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Summer Offensive: Depp's Tonto, Paula Deen's N-Word, the NFL's R-Word

Jacqueline Keeler
7/21/13

Over the recent Fourth of July opening weekend, The Lone Ranger  was trounced by Despicable Me 2 at the box office.  I also found myself at a Subway deli looking at a cut-out of Johnny Depp’s Tonto.  And to be honest, as an Indian myself, it does not offend me as much as the Washington Redskins mascot. Johnny is a good soul; Dan Snyder and Washington Redskins fans are not.

“I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations.” Depp said in interviews during production, “They're living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘F— that! You're still warriors, man.’” 

Meanwhile, Amanda Blackhorse, a young Navajo woman protesting the Washington Redskins mascot said “They [the fans] yelled at us, 'Get over it.' And, 'Go back to your reservation.' And all the stereotypical things that we are all alcoholics: 'Why don't you go get drunk?' And they shouted so many profanities that I won't repeat. I got to see firsthand how our culture was being mocked," she says. "So many fans were wearing war paint and feathers and they were whooping and hollering. Some of them got belligerent and angry with us. They threw beer at us. That's not okay. I was afraid for my safety."

And despite Depp’s good intentions, photos released last year of him in character as Tonto with a dead bird on his head were greeted with groans from Native Americans and pretty much every other type of American.  Celebrities are allowed a lot in this world, but pretensions to serious issues and the reinvention of outdated cultural motifs are tricky, even for an actor as loved and successful as Johnny Depp. 

Charlie Chaplin tried to do it in his film The Great Dictator, when he revamped his Little Tramp persona to ridicule Hitler; it failed at the box office. And Depp’s Tonto recalls Chaplin’s Little Tramp, shuffling along, dwarfed in moccasins next to Armie Hammer’s towering Lone Ranger in high-heeled boots. The white characters are made into caricatures of evil but unlike Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, where the Little Tramp character, starving in a cabin in the frozen reaches of Alaska while trying to make a meal of his boot, there are no moments where we see the true humanity of the heroes and see ourselves in them. The Little Tramp was motivated both by an innate generosity and, yet, was never above giving a kick in the pants to a bully when he could. 

Chaplin, the product of a life of poverty on the streets of Dickensian London, expressed what he learned there: That these were the only forms of justice available to the powerless in this world.  Depp’s Tonto is a disorienting mashup of poignant suffering and incomprehensibly inane behavior that is explained away in the narrative as not “being Indian,” but not being entirely sane.

If it seems odd that a Native person such as myself would invoke Chaplin in a critique of Tonto, but I am also American and I can wield a Chaplin reference as well as anyone. What I have that Depp does not is that I actually am an Indian (enrolled Navajo, and my father is Yankton Dakota Sioux). And this film, if nothing else, convinces me that being Indian matters when we wish to change the perceptions about Indian people, because it seems most Americans do not know as much about us as I know about Chaplin.

I have also noticed that most people have an Indian within them.  And yes, I use the term Indian here despite the fact I know, like most Americans, it is a misnomer; “Columbus got lost—he thought he had sailed all the way to India” everyone knows that and yet, after all these years and after the growing use of Native American and Indigenous and—in Canada—First Nations, we still can’t find a word that better describes who we are to other people. Just like the dead bird on Johnny Depp's head, it stays firmly in place and yes, sometimes even we, us Indians, feed it out of necessity.

I have found in my travels that Indian is the most universally understood way of describing myself to most of the people of the world. In Mexico, I couldn’t speak Spanish, all I could attempt to say was, “Indigena de la Estados Unidos” to describe myself, but the locals just looked at me blankly so in desperation, I stuck my fingers up behind my head (to pantomime a feather) and said “Indian” and they nodded and smiled and patted me on the back and greeted me like I was a long-lost relative. The names Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse spilled from their lips. They were Spanish speakers, yet they knew by name the great leaders of my father’s people, once known as the Great Sioux nation. Even to them, our relatives to the south, we are known only frozen in time as we were in the last throes of our struggles with the Americans and the relentless, westward march of Manifest Destiny across our lands. 

