Who's an Indian? Johnny Depp

Dan Jones

Of all the sovereign authority tribes once held, the least compromised by Congress is the tribe’s ability to determine who is a member of the tribe or who is an Indian. The US census of 2010 determined there were some 3 million American Indians belonging to tribes, a number that can easily be disputed. Not all American Indians care if they are counted. There's a tribe in Florida that has never been recognized by the United States for one reason: They won’t hand over their rolls to the government. They don't believe the enemy should know how many of them there are. To this day, they prefer to be a non-federally recognized tribe of Indians, though they still make and hand out tribal identification cards to its members, something all tribes do. Which brings us to this recent hot-button topic: What’s wrong with Johnny Depp playing an Indian? Nothing now, because he is an American Indian. If the Comanche say it, then it is so. He has received some expert advice on Indians from none other than the political and cultural genius of LaDonna Harris. No one can argue with the fact a tribe has the right to determine who is an Indian. If the Comanche Nation wishes to adopt a space alien, it would not be in any tribe’s interest to criticize. Another tribe would only be limiting their own authority to do the same. From some of his statements, I don’t think Depp really knows enough about us to have come up with this brilliant way of eliminating all the questions about his being Indian. Again I take my hat off to Harris and the Comanche Nation for walking into the middle of what could have been a nasty long-term debate and putting an end to it. Johnny Depp is an Indian. I really do hope that Depp has a good experience out of all this Lone Ranger business. He can do a lot to help us by shining a light on all kinds of issues in Indian country, and now that he is one of us, he carries the spirit and the responsibility. I think he might have been blown away by all the criticism, but he did ask for it. I was reading some of his interviews and the problem became very apparent—he doesn’t know much about Indians. Not that he has to, he just has to be able to act like an Indian, but check out what he said. Speaking about the painting he took his inspiration from for Tonto said this, "It just so happens, Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior's head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top," Depp revealed. "I thought: Tonto's got a bird on his head. It's his spirit guide in a way. It's dead to others, but it's not dead to him. It's very much alive." It sounds like Depp didn’t know Indians wore birds on their head. In most tribes, the medicine men who wear bird headdresses. Now that he's one of us, he'll need to learn more to help us. When you get down to it, the original Tonto and the Long Ranger were developed in a very racist time in America by a non-Indian. There were lots of stupid folks with stupid ideas (kind of like today), with black face and racist comics everywhere. A sit-around-the-fort Indian runs with a masked man and they fight for justice. It was a figment of someone’s imagination for the period it was set in. Nothing profound or deep about it. You can put a medicine man in it and the result will still be a shallow, unrealistic plot. Many Indian actors have not worked in a while and likely won’t until Hollywood starts buying screenplays written by Indians. Mr. Depp can be a real help in this area. I think he should have played The Lone Ranger and Gary Farmer should have been Tonto—that would have gone a long way to dispel stereotypes. Depp himself suggested that he had intentionally attempted to address the stereotype of Native Americans in society with his role. "The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least—especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger's assistant," Depp told Entertainment Weekly. "As you'll see, it's most definitely not that." So what is an Indian stereotype? One of the most common is that we are all some kind of mystic or medicine man/woman. We have seen that play out very recently when James Arthur Ray, a man playing a medicine man, killed some people in a sweat lodge. So, inadvertent as it may be, Johnny Depp is playing into the stereotypes of American Indians by playing one as medicine man, Tonto. All this because he really doesn’t know what he is doing, so I suspect it will end up a dark comedy. So now, with advisors like Mrs. Harris and the Comanche Nation, I think Johnny Depp is well on his way to mainge some positive, needed contributions to our world. I hope it is not all make-believe, and that the spirit finds him worthy. Dan (SaSuWeh) Jones is the former chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. He is a filmmaker and Vice Chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, appointed by former Oklahoma Governor, Brad Henry.

