Johnny Depp’s Tonto: Hollywood Gets it Wrong But It Still Matters

By Felicia Gustin
Jul 8, 2013

Imagine for a moment what the reaction would be if Johnny Depp played the African American sidekick of a white cowboy. In Black face. Folks would pretty much go ballistic, right? What if Depp’s grandmother told him that he had an African American ancestor somewhere back there? Would that make it okay? What if Depp said he wanted to reverse all the negative images of African Americans in cinema? Would that make it okay? What if the producers of the film donated proceeds from the premiere to the United Negro College Fund? What if there was an African American consultant working on the set? What if the movie provided roles for a dozen or so Black actors? Would any of these make it okay for Johnny Depp to don black face and portray an African American?

If not, why is okay for Johnny Depp to play Tonto in the Disney summer blockbuster The Lone Ranger? That question is being widely debated in mainstream media, progressive circles, and even in Indian Country.

Fortunately movie critics are panning The Lone Ranger so hopefully that will sink the movie before it’s done too much damage. But despite this, we’re still seeing the image of Johnny Depp as Tonto everywhere (don’t even get me started on the dead bird on his head!) – from the cover of Rolling Stone to the TV talk show circuit to toy store shelves. A well-orchestrated media junket has Depp heavily promoting the film, while attempting to ward off criticisms of his portrayal of Tonto. Disney has pulled its usual marketing punches to coincide with the film’s release so head on over to the Disney store where you too can pick up your Tonto action figure or even a Tonto boy’s costume or headdress.

Some try to rationalize Depp’s Tonto as just a figment of some white writer’s imagination. But as Adrienne Keene writes at Native Appropriations.com, racial stereotyping is alive and well in most every depiction of Native peoples that we see today, Tonto included:

“Here’s the thing. Yeah, Tonto is a fictional character, and there are plenty of white actors and actresses who play fictional characters, and we don’t automatically assume that white people are fictional, so it shouldn’t matter, right? We saw Natalie Portman as an evil-crazy-swan-human in the Black Swan, and we don’t assume that Natalie Portman’s character is representative of her, or all white people, in real life. But that, my friend, is white privilege at work. Everyday we see millions of representations of white people in varied and diverse roles. We see white actors as “real” people, as “fantasy” characters, and everything in between.

But for Native people, the only images that the vast, vast majority of Americans see are stereotypical in nature. You go to the grocery store and see plenty of smiling white children on cereal boxes, contrasted with the only readily recognizable Native image–the Land o’ Lakes butter girl…There are also hardly any (if any) Native people in current, mainstream television shows. And this carries over even more strongly into Hollywood.”

Let’s also not forget the major professional sports teams brandishing their racist mascots while using the justification that they are “honoring” Native peoples. Remind me again how the Washington Redskins mascot honors Native Peoples? Or the Atlanta Braves or the Cleveland Indians or the recent Stanley cup winners, the Chicago Blackhawks?

These stereotypes matter. They matter because they continue to perpetrate a view of Indians that is ultimately used to justify how they are treated in society as a whole.

Take for instance, the recent Congressional debates over the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAVA) – it all came down to whether Native American tribes should be allowed jurisdiction over domestic violence crimes committed on Native American lands by non-Native Americans. (At least 70% of Native American female victims were victimized by non-Native American perpetrators according to a Department of Justice report). If you view Native peoples as inferior, then such debates cuts right to the heart of racism by maintaining that Indians are incapable of running their own courts when non-Natives (read whites) are the alleged perpetrators of crime.

Speaking of courts, the same day the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, they also struck a blow to tribal sovereignty by ruling on a case under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) that favored white adoptive parents over a Native father’s parental rights. If you deem Native peoples as inferior, than certainly you would assume white parents would be so much better for a Native child than the child’s own father. Writing for Colorlines, Aura Bogado explained:

“ICWA was created because of incredibly high rates of white parents adopting Native children; in states like Minnesota, that have large Native populations, non-Natives raised 90 percent of Native babies and children put up for adoption. Those adoptions sever ties to Native tribes and communities, endangering the very existence of these tribes and nations. In short, if enough Native babies are adopted out, there will literally not be enough citizens to compose a nation. ICWA sought to stem that practice by creating a policy that keeps Native adoptees with their extended families, or within their tribes and nations. The policy speaks to the core point of tribal sovereignty Native tribes and nations use it to determine their future, especially the right to keep their tribes and nations together.” 

These are just a few examples of how damaging stereotypes play out in the political, social and legal arenas. Yet there are those who argue that Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas face worse things than a fictional movie character - that poverty, unemployment, and inequities in health, housing and education all weigh far more heavily as issues that need to be addressed. But I would argue that these issues are very much linked to the stereotypes perpetrated by Disney and Depp’s Tonto as well as all the negative images we see daily of Native America.

In “Why Tonto Matters,” Adrienne Keene addressed this concern head on:

“Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior – that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp’s Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.”

At the end of The Lone Ranger, Tonto magically “disappears.” If only these racist stereotypes would just disappear. But they won’t until we – all of us, not just Native Americans - demand it. That means boycotting movies, products, and sports teams that perpetrate racism and letting the corporations in charge know you are doing so. It means joining picket lines, signing petitions, writing letters to the editor, marching in the streets, sharing through social media, civil disobedience - any and all ways we can make our voices heard. That is what fighting for justice looks like – not a lone ranger and his sidekick amidst $375 million dollars worth of special effects, production costs, and marketing.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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