I say this because I want you to understand the complexity of being what I am, of being Indian. The living descendent of the original people of what is now the United States. And I want you to know that the complexity does not end there.

On the flip side of the celebrity spectrum to Depp’s earnestness to right past wrongs, we find Paula Deen, a celebrity fallen from grace for saying the N-word. In a tearful June 26 interview with Matt Lauer on Today, she said, "If there's anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me.” She said this while her food empire crumbled, the Food Network dropped her show, and Walmart, HomeDepot, Sears and JCPenny cut ties with her. Yet, in another part of the American universe of racial epithets, the Washington Redskins owner, Dan Snyder remained buoyantly defiant as fans rallied around him while 79 percent of Americans polled agreed that the name should not be changed. “We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”  Snyder said this in the face of potentially losing the copyright to Redskins because it is a derogatory slur.

Believe me, I understand that the N-word trumps the R-word. When I first heard the epithet “Prairie N-" (meaning Indians) my heart almost stopped. And no, the R-word does not fill me with that visceral feeling of fear of bodily harm. I do wonder, why is that?  Why do two words used for centuries to demean and justify lethal violence now generate different levels of outrage? It is as Public Enemy once said, “It takes a nation of millions to hold us back,” and the power of the words needed to hold them back still contain the immediate threat of violence. The denigration that these two syllables reveal can be seen in the economic status of black people and the high incarceration rates of black men.   But Indians?  To this same public, our modern-day existence is invisible and the R-word’s original meaning has been forgotten and now can be repurposed to “honor” us.

But I am a citizen of the Navajo Nation, which has grown to a population of 300,000 since 1868 when some 6,000 survivors returned to our homeland after being held at a concentration camp at Bosque Redondo by the U.S. To this day, tribes still control 55 million acres of land in the United States, 4 percent of U.S. oil and gas reserves, 40 percent of U.S. uranium deposits, 30 percent of U.S. coal reserves, and $2 billion in trust royalty payments, not to mention water rights, which in the West are becoming increasingly valuable. In June, the Klamath tribe of Oregon called in their water rights, after the state found after 38 years of adjudication the tribe’s rights to have dated “from time immemorial."  The tribe’s assertion of these rights has shut off water to ranchers in the area. No other minority group or special interest group can lay claim to such powers. Tribes also exercise limited jurisdiction over their lands. 

Tribes are nations recognized in the U.S. Constitution and are not just "special interest” groups, a fact most Americans do not realize; so our demands for recognition of these rights has created a backlash.  Most Americans assume conquest and ownership over our lands was completed in the 19th century when the fictional Tonto roamed the land with his buddy and fellow outcast, the Lone Ranger. They find it an annoyance when they discover we are still holding out.

Back to the film: The Lone Ranger has gotten reviews for being tasteless (deemed “grotesque” by one reviewer) for featuring Depp in full hammy/slapstick humor mode in the same scene where Comanche warriors are mowed down by U.S. Army Gatling guns. These dead Comanche are played by actual Native American actors although only one, Sac n Fox/Oto actor Saginaw Grant, has a speaking role. His character expresses typical Hollywood Indian fatalism “It doesn’t matter; we’re already ghosts.” There are no options here for the continuation of Indian people in this West. Just like in Dances with Wolves, where the white couple adopted by the Lakota ride off before the final slaughter, the Lone Ranger and Tonto escape while all the sane Indian people are left dead and motionless on the ground. There is no middle ground, even though in real history there must have been. I’m here, the Comanche are still here—after all, they held an adoption ceremony for Johnny Depp and he rode with the top down in a convertible in their tribal parade in October. What of the stories of those Comanche? I mean, they must be just as interesting. 

I should also mention that throughout this scene, the bad guys are holding the white female love interest of the Lone Ranger and we are expected to cheer for her to be saved above all else. Juxtaposed against the slaughter of the Comanche people just outside the window of the train she is in was, once again, grotesque and in poor taste.

