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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milesb's picture
Actually India wasn't know as Indian in the 1400s/1500s, it had many names (Delhi, Hindistan, Rajastan etc). The term indian is rooted in the spanish "In Dios" and is why in Latin countries use the term Indio. The country India is a 1900s British colonial term/invention. The idea Christopher Columbus thought he discovered "india" is an American Myth and can be found in a series of Novels written by Washington Irving. Even the idea that people thought the world was flat, in his novels, is a myth. Most of the "known" world thought the world was round in the 1500s. I do not see why it is important for you to claim indian/native blood, when you were never part of the community or culture though. You are a part of one regardless. Celebrate that, I'm mixed (half white and half red) and guess what? My white ancestors had beads, furs, feathers, leather, abd pagan faiths too.
thechief's picture
I am in favor of everybody who claims to be "indian","cherokee", "choctaw",etc.. to pay 10% of their annual earnings to the tribe they claim they are part of. if they don't have proof, fine. Make them pay back taxes. Put your money where your mouth is. Community infrastructure doesn't come free. if johnny depp is now a member of a native american tribe great! Let him pay 10% of the money he makes to the tribe he is a member of. That way it can go to schools, nursing homes, clinics etc.
swkyle's picture
The Uto-Aztecan language family goes is still for the most part is referred to as such because it also includes the Puebloan languages (except for the Towa of Jemez Pueblo), as well as Shoshone dialects.
swkyle's picture
I think if one has no other association with being Native than DNA, that is pretty sad. It could be said that there are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of americans who have "Native American" DNA who neither know it or care. But so what? Besides giving indicators of known health issues, it shouldn't be any sort of basis for identity. For whom else is this the case? Or why should it be acceptable for Native people today that one can put on feathers and DNA and be someone else? It's new age nonsense.
swkyle's picture
Yup! Beautifully stated. As for the Comanche, that one woman and former chairman adopted him into their families. That doesn't mean he'ss been adopted into the tribe, as it were.
heatheranne's picture
First off I would like to address husbandofmoonlight. I have a degree in anthropology, I've also studied forensics. I have been told that Native American DNA is human, and that there is no single group of humans on the entire face of the planet that can difinitively be called a separate race. Given the bones of a native american forensics can only say that a person is "Mongoloid" not chinese or native american. There are few select traits distinct to Native people, some of them are visible others are the plates in our skulls. This DNA evidence, please send me a message with details and links to articles. I'm pretty curious, afterall the data you are looking at might be more cutting edge than the information we are currently reading in journals there is a 10 year or so lag on information. When it came to the matrilinial DNA collection, I absolutely refused because it was based on matrilinial DNA. My mother is a white Northern European woman, but she was adopted by a grandfather and had children in native men. Ahnii Sasuweh, You are very correct in not only the DNA being what makes a person an "Indian" or "Native American." But there are those like myself who grew up without our father's to teach us our ways, and we have a painful story to tell. My guess is children like me suffer the same or similar pain as those taken from their tribes and tossed into boarding school. I honestly believe that there is a high possibility that there is something to our DNA. If DNA has something to do with the personality and humor of a person, because I'm spot on for having the same personality as my newly found relatives. I found out my tribe at the age of 28, I hail from the Potawatomi Citizen Nation of Oklahoma. It is always good to see a fellow fire member. Sweetmystique, Thank you for all you said I've been making similar comments. I am a big fan of Johnny Depp and I find this argument annoying and intruiging at the same time. I didn't know it could be as much as 1/4, that just adds more fuel to my fires! As a native person trained in athropology I can see and do find Johnny Depp to be a Native American man for many reasons. The way he carries himself, his facial expressions and way of conveying humor, the many things he speaks about during interviews have a native thinking pattern behind them (and his ability to find the meaning of a face divided into 4 separate parts is completely Indian, we're all big fans of that number in Indian County!). To me, "That guy ain't white."
dancingfeathers's picture
I enjoyed reading your article, but it brought to mind something else I have questioned. Why do the tribes say someone cannot be an Indian if they cannot prove their relationship to someone on the Dawes roll or Baker roll, etc....yet there are more white people living on the reservations than there are Indians? I know people that have family listed on the Miller rolls all the way back to the Old Settlers rolls, and they look more like an Indian than some Cheifs, but they cannot live on the reservation. I would really like to know why all these white people live there, but real Indians cannot?