Tontomania—Who Are We'z Anyways?

Ray Cook

Do you think Wes Studi would make a good Tonto? He made a good Apache. Hell, as Magua he made a good Huron/Mohawk, I never was clear what tribe he was supposed to be from, but he sure was bad ass and ugly. Even while he and Russell Means were busy killing other Indians he charged our imaginations about ourselves. Was that the right message? Not one peep from the Indian movie image police. Indianicide? Indianicide wants me, lord I can’t go back there. Well, anyway.

I read a blog earlier and the owner of the blog said she was pissed that Johnny Depp is playing Tonto because she did not believe he was Indian enough for that particular role, what ever the heck that means. The blogger guesses that Tonto was/is Apache and the whole Apache nation should have been consulted about the role, who should play it and what that actor should wear so as to project the right “image” in a politically correct way so as not to make restless the, er, ah, well, Natives. The blogger basically expressed, I am Native and I am restless over this affront to our good nature and reputation.

So much hog-wash, so much wasted cyber-space, so much wasted oxygen. Let's set the record straight. Tonto is a radio, television, and comic book character. Period. No one, and I mean no one, will give two Indian head nickels what tribe Tonto is from, just as long as someone gets shot, hung, chased, rescued, skewered, or run out of town. It’s Hollywood for crying out loud. Babbbbababbababbaaa, that’s all folks!

Other bloggers say, well he just looks like a feathered up and beaded version of Jack Sparrow. Well, of course he does, he’s Johnny Depp, what the heck else is he supposed to, or expected to, look like? Edward Scissorhands was a generation ago. Fashions fade.

Still, others say, well the audience will not know the difference between tribal regalia and mannerisms and will walk the earth the rest of their miserable days on this green earth thinking we NDN’s look and act like that. Got a wake up call for you folks. Ever hang around an NDN bar at closing time? That ship, my pure little snow flakes, has set sail a looooong time ago. Let's all unbunch our panties and get a move on, there is nothing to see here.

No one, and I mean no one, has had the imagination to publicly ponder this: If I wanted an actor to play me, who would I want? What man would not want Depp to play him as a young-ish man? When a movie is produced about my exciting life, and my character gets to be old, I would want Johnny Cash playing me. But, he is dead now. I think I would settle for Tommy Lee Jones but he would have to lose that Okie from Muskogee accent, sounds like he has marbles in his mouth, then there is always George Clooney. Wait a minute, back up the tape, didn’t Tommy Lee Jones play some nondescript NDN once? Sure he did, and he had to save his white grand daughter and not a peep out of anyone from the NDN country film police.

Anyway, my wife would be played by J Lo, or Angelena. Really, my wife is knock down gorgeous, seriously, you should see her. All that and brains too. And she is Mohawk to the bone, and she colors her hair blond in the summer time. And, my fine feathered friends, it looks great. And you can take a long walk off a short pier if you can’t get your head around that.

But, if Hollywood was thinking, in my opinion, they could have gotten Philbert Bono, er, I mean Gary Farmer, to do it and Depp would play the Lone Ranger, but then that would be the same movie they did together over a decade ago, Dead Man, wouldn’t it? And nobody said a peep about not knowing what the heck kind of Indian Gary Farmer played way back then.

Anyway, sometimes we take ourselves much too seriously. We don’t laugh at ourselves hardly enough, and people get hurt because of that.

Seriously folks, don’t be so serious. Some things are just not worth the time and effort to get angry at.

Go outside, rake the yard, or, call your brother-in-law; the one with the pick-up truck, to help you haul those junk cars out of your front yard. Or, play with your kids, pet that damn dog that has been hanging around the back door eating your dinner scraps, and get him dewormed while your at it for Christ’s sake. Get your head out of your computerized butts and live a little. You don’t know what you’re missing.

Oh yeah, instead of buying that 12 pack, you angry no account, go take your kids to the movies. Buy ‘em some pop corn and candy, they just might like you a little bit more because of it.

