Regarding Johnny Depp's Portrayal of Tonto

Ungelbah Daniel-Davila

Everyone in Indian country is in an uproar about Johnny Depp playing Tonto in the upcoming flick, The Lone Ranger, but for the wrong reasons.

From what I’ve read online, most people are outraged by the decision to have a non-Native portray a supposedly Native character — a legitimate objection considering Hollywood’s track record when it comes to casting Native roles with any kind of integrity.

And then there are some Natives out there who are in the camp of, "It’s just entertainment, who cares." Of course, as the opposition will argue, we care because for as long as Indigenous people have been a presence (or lack of presence) in media, beginning with the Romantic literature of the 1800s, a certain Native image has been created and sold by non-Natives with little to no understanding or compassion for the cultures they represent. The result of this, as I have written about before, has been identified as cultural appropriation and genocide.

But, to me, the crux of the issue is not that a non-Native is playing Tonto, but that Tonto continues to exist.

I’m glad Depp was cast as Tonto and I can’t think of anyone better to portray him. Tonto is a character that is and always has been a simulation of Indigenous-ness. He was created out of lies and cultural misconceptions and that, I think, is how he should remain. As we all know, the word “tonto” is a Spanish word that translates to “stupid” in English. So that, for starters, is an indication of the motivation behind the development of the character.

Tonto is the epitome of Indigenous cultural misrepresentation in cinema, and a symbol of everything Hollywood has ever done wrong to Natives.

Now, for Hollywood to dredge up that kind of degrading material and re-sell it for the brainwashing of another generation rather than make a picture written, directed and portrayed by American Indians — of which there are many — is a whole other issue, and one that I feel should be more closely examined. But the argument that a “real Indian” should have played Tonto is, I think, ultimately wrong.

Since the first “real Indians” appeared in “Indian” roles in the movies, they have been playing roles like Tonto. Roles that were not created to represent them or the people they come from. They lack the truthfulness and complexity of the cultures and people they make a mockery of. These roles are shallow and blatantly disrespectful simulations — dangerous lies marketed as the real thing. The truth is that with the exception of some independently made pictures, there are no Native roles in Hollywood to even choose from.

There are no Native stories, presence or voice at the major motion picture companies and so the only roles a Native actor has to choose from are roles like Tonto. Roles that are meant, and have always been meant, to degrade them, their families and the communities they come from. Roles designed to eliminate the Native voice from any type of collective discussion while mis-educating, however subliminally, the viewer, Native and non-Native alike.

I’ve talked to some of the older generation who grew up watching the original Tonto, and other westerns, who said as kids they thought that was how they, as “Indian” were supposed to be. They rooted for the cowboys. For a “real Indian” to play Tonto today would be a disgrace, and I’d like to believe that no self respecting Native actor would have chosen that role. Instead of furthering the stereotype and lending credibility to it, we should be putting our energy into creating real roles for ourselves, in every form of media — building a voice and an image that will no longer stand for this continued slandering.

For a Native actor to play the role of Tonto would have been the most damaging decision, because instead of rejecting that type of Native portrayal, he would have validated the character’s original intended message, that Native men are all Tontos.

This column was originally published in the Valencia County News-Bulletin.