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husbandofmoonlight's picture
The reason why there is so much "confusion" about the "title of Indian" being bantered around so much (for so long now too) is that it is a benefit to the "dominate nation"---the USA. As long as "they" can "keep up the confusion"---the longer they can go and not be corrected in their illegal behavior towards "everyone" but especially Native America----- In reality the word "indian" refers to someone (anyone) who has ancestors who are either IN India or they "migrated" to somewhere FROM India---NOT to "Native Americans"---who can show through their DNA to be as ancient as the "Indians"---but not "related to them by DNA"--- The DNA---ALONE---- is the only determining factor and NO OTHER "factor"should even be considered. As long as it continues the longer the confusion will dominate the conversation; the longer Native America will remain "captives"---Prisoners of War in their own country. Since the current situation all tribes find themselves in----i.e. Prisoners of War--as a result of the USA making aggressive wars during the 19th century. We here at North American Intertribal Missions have for more than twenty years relied "entirely" on the DNA test results to determine; "status" as a Native American-----and the technology has developed now that will determine the "guantum of content of DNA" by within +/- 8% (these figures may vary slightly depending upon the type of test)---- To rely on "family legend"---or in many cases "documentation"---no mater how "reliable" the documentation may be----none of us have any control over "who" our ancestors---"mixed their DNA with"----we only have "control" over what we "DO" with the FACTUAL INFORMATION---- All other "agruments" about what being a Native American actually is---outside of the evidence presented by the DNA---is simply "cultural and liguistic" and NOTHING else----. Indeed the term "tribe" is classicaly defined by "language base and culture"---not DNA----or blood lines. For just one simple example. The Comanche tribe and all of its bands---spoke Nahuatl---or by the older definition by Ethnologists" --Uto Aztecan----indeed the Aztec, "creation myth" has their "ancestors"---coming from the North)-- Wether the Comanche were first--is speculation since no one kept reliable records except in stone hyroglypics---only recently "translated"---when the "Spanish had taken over the Aztec records--most of them on a type of paper and in scrolls--- they burned them--most of them did not survive. However---evidence now reveals that the "Aztec" had a "cuniform" type of written word----500 years before the Spanish-----stumlbed upon them. Their "relatives" the Comanche----took control of the Horse very early--perhaps as early as 1600----and then are now credited with having introduced the Horse to the Southern and Northern Plaines tribes----look up "Comancheria"- The Shoshone of present day Montana---the very tribe that traded horses with Lewis and Clark are believed to have been a "northern branch of the Comanche"---their "cultures and language" were identical; they simply used different terms to describe themselves. The point I have tried to make here is that Native Americans are descended from very ancient peoples---our DNA is very distinctive and if the "readers" here do not have their own results----GET THEM. Then----try to learn to seek the "facts"--the "truth"--the US Government would love to "keep up the confusion"----which will take our descendants longer to sort out the "truth" and press for THEIR true rights: we are Sovereign Nations comprised of human beings who share a common DNA--and even though varied within the regional markers---it is SO distinctive that it can be proved to have been present on this continent for 15 thousand or more years---- To let these facts slip away by allowing the "dominate nation/culture/society to obscure those facts---would be a tragedy and a complete disservice to our children's children's great great grand children---( a long time folks). GET YOUR DNA TESTED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE----- THEN------you can brag about being a "Native American"----and "let those Indians"---be ----Indians---they deserve the same as us. Whether Mr. Depp actually is a "Cherokee" or not (a very common statement actually) would be a matter of specualtion---whether he possess Native American DNA is another matter--and if he does he should make it known. For now----I think he should try to remember that "being adopted" is "nice"-----now do something to have "earned" it. Hey, now that he is a "popular Comanche" (they were hated people by the Texans for several generations) he "might start a new trend"---that being Comanche men wearing "eyeliner"----well "anything" is possible. Here is a very typical irony: the USA now gives Israel 3 billion dollars per year, that they borrow from China, for "military assistance"; while they "owe" Native America trillions of dollars. The "Jews" do not have a distinctive DNA----and cannot show an "antiquity" that is more than 2500 years-----a speck on Native American "antiguity"-------only in America could such an absurdity exist. "Kown the truth, and the truth shall make you free". Husband of Moonlight
quinzy's picture
You wrote "There’s a tribe in Florida that has never been recognized by the United States for one reason: They won’t hand over their rolls to the government. They don’t believe the enemy should know how many of them there are. To this day, they prefer to be a non-federally recognized tribe of Indians". What tribe is that? My hat off to them. I wish other tribes became like them and grew a spine. My guess is they are the Traditional Seminoles. But I could be wrong, so what tribe is it?
editors's picture
Response from Dan C.Jones: "Among the many tribes in the east there are as many holdouts to federal and even state recognition. Among the eight Mohawk settlements in NY and Canada as in Florida there are Traditional factions who carry no BIA/Tribal ID cards and are not enrolled as they believe such as abdication of their inherent or aboriginal sovereignty. In Florida such a movement lives today. Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes have such factions or clans. In Florida they are known simply as Seminole. Many of these people still live in the swamps they sought refuge during the Seminole Wars of the early and mid 1800's."
sasuweh's picture
My point is real simple; tribes determine who their members are. It’s the way it is, it’s the law and it makes sense. I mean who else would determine who is a member of any tribe? The US government doesn’t determine who is a Ponca, the Ponca Tribe does. If my tribe wants to adopt anyone who hasn’t one drop of Ponca Blood or Indian DNA they have the right and authority to do so. On another point we have been calling each other Indians all our lives here on the Ponca Rez. I guess it’s an inside joke because we know who we are, where we come from and who we belong to. The official name of our tribe is the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, we are proud members of the National Congress of American Indians, who read Indian Country Today. :)
melissapeone's picture
Kudos! You have a lot to say, and could write your own article, or make a great advocate!
