor Johnny Depp helped create Tonto's character for the new movie.

DEPP: Even at the ripe old age of five or six, you know, seven years old, watching that on TV, I had the very distinct feeling that there was something very wrong, and that Tonto never deserved to be called a sidekick.

DEL BARCO: In Lawton, Oklahoma to promote the movie to the Comanche Nation, Depp talked about playing Tonto as The Lone Ranger's equal partner.

DEPP: In my own small way, it was my way of trying to, you know, at least attempt to right the wrongs of what had been done with regards to the representation of Native Americans in cinema.

DEL BARCO: His Tonto is a deadpan spirit warrior from the Comanche tribe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LONE RANGER")

DEPP: (as Tonto) There come a time, Kemosabe, when good man must wear mask.

DEL BARCO: This Tonto is first seen in 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LONE RANGER")

DEPP: (as Tonto) From the great beyond, a vision told me a great warrior and spirit walker would help me on my quest. I would have preferred someone else. But who am I to question the Great Father?

DEL BARCO: Back in the 1950s, Jay Silverheels' Tonto was calm and stoic, wore his hair in a braid, a headband and a buckskin vest. But Depp's new Tonto is tattooed and shirtless. His face is painted white with four black stripes. And on top of his head sits a dead black crow. Depp says he took the look from a painting by Kirby Sattler he found on the Internet.

DEPP: There was a bird flying behind the guy's head, the warrior's head. And I thought wow, that's amazing, the bird - oh, he's not on his head. He should be on his head, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

DEPP: ...as an extension of himself or a spirit guide.

DEL BARCO: Depp says he was born in Kentucky, where his great grandparents told him the family had Cherokee blood.

DEPP: There could have been Cherokee, could have been Creek. They may be Choctaw. I don't know. You know, I was always told that growing up. And it was something that I always felt very proud to have.

DEL BARCO: For months, Depp and Disney labored to court Native Americans. The studio gave proceeds of the movie's world premiere to the American Indian College Fund, and Depp donated money to a Navajo reservation. During production, a local Navajo elder blessed the set in Monument Valley. And in Santa Fe, social activist LaDonna Harris adopted Depp as an honorary son and member of the Comanche Tribe.

LADONNA HARRIS: So we gave, his Comanche name is Shape Shifter. He's someone who can change into all these different things he plays, from a Caribbean pirate to a Comanche.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: So that was fun.

DEL BARCO: In Lawton, Oklahoma, the chairman of the Comanche Nation, Wallace Coffey, welcomed Depp to a special screening of "The Lone Ranger" for tribal members.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING AND CHEERING)

DEL BARCO: Outside the theater, festival dancers greeted Depp on a red carpet blessed by tribal elders. The Comanches who got free tickets to the screening seemed starstruck. After the film ended, Kimberly DeJesus and Anthony Menassy gushed about Johnny Depp.

KIMBERLY DEJESUS: I thought he did a perfect job as Tonto. He was - he was phenomenal. I was speechless the whole time. (Laughing)

ANTHONY MENASSY: They didn't put us down or they didn't make fun of us in any kind of way. So it was real. That was nice.

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

HANAY GEIOGAMAH: 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.

DEL BARCO: Geiogamah, the former director of UCLA's American Indian Studies program, doesn't like the way Johnny Depp's Tonto talks.

GEIOGAMAH: Monosyllabic, stuttering, uttering. Hollywood Indian-speak.

DEL BARCO: And he doesn't like Tonto's new getup, either.

GEIOGAMAH: We've got Johnny Depp with a taxidermied crow on top of his head and painted to the nth degree, and he looks like a gothic freak.

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

GEIOGAMAH: It's a major setback for the Native American image in the world. That's how millions of people will think American Indians are now.

DEL BARCO: In the 1990s, Disney called on Geiogamah as a consultant for its two animated "Pocahontas" movies. He advised the filmmakers how to authentically present 17th century American Indian life. Gieogamah says he's surprised Disney would turn around and present old cliches with this new film.

But for his part, Johnny Depp defends his Tonto, saying he was hoping to turn the stereotype on its head.

DEPP: It's a very strange notion. But it occurred to me that in a weird way, certain cliches must be embraced for a millisecond to have the audience understand. Just for that millisecond. I presented Tonto with, I hope, you know, a dignity and a pride and with, you know, with respect.

DEL BARCO: With its $215 million new take on Tonto, Disney is hoping to rope in all kinds of audiences to watch on one of the biggest movie holidays of the year.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Like a fiery horse with the speed of light, this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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