Ungelbah Daniel-Davila studies creative writing and indigenous studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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greenriverkate's picture
Honey, I am alot older than you. When Johnny Depp hit the scene and started his movie rolls, he openly told everyone he was Native. At that time, it wasn't too fashionable to be Native. He finally dropped saying it after years of bull. My native kids grew up with him and admired him for being native and for being different and for his rolls he picked to play. Even today, he gets their attention when he picks rolls. I am interested in seeing HOW he plays Tonto. In our house Tonto was the smarter one, the rescuer of the Lone Ranger, the all around good guy but more important, we had a Native to watch and we loved Jay Silerheels. He broke a wall down to play Native. What we hated was the rolls of whooping natives surrounging a wagon train, showing them to be inhumane (when it was whites that were awful). Natives were blamed for everything wrong in movies. We ALL hated it and knew the difference between a vicotorious battle and a masacure. Natives were powerful and went agains guns with arrows, they fought their hearts out and if they won, it was a masacure. Some wonderful Native movies have been made and we own most of them at home so we can eduate our grandchildren and explain. I do believe Johnny Depp will have the power to make Tonto a real native human and able to show Native smarts that lack in whites.
misty's picture
Some good points made. That being said... "There are no Native stories, presence or voice at the major motion picture companies..." And what is anyone doing about that situation? It's not enough to say this situation exists. You must take action to change it. Any ideas on how to do that? Are any Indigenous youth being educated in motion picture "arts"? Generic mgmt training, directing, art design, script writing, etc etc. It starts *somewhere.* Perhaps this all starts via the Sundance route - indie films. If a project is worthy, a person can find investors. It takes legwork. Hey - Gary Farmer is an enormous success. He's an actor, story-teller, director - very talented. "... and so the only roles a Native actor has to choose from are roles like Tonto." I have a problem with blanket statements, and this one isn't entirely true. There is no need for Native actors not to pursue "non-Native" roles. I recall reading years ago that Whoopi Goldberg pursued roles she found compelling, regardless if they'd been scripted for "white" people or even "males." Adam Beach did a grand job in his role as a detective on Law and Order a few years ago. He wasn't a "Native" detective but just a "detective." Ditto for Wes Studi in "Heat." BTW, Johnny Depp is a box office draw. His movies make $. It also comes down to economics in the film industry.
koolkila's picture
Nice piece. Much of this is the same argument African-Americans have with stereotypical movie roles.
arizona's picture
Ms. Daniel-Davila, I respect your right to express what you did in this opinion piece. Good insight--despite one major error I think is a disservice to you, ICT, and Johnny Depp AND those who are participants in the acting world. Johnny Depp is not a full-blooded Native American (I can already here the full-bloods gathering waving their self righteous, sanctimonious CIBs) BUT his grandmother from Kentucky in the Southern region of the U.S. WAS. That is not anythig new. I would caution you to be respectful about words. Perhaps "Tonto" means 'stupid' in Spanish, but my god-daughter from the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona comes from a long line of Apaches whose surname is TONTO. There are also Tonto Apaches in Payson, Arizona, and they are vibrantly alive and florishing as I write today. Tonto is their name and is recognized by the Dept. of Interior and among the tribel membership. This is just a kind reminder to our young ones up and coming who are gifted in writing, such as you. Remember words take on a different meaning sometimes and just because it may mean something in one area of our country-world-galaxy..it doesn't mean that is the is the totally correct and only meaning of a word. We speak in the same spirit in terms of our desire to share opinions, but just sharing my opinion and wanting to make sure the facts are given in this feature. A'shoong (Thank You) in White Mountain Apache
theartistt's picture
I understand your sentiment, but in many ways you are disrespecting Jay Silverheels and many other Native actors who did what they could to pave the way for better roles for Natives today. In addition, and there is much to back this up, Tonto was always said to be of the Potawatomi where his name translates to "Wild One". Why put a European definition to it? Lastly, Depp has Native blood. As with most of mixed blood, how much can be argued, but you don't mention it one way or the other so I wonder if you did any research on that. Certainly I for one felt Eddie Spears would have been a much better choice for the role, but then no one asked me.
swrussel's picture
This is an excellent column, well-written and cleanly argued. ICT deserves props for putting this point of view out there, contrary to some comments above. That said, I grew up with Jay Silverheels and I did not consider him the Indian equivalent of Stepin Fetchit. As an aside, my research on a series about Will Rogers has led to a new respect for Stepin Fetchit, but that's another story. I agree with the poster who pointed to Wes Studi and while not all Navajos where happy with Mr. Beach in Windtalkers, his portrayal was absolutely respectful and professional. The big deal to me is how Tonto will be portrayed and I can't imagine Johnny Depp rendering Tonto as a Stepin Fechit character. I do wish people would consider Jay Silverheels' work in light of his times and show a little respect for a pioneer.
cmauthorised's picture
What did you think of the TV series based on Tony Hillerman's books about the Navajo in New Mexico?
paroushazand's picture
Next time - check your sources before you write an article. Johnny has always claimed he has Native american roots, it's even on Wikipedia. Makes the rest of your article hard to read when the first few sentences aren't factual.
ungelbah's picture
I don't think it's too far fetched to imagine that the Apache last name "Tonto" has its roots in Spanish colonialism. However, words have the incredible ability to be reinvented. Also, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM, has a wonderful moving image arts program that I encourage anyone interested in Indigenizing media to investigate. thank you all for your comment! Ungelbah
ungelbah's picture
Oh, and also, honey, I apologize if my intended message was not presented clearly enough, but, the column isn't about Depp's ancestry. I'm sure he IS Native, how else would he be so hot??