State of the Arts Blog

Johnny Depp’s Tonto raises ire of local Native Americans

Johnny Depp stars as Tonto in The Lone Ranger

Disney's reboot of "The Lone Ranger" opens tomorrow in movie theaters across the country. With Johnny Depp in a starring role, it's sure that the action flick will garner millions in its opening weekend.

To hear Depp tell it, his portrayal of Tonto is righting a historic wrong.

"It was something I felt a pretty intense passion for, for a long time," Depp told MTV News. "Just taking into consideration the way that Native Americans have been portrayed in old-school TV series as sidekicks or savages. I just thought it was a way to flip it completely on its head and an opportunity to send great respect and thanks to the Native Americans for all they've lived through and went through in their existence. I guess it was to portray the Native American with the integrity and dignity that they deserve."

In advance of the release of the Depp has even gone so far as to be adopted by a Comanche tribe.

Johnny Depp stars as Tonto in The Lone Ranger

But not all Native Americans are so accepting of Depp's latest dramatic undertaking, so I launched a conversation on Facebook to find out more.

Artist and All My Relations gallery director Dyani White Hawk Polk told me that critics take issue with the fact that, yet again, a non-realistic depiction of their culture is making the big screen, portrayed by a non-Native American.

Johnny Depp may very well be well intentioned, his adoption is not something I can speak to. I am not Comanche, I am not a part of the family that chose to adopt him and I do not know why. But what I do know is that it doesn't necessarily automatically make someone "certified" or have any type of "authority" on the subject. He obviously is still pretty damn fresh to any ideas of contemporary Native people/current issues/history, etc. It's just a huge gap of not understanding the true issues, not being educated on them and not going the distance to really figure out where the backlash comes from and why.

Particularly offensive for many Native Americans is Depp's makeup and headdress, which includes a stuffed dead bird. The look was inspired by a painting by a non-Native artist, and is completely unrealistic.

And then there's the fact that Depp heads a band called "Tonto's Giant Nuts."

For writer and actor R. Vincent Moniz, Jr., this latest insult feels like déjà vu all over again.

Tonto is a minstrel character, created by a white guy, who is being rebooted by Disney. Disney isn't well known for their positive Indian imagery. Disney took a minstrel, wrapped him in a non natives stereotypical drawing of Indians and have a big name Depp - who is not Native American - playing the part. This is "First World Cinema" doing what its always done. They even have [Native American actor] Saginaw Grant out in front telling everyone this is OK, but look over Mr. Grant's work and you will see someone who has no problem playing whatever Indian stereotype that's needed.  Nothings changed in First World Cinema with respect to how Indigenous peoples are portrayed, they just got better at buying us off quicker.

Moniz says he personally wouldn't want any Indigenous actor to play stereotyped versions of Native Americans, but adds if they didn't, what parts would they get?

"It's almost as if pretending to be Native is eclipsing actually being Native," he said

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