So what does it mean that in Hollywood, when real Indians still have no voice and non-Indian actors still put on the face paint and play us? And in the sports world, how much harm do Indian mascots really do? I can quote studies that have found that mascots have a measurable negative effect on the self-esteem of Native youth. Native youth who have the highest rates of suicide of any ethnic group in the country. The state of Oregon took those studies seriously enough to ban the use of Indian mascots in schools.  Conservative legislators tried to gut the ban, but the governor threatened a veto and the bill died. And yet, I spent the Fourth of July in Wenatchee, Washington with my daughter, in a parking lot, astonished, gazing up at the giant roving-eyed and winking Skookum Indian caricature above us. It had once been perched in the 1930s on top of the old apple-packing plant in town, and had been rediscovered in storage in 2000 and placed on top of an Office Depot. 

“This is what we are up against," I told her. Around us the asphalt spread out around us in the Office Depot parking lot. The eye leered down at us and I wondered at the gap between me and those around me. How so many could agree this was okay and not feel the way I felt, like I imagine the Lone Ranger’s brother felt as his heart was taken out of his chest and eaten by the over-the-top bad guy who chews scenery and co-stars’ hearts.

The majority of Americans claim to have never met an Indian in person; they probably have and just didn't know. Especially since most modern-day Indians live in American cities, colleges, office and suburbia and without feathers (even pantomimed ones) and are thus largely unrecognizable as Indians. I almost never get asked if I am Indian—Hawaiian, yes, Mexican, yes. One in a 100 Americans are Indians and the majority live off the reservation. Yet, the only Indian most Americans still know is the caricature that they see on packages of butter and mascots and on top of Office Depots.

Then there are the Americans claiming the term Native for themselves as native-born United States citizens. While it is true that the word can mean both things, this is a blatant attempt to undercut the primacy of Indian people’s claims to the land.  And it is in pursuit to dilute this claim of primacy that the use of Indian mascots arises. Everyone knows the story about the Boston Tea Party: colonists dressed up as Indians while they threw tea into the harbor to protest taxation by the British crown. Americans have used the Indian as a symbol of their own yearnings for freedom for centuries from the oppressive Old World social structures they no longer could accept.  Even after the Revolutionary War, tenants of landowners (who were the only ones who could vote) dressed up as Indians to drive their landlords out of their homes and tar and feather them. Being Indian gave the landless and powerless colonists the outsider identity (actually like the masked and bird-wearing duo in The Lone Ranger) to lay a claim to rights they would not normally have in the old order.

In the film, there is a vain, golden-haired officer obviously modeled on Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and despite being set in Texas, much of the scenes with soldiers made me think of similar battles and massacres our Lakota and Dakota people faced. Before the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Crow Scouts in Custer’s regiment chose to take off their soldier's uniforms and don traditional regalia. They told Custer that they wanted to die as warriors, not soldiers. The way the scouts chose to die reflected the way in which they would have chosen to live if circumstances had been different. In this choice I see the story of America, this choice between two worlds, the New World and the Old. There is in the force of that collision the exchange of ideas about what it means to be human, to be truly alive that still catches the imagination of the entire world.  It is what makes us American and it is both tragic and filled with potential. This is why the names of our leaders, like Sitting Bull, are still held in esteem and make people know us and have compassion for our Indian people’s continued struggle to survive—and this is why people want to be us.

But really, I have to say: Johnny, your desire to help Native Americans would be better expressed by helping us tell our own stories. And yes, I’m sure there are Little Tramp roles in the films we would write, too. Some tales and characters are universal and some are particular to a people. It’s obvious that "Indian" people have a unique perspective the world wants to hear and we have more to say than “Kemo sabe.”

Jacqueline Keeler is Navajo and Yankton Sioux. She is producing 7-Oil-1: Inside the Bakken, a documentary about the oil boom on the Ft. Berthold reservation in North Dakota. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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