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chance's picture
Submitted by chance on
Honestly , I could not finish this article due to the lack of professionalism . Hopefully, Indian Country Today will not continue to astray from the professionalism that is expected from their writers. Set the standards and stick to it!

blackfeetman's picture
Submitted by blackfeetman on
Dang Ray, that's tellin' it in plain ol' no BS terms that I can understand. And just when I was tryin' to be all mad about it....

hontasfarmer's picture
Submitted by hontasfarmer on
I must confess to being one of those people who wrote much about just what tribe Tonto was supposed to be from. Potawatomi, many of whom were removed to Kansas and Oklahoma in the 1840's and 1870's. Lots of western stories are set there. Dodge city is in Kansas after all. Why did I think it was important? If we are going to get in a fuss about "authenticity" we need to know what the genuine article is supposed to be. Which if he is of that tribe is muddled. The Potawatomi have half a dozen bands all of which have somewhat different ways. What's more their ways changed over time and depending on where they (were) settled. PS. I liked your last article too. Pocahontas JFK huh.

michelleshiningelk's picture
Submitted by michelleshiningelk on
Who is Ray Cook? And why is he writing for Indian Country Today if he has no short bio or info at the end of his article so I can go directly to him with my comments and opinions? I think his take on this, based on his writing is total crap. It feels like he comes from a place of no understanding of who we are as Indian people or where we come from. While I think he thinks he is clever and funny and probably broke his arm patting himself on the back while writing this - all I have to offer him for mocking who we are and what we are about is a short pier, a long walk and a cast for his arm broken in vein. I don't give two turds about how hot his wife is... who writes like that except for maybe Larry Flint, but you ...whoever you are, are no Larry Flint, you lack the cleverness and intelligence to be a Larry Flint I give this article 5 stars (negative) for a complete waste of space, and two snaps down for a lack of understanding of cultural appropriation, and a huge kick in the butt to knock you off your soap box.

rezdude73's picture
Submitted by rezdude73 on
I honestly think its too late for anyone to try and change who was casted as Tonto. In this case, it was Johnny Depp. All I hear is...." They shouldve got a native to play this!" Well, hell I think ive had enough of Adam Beach playing a navajo when his Navajo language is not that great. So whats done is done. If Depp is so intent on playing Tonto. Let him, he is a great actor. Sure he couldve played the Lone Ranger but like Ray said, it would have been another version of the movie Dead Man. I'm sure Depp will portray Tonto as a strong individual and one who can stand on his own aside from the Lone Ranger. One thing not right about Tonto is the dead crow on top of his head that should be re-considered. It doesnt go with the Tonto characters persona. However, I do think Depp and Bruckheimer shouldve done some extensive research on many tribes to agree in the end on how Tonto should look on screen. When I was a kid I really didnt care what tribe Tonto was from. Who cares. Hes Tonto. I do hope this film does Tonto justice. To Depp..... lose the crow thingy on top of your head. Looks like its from Michaels arts & crafts supply or something like that. I look forward to seeing this film. If your going to not see it, DONT! More leg room for the res of us.

marten's picture
Submitted by marten on
Depp loves to play those white-faced characters. He does look strange as the sidekick, wearing that makeup. Lots of explaining to do with how he connected with a finely dressed white dude. As for stereotypes, and other images: I have felt, and witnessed the hate directed at Indians in mainstream society because of those images. For example, I worked at a hospital on the fringes of Hollywood, the movie capital, as a radiologic technician. One lunchtime, I went to the cafeteria. A young, beautiful, gentle dark-skinned Native American was the waitress. To my astonishment, a young, white staff professional in his white uniform started to loudly berate her. She had done nothing wrong. She kept her compposure. As for myself, I was too stunned to react properly. She left her job soon after. I can't count the times that I have had to endure ugly looks and comments while living in the mainstream. I wish I could have laughed it off. I could, if it happened just once..even only a few times. It wasn't to be, however. I learned what the African American had to endure on a daily basis. I survived because of my stubborn belief that God made us all. And he doesn't see the skin color He created. However, we live in a racist society. We are judged by all groups. We are judged by the images up there on the screen, as well as the images of drunken Indians. No matter how liberal, or Indian-friendly, they remember the drunken Indian. I know this from the personal experiences of good acquaintances, who they told me they can't erase the drunken Indian images they observed no matter how hard they try. And I wish I had a dollar for every time a hispanic saw me approaching, and spat on the ground. Or even spitting when I came to a counter for food service. Or the hateful looks I get from them when I come aboard a bus. Or the bad service from workers in public service. This is not to say that's all I get from hispanics. Most are nice people who have no shame regarding their Indian bloodlines. Many are ashamed of their dark skin. And that shame is the cause of their hatred. I have witnessed it in many ways as I traveled all over America and Mexico. And hispanic teachers have told me all about racism south of the border. Told them I was already aware of it. It's easier for some to downplay the damage these images cause. Not for me; I remember too vividly the Indian waitress doing her best to adapt to the mainstream society. And my own experiences of being denied opportunities because the hiring person probably had images of drunken Indians on his mind. By the way, Johnny Depp supposedly claims to have native american ancestry. Probably Cherokee.

