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.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




ndncountry's picture
@ sasuweh I absolutely agree with you I am so sick and tired of people saying that they are Indian.Armed with their DNA tests, my grandmother was an Indian Princess,and mystical thoughts.Just the other day "after a feast" "scrubbing pots" I was wondering what is so mystical about this.
quinzy's picture
Then I call the Mohawk, Seminole and Miccosukee clans REAL Indians! I have the deepest respect for these tribes - and contempt for those tribes that grovel for federal or state recognition.
zelbe1's picture
Many Americans have indigenous roots and blood more than they know or wish to recognize. Just because it is not documented by paper does not make one full blooded European, African, Latino, etc., because many Americans in history denied their bloodlineage due to social and religious stigmas of that period and I think it false to deny ones heritage just because the government, or communitys, demand proof. Mexicans have indigenous blood in them, but Puerto Ricans do not. Many Latinos today claim Indian (Aztec) blood, yet, up until the late sixties, many Latinos denied being Indian because it was not popular, nor acceptable. Being American Indian ties one to the lands and geographic areas through history, culture (songs, languages, dances etc,.), names and traditions that predate European expansion. Many tribes adopt(ed) non-natives and I see nothing wrong with that. Indigenous cultures have collectively been that of inclusion versus the Anglo European culture of exclusion, which still exists today. The only inclusive thing about America is taxation and consumerism. Voting, social programs, education and churches are turning into a members only society under the guise of immigration or national security. Personally, I think Gary Busey would represent Comanches better than Johnny Depp because Busey looks and acts Comanche. Guess they need all the press they can get and I apoligize to all my Numunu brothers and sisters that disagree!
hontasfarmer's picture
Some of our ancestors were dealing with white men and the outside world for over 200 years when your Indian ancestors first SAW a white man. So of course our documentation is going to be less clear, some of it lost or destroyed (through war and the ravages of time) etc. On account of my Indian ancestors in Virginia, it took 80 years for the white man to get from Chesepeake to the mountains. With all due respect, remember the history of the people of which you speak.
husbandofmoonlight's picture
Well thanks for an "uninformed" statement/comment---NAIM is a "Texas"---based "private nonprofit"---and there are many young men and women whom as children we have defended in court--for over 23 years---assuring that they would not be "lost to their tribes"-----and assuring that they receive whatever they need for assistance. And as for the "junk sciene"-----your ingnorance of the matter "shines like a star on a dark night"-----even twinkles a bit--- DNA science is 'UNDISPUTABLE"-----AND "IF YOU HAVE ANY COURAGE; I'LL SHOW YOU MINE---IF YOU SHOW ME YOURS (DNA results that is)----but then; perhaps you are happy living in "la la land" with all of those who prefer misinformation over facts----science is the only true resolution to any of humanities difficulties---- This being the case many in the "legal field" as well as the internatonal court systems believe that the USA has a major reconciliation that must be attended to and soon----you either have the "DNA"---or not---it really is that simple. "If you read" I would recommend searching the internet for DNA facts; the amount of total information is staggering---"If you do not read"---then "good luck"---you will need much of it soon in the coming years; the USA is showing ALL of the classic signs of collapse both socially and economically----if Native America is to survive that they will need unity---and resolve. Our ancestors were here on this continent at least 15K years ago----if you have any of that DNA it is your inheritance----if you do not; you make a fool of yourself for judging others without having your own facts. But thanks anyway' even a biased and uninformed opinion can help many others since they all would have a "negative example"---and a very old tribal proverb states" If ya know what NOT to do; you've got half the promblem solved." "The empty pot makes the loudest noise"----------Hopi Proverb "Only the truth will make you free; but only if you know it"........... Husband of Moonlight
husbandofmoonlight's picture
Thank you that is very kind of you---we ARE "advocates" and have provided services for over 20 years----the future is looking fantastic for Native America; but we believe only if "we" view the future as simply an extention of our "past"----since Native America is so very ancient here----the "Anglo European invasion which began with Columbus" is simply a "mark on the wall of Native America's evolution"---if nothing else---the Americans are serving an important lesson for those of us who survive them; they represent a terribly negative example, even as painful and destructive as it has been (accurate numbers do not exist but it is believed by several archeologists that there possibly may have been more than 100 tribes which have become "extinct" since 1492---and the "tribal extinctions" of the builders of earth mounds all over the middle and deep south of the USA---some predating the pyramids of Egypt were all contructed by extinct tribes--- Try finding a copy of "Hidden Cities" by Roger Kennedy--- and the "Seeds of Change" is another excellent reference compilation with multiple authors contributing----affirming Native American antiquity. "Information is knowledge; knowledge is power"-Shaka Zulu Husband of Moonlight
sasuweh's picture
So help me understand your situation. You are an Indian without a tribe but you have the DNA to prove it? In our way the tribe is central to all we are as Indians, our identity comes from our tribe. A tribal leader has to ask themselves "what keeps a tribe together?" They should do this to keep their finger on the health of the tribe and thus its people. The answer is our language, culture, relations, history and the lands known to us. So without these things what would we be, an Indian without an identity I guess? That's why Indian leaders ask this question because these are the things we fight for to keep our tribe and ways of life alive. Another point you should know about us, in our way nothing is taken everything is given. We don't name ourselves we are named, when we begin dancing we don't dress ourselves, we are dressed. We don't honor ourselves if we think we are deserving, we are honored when the tribe decides we are worthy of it. This is how a tribe maintains its integrity, without these customs we wouldn't have the unique identity we hold as precious, we would be Indians without a tribe.
