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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natwu's picture
Maybe he will, but he's not Native.
natwu's picture
Nah, he doesn't have any proof to offer that his grandmother was anything. We've been over this a million times. He's got the same "my grandmother was a Cherokee" story they all do. Just like Elizabeth Warren, he either needs to provide proof or quit saying it.
natwu's picture
Claiming it doesn't make it real.
charlessiserhoff's picture
Would the people(producer's)in hollywood condider having a Native American play the role of the lone ranger(kimo-sabe)...I think NOT!
rickyogima's picture
sometimes I care about these things and other times it doesn't bother me because can a Native person fill a acting role that is for a white person? I hope we can. I guess I would rather see Johnny in this role than another Hollywood star with no connection to the Native world
citationsii's picture
I fully agree with your gracious comments Ungelbah Daniel-Davila; I want YOU to be re-casted as Ms. Tonto and we'll change it to a name more appropriate, since Mexican people are kind, generous, and loving society. I live in Puerto Vallarta by choice.
dreajean's picture
In one breath you say it's disgraceful to have a non-native play Tonto and in the next the argument that a “real Indian” should have played Tonto is, I think, ultimately wrong. Maybe I'm reading this wrong but it would seem you are contradicting yourself here. Furthermore, TONTO is a Spanish word, in another language, primarily the story of Tonto who is Comanche the meaning would mean something entirely different. For instance, my daughter is of Norwegian and Native American descent. Her father Norwegian. I gave her a middle name of Bliss and I was questioned by my inlaws why I would ever name her that. In Norwegian, "bliss" is the white spot running down from the horses head down his nose. My answer, Bliss in English means complete happiness. Do you all get my drift? Indeed, Tonto in Spanish means stupid but Tonto isn't Spanish he's Comanche, so this argument is moot and is a poor statement to declare. I was taught we Indian people do not criticize, if we do, we are not Indian. To open ourselves to all people is the Indian Way, and what the Navajo people and Comanche people did to honor him for the genuine person he is was honorable and the values that our grandpas and grandmas taught us. To say that Johnny Depp is non-native is ignorance to say the least when you do not have personal knowledge. Do you know his lineage, do you know him personally? The invitation by the Comanche people is the Indian way. He brought gifts as his giveaway which is tradition. It was a ceremony of adoption no matter if he is native or non-native, that is irrelevant. Furthermore the this article shows lack of respect for the elders of Comanche nation who opened their arms to him as did the Navajo elders and him they, and is a disgrace and if you are Indian, I must say you aren't Indian because this article would indicate you have lost your ways and only want to criticize. Once again, criticism is not the Indian way. Look in the mirror and see where the real misappropriation lies and shame on you for passing judgment on another that you have no factual knowledge of.
dreajean's picture
Thank you Apache brother for your words of wisdom, right there with you!
dreajean's picture
Natwu, do you know him personally? A statement there are those who do.
dreajean's picture
Thank you Arizona, you are so right!