gyasiross's picture
Submitted by gyasiross on
It was an honor to have Ray contribute to The Thing About Skins and this is a fun debate. Thank you all.

michelleshiningelk's picture
Submitted by michelleshiningelk on

rezzdog's picture
Submitted by rezzdog on
Like I suggest, un-bunch the panties. This section is where anyone can let their hair down. My professionalism is found in the Op/Ed section. This section, is for fun. That is my rifle, this is my gun, That is for fighting, this is for fun.

rezzdog's picture
Submitted by rezzdog on
Oh, my little snow flake, send me your email and I will send you my resume. And, no I did not break my arm patting myself on my own back. I stand on the shoulders of giants, I have "people" to do that for me. Don't be so serious, life is too short.

michelleshiningelk's picture
Submitted by michelleshiningelk on
Your condescension reeks of a god complex. The need to proclaim that you "have" people unimpressive chicken chest-ing. And I thank you for both because now I have more clarity - it is clear to me that in my short life, I won't expend any time on taking you seriously.

mirandabelarde-lewis's picture
Submitted by mirandabelarde-lewis on
Thanks for this, Mr Cook. I work in a community (it rhymes with bivory bower) where my friends and colleagues take themselves WAY too seriously most of the time. We DO need to chill out and remember what's important or maybe even, just remember what the facts are in any given case of would-be offending material--like remembering that Tonto was a CHARACHTER. he was fictional. made-up by Hollyweird. That was a fantastic point to make, sir. But i think even that bit of farealness is going to be lost on those who will make this their crusade. to them I say, good luck. and be sure to alleviate that stress somehow. i'm headed back to my bower. i got some learnin' to do.

rezzdog's picture
Submitted by rezzdog on
I wouldn't take me seriously either. This column is not the Op/Ed, it's more of a creative, think, have fun with new thoughts section run by Gyasi Ross. I am not the editor here. I just contributed a thought, what was supposed to be in a humorous, which as you know is always hit or miss. I actually run the Op/Ed Section as editor for ICTMN. Much more serious stuff over there, across the site. Ooops, my turn to cook tonight and I think the rice is almost burning. Be right back.

rezzdog's picture
Submitted by rezzdog on
Back to my thought, such as it is. Tonto was originally portrayed, and still is I believe as a Paiute or Papago Indian. Someone thought he was suppose to be portraying an Apache. Pick one, it does not matter - this is my point. This is sort of like Polish, Italian or German, etc. jokes. When someone says a Polish joke, all of the Caucasian race does not get upset, only the Polish do. If Jackie Chan was picked to portray a polish person in a Movie, does all of the caucasians get upset? No, only the Polish would I would assume. My ethnicity or race is Native American, or American Indian or Indigenous, but my nationality is Mohawk. What does it matter to me if Tonto is played by Welsey Snipes or Johnny Depp? He is not playing a Mohawk. It's not my problem, it's a Paiute or Papago problem, because Depp is not playing any old non-descript Native, or representing Natives as a whole, he is playing a particular Native person whose nationality is what ever it is. That is a different situation than say, The Washington Red Skins. That is a symbol meant to depict Natives in general. So, you see a pan Native repulsion to that. And rightfully so, just another way to think is all I'm saying. Then again, I could be full of horse dung.