rickylee's picture
leeanntallbear's picture
@Husband of Moonlight - you are so full of it - your California non profit and your junk science scheme are laughable.
miizhen's picture
Aanii Sa Su Wey, We must remember that there is more to it once tribal recognition happens cross borders. Our migration patterns stem from Manitoulin Island,in all directions here on Turtle Island. I am of the Odawa Nation, on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, Manitoulin Island. We are of the Three Fires Confederacy. We are known as the Keepers of Commerce and Trade. And I am sure we did trade with the Ponca, I know it. I look forward to direct contact with you once again. Perhaps we can trade? Respectfully in Brotherhood. Miizhen/ miizhen@hotmail.com
husbandofmoonlight's picture
The "term of Indian" is simply a misnomer--but please keep in mind that if you wish to refer to yourself as a "tea cup" it still will not make you a "tea cup". When comparing "Native American DNA" to "tribal membership" the two are starkly in contrast. After more than twenty years of using DNA results for court cases;the science of DNA has revealed the stark reality that there are NO "tribal markers" in the Native American DNA realm.----None. There ARE regional markers and these are in most cases very informative---for example the Comanche tribe spoke the same language as the Aztec---but they became "people of the Horse" very quickly--and thrived on the open prairies--- while the "Aztec" did not. Same language, different cultures;different tribes---but STILL Native American. Tribes in most cases were the inventions of the members from their beginning; along with the "inventions" of their language and customs. The two are impossible to compare. DNA---purely scientific, and exceptionally reliable evidence of Native American origins which are very ancient. Tribes---are inventions of the members and many are extinct this very day while other tribes are in the stages of becoming extinct; and others are yet to be "invented"--"Tribes" will always be "of the people". According to our records the "Ponca" tribe is one of the five members of the Sioux nations---and your language base Siouian is ancient with its origins much farther to the east than "Okla"----or the plaines. The language appears to have "remained a staple"--but the "culture" changed rom eastern woodlands to---plaines tribes---"people of the Horse"------------------your DNA however may show an entirely different historical makeup----and unless you have it tested; you will never know. Many people are "slaves to misinformation"----some even unaware of their "bondage"----for lack of factual information. "Only the truth will make you free; but only if you know it" (author unknown) "Information is knowledge; knowledge is power"----Shaka Zulu Husband of Moonlight
sweetmystique's picture
Sorry for saying so, Mr. Jones, but I think you're more than a little off base with your comments and just slightly out of line. I'm sure he's got thick enough skin and doesn't need me or anyone to defend him, but I just want to throw in my 2 cents as well. Johnny Depp is Indian. This isn't a convenient phenomenon, he's always been. He grew up in Kentucky and his heritage is part French, part Cherokee and/or Creek, maybe as much as a 1/4. I've known this for quite some time as he has never hid this fact from the public. I find it somewhat odd that the Comanches would "adopt" him into their tribe given he has his own, but if he cannot prove it and maybe he can't, then why the he** not. I know lots of people who KNOW 100% they're Indian but they can't prove it. They show it and everything. Johnny may not immerse himself in Indian culture, even his own, but that's hardly a sin, just a shame. But that's fixable. We all come to grips with our heritage at different times. It sounds like his time could be now. That should be applauded. Better late than never. I also want to add these parts from the same interview in hopes the readers will have a more rounded opinion. Depp said: “I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it… The stripes down the face and across the eyes . . . it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean. There’s this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, an angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual. That makeup inspired me.” Depp also said: “I remember watching (the TV series) as a kid .?.?. and going: ‘Why is the [expletive] is the Lone Ranger telling Tonto what to do? … When the idea came up (Tonto to be the central character for the movie) I started thinking about Tonto and what could be done in my own small way to try — eliminate isn’t possible — but reinvent the relationship, to attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans, not only in ‘The Lone Ranger,’ but the way Indians were treated throughout history of cinema, and turn it on its head.” I'd also like to add something by Mr. Sattler himself about said painting. It, too, is well worth reading: "The display of face paint design crow feathers and crow headdress in the painting "I AM CROW" is an illustrative interpretation of the inseparable relationship between the Native American and their spiritual and natural world. I purposely do not denote a specific tribal affiliation to my paintings, allowing the personal sensibilities and knowledge of the viewer to create their own stories." -kirby sattler It sounds like Johnny was not so far off base after all. As Tonto is a fictional character (caricature is more like it), even if Depp had chosen to make his character be some silly sidekick I wouldn't have cared much. It wouldn't have made me happy but surely, something so silly and far-fetched would not be a threat to us, however since he is taking it so seriously and putting some heart and effort into the role I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. If anyone can do a good job with this role, it's him. Maybe he does have a lot to learn. Don't we all?