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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dreajean's picture
My last paragraph is in reference not to this article but what was not mentioned was the adoption of Johnny by the Comanche people and the blessing and honoring by the Navajo people. Just wanted to add this for your information. The good things are never mentioned, shame.
chico2dc's picture
really....are u that intellectually assimulated to a BIRTHER among natives?? go join the t-baggers if u need proof. I say the more Natives, the more better.....indians shouldnt be 1-3 percent of the population.
nativesister's picture
I have read so many comments on this and being that I'm Comanche, I've read lots of comments by Comanche people specifically...and had debates about it. What I noticed in this article and the posts is that it's never mentioned about what I read before this movie even came out and that is it was Johnny Depps idea! He WANTED to make this movie and have a reversal of the roles. He shared that he remembered watching the show when he was a boy and feeling the frustration about Tonto's role and all his life he had the idea of trying to get a movie that would reverse the roles. He pushed for it to be made and got the backing because of who he is, to make it happen. So why SHOULDN'T he have the right to play the role, it wouldn't be happening if he had not had the inspiration to do it. And I really wish people would quit judging him before he even has a chance to get it off of the ground. I certainly understand the concern of misappropriation of culture, the concern for intellectual property rights, the concern about the romanticized versions of who & what Native people really are but I really tire of the bickering that begins the moment 'someone else' attempts to do something that portrays Native people or culture. As a previous poster stated, what are 'we' (being Native people) going to do to ensure that others understand more...whether by education, media or other venues?
natwu's picture
You could try finding out what he himself has said, and realize all he's got are those "my grandmother's a Cherokee" stories, just the same as Elizabeth Warren. Research before talking...
Anonymous's picture
This is great that JD is playing a native role. He is showing us that we need not be defined by the Art History role from across the the salt waters. We are from an oral tradition and within this tradition of word and songs there exist our essence. More importantly,we must abide by our family morals, build the model that reflects our idenity , not one that defines us by myths and lies. Conrad Bobiwash Educator and Designer