mizzy's picture
Submitted by mizzy on
So... I don't agree. Here's why: I grew up with this kid. His father was Native, so was his mother. However, he didn't know his father, and his mom didn't know her folks. A common story, a history of boarding school for his dad, and his mom was adopted-out. He really never knew his dad, and his mom had not a lot to say on the subject of culture, except for the fact she was proud, and also strictly opposed to all forms of racism. Her son grew up to be a tall, handsome Native guy... all of that. But, he was never raised around his culture, or hardly at all. As a kid, he went to church, played hockey, baseball... a little football. Loved heavy metal, and Mtv in the 80s. He was the only native kid in town, really... with the exception of some younger sibs. He was called all sorts of names... teased, mostly. The kids didn't believe he was Indian, so they teased him for being a Mexican... that's what they told him. He took it in stride, learned to fight, and stick up for himself. He wasn't at all sure... though who he was. And this is my point, the author can make a point that the image of Tonto doesn't apply to him, but the author can't make a credible arguement that he speaks for everyone, or that the experience of being native and being raised a part of one's culture is a universal one. So, I don't believe he can lay claim to this idea that everyone is or should see this the same way. It's almost cliche now to make this argument where it regards native kids who are raised outside their birth culture, and yet is important. The young man I knew only saw images like this on TV... in Westerns... in everything. Arguably, he had nothing to judge the authenticity of those images by. And yes, the way in which the larger culture... even the small town where he lived perceived Native people had an impact on his life. The people in that town, like so many others, believed that Indians were a thing of the past, so much they were willing to tell the kid in this story, that wasn't native... because that wasn't possible as far as they knew. And I understand that a majority people don't have that experience, that of course, a majority of native people can brush this kind of thing aside. Lots of Native kids are taught at a young age to cope with racism, not to jump at every dumb romantic stereotype or fight every time someone says something stupid. But, then not everyone has the experience of saying, "I am culturally Mohawk" and yet when they step out in public they must respond to the world which often perceives identity based on race. In the United States there is a history of protecting the minority opinion, or at least considering it. So, consider there might be more than experiences you can't image, imagine this kid who you might have mistaken for your brother, cousin, or son, and imagine what his experience might have been like. Thanks.

rezzdog's picture
Submitted by rezzdog on
I should have ended the piece with, "...but, this, of course, is just one man's opinion." Anyway, life goes on.

rauker's picture
Submitted by rauker on
Yeah...Thing is, the lack of professionalism or whatever doesn't bug me - it's refreshing sometimes to break with all the stiff talk. And I get wanting to opt out of a battle sometimes. To just let something that could trip you up roll off your back. We're all entitled to do that once in a while. We're all in the fight so much of time we do need to be reminded to sit back from it on occasion. It's even good for us and it's cool if you choose not to engage with this particular issue. But it's kind of screwed up to put down others who feel like they can't just do that. And really uncool to call out a young writer who's trying to do her part and fight the good fight. I agree that the conversation needed to be steered away from the identity and blood qualifications of the actor - but you have to admit the stereotype issues she brought up were right on the money. And if she (and others) can't let it roll of her (their) back(s) that same way you do, why you gotta treat her (them) like stupid/sensitive Indians. We all get enough of that from the indignant-white-guys-of-the-world, don't we? You have to know how tough it is voice your opposition, to feel compelled to stand up against something that's wrong and actually bring yourself to do it. Why would you make it harder for another Native person out there? Maybe think twice before you label another Native's expression as wasted space.

farseeing's picture
Submitted by farseeing on
I cant believe the crap comments from the proffessional oppressed. Your style reminds me of Dave Barry. Wait; is this the ONION? Well, to answer your question as to what tribe Farmer was from judging from the first scene he was in in Dead Man he was just another F-ing indian. Now they might be mad at me. Do they hable double entendre? NO spell check my whole Google tool bar is gone! F-ing NDN;s.

authorroberthayward's picture
Submitted by authorroberthayward on
Yo, Ray...thank you for that...and to think I dont even know what tribe your from...if any, god forbid!!! Great writing, and true to Indianess(isnt