sasuweh's picture
LOL, your absolutely right. I had the opportunity to meet Jay Silverheels when I was a boy. He bought us a steak dinner at a fancy restaurant in a town near the tribal reserve, it might have been my first restaurant steak, at least in what we would call a fancy place. We danced for him at a local theater as he was promoting his new movie at the time, Cheyenne Autumn. he was all about promoting Indians,he was a real decent man!
sasuweh's picture
Aho Miizhen, yes it is a little known fact that tribes can recognize other tribes as part of that sovereign authority. I look forward to the day when we trade again. Just maybe we can be instrumental in having our tribes recognizes one another for the opportunity of trade, where once again there are no borders between us!
idiotwind's picture
Hey husband of moonlight, by your reasoning, anybody with one strand of DNA that is even remotely related to the original people in North or Central and South America can be an "Indian". I call myself an Indian because that is what I know and that is who I am and I've paid my dues, as if one has to pay some kind of "dues" for being who you are, I don't need my DNA to tell me who I am. I grew up on one of the poorest and most unforgiving Indian reservations in Montana anybody can grow up on. I was sent away to several US government boarding schools as an Indian, suffered lifelong discrimination as an Indian and I still do, and my DNA has nothing to do with it. I was and am treated badly like an Indian, scorned like an Indian, hated like an Indian, toasted by the art elite like an Indian, educated like an Indian, look like an Indian, act like an Indian, called a "red Indian", sing like an Indian, walk like an Indian, dress like an Indian, have a large Indian family who all experience being Indians in the same way as I do (my little sister was spit on by a gun-toting redneck and called a dirty injun)...I joke like an Indian, hate like an Indian, love like an Indian, swear like an Indian, speak Cree and think like an Indian (if there is such a thing), pray like an Indian, my parents are both Cree, my grandfathers and mothers were Cree, and on back through time, as far as forever...and I could go on and on. My DNA has nothing to do with any of that, this is just the way it is and continues to be. If Mr. Depp says he is an Indian and the Comanche's have "adopted" him as an Indian, that doesn't make him an Indian, it only makes him an adopted whiteman who has been accepted by the Comanche's as one of them unless he really is an Indian of course in which case he needn't use the case of his adoption to pass muster and frankly, relying on adoption for your identity is a poor way to "prove" you're an Indian. How much of this is merely a way to sell his new movie? Cher once claimed Cherokee heritage and everybody was amazed, ooing and awing that this talented woman could be an Indian, as it turned out it was all a huge lie, she is Armenian but hey, what harm was done, after all it sold her record "Half-breed". To paraphrase Ruport Custo, "Making the tribal rolls does not an Indian make." Reservations are full of white and black men and women who are on the rolls who are not Indian. The name "Indian" is a misnomer of course but that has nothing to do with me, or any other Indian for that matter. As for your historical accounting of who some Indians are, suffice it to say that absolutely no one truly knows who the masses of Indians really are nor where Indians came from, end of story. The rest is merely scientific theory and conjecture, being something in the nature of a created fact, merely "scientific" curiousity and nothing more. Tell a whiteman that he's Chinese for long enough, backed up by mind-bending scientific authority and theory, add to that masses of academics and scholars who never bother to question that political authority and it's likely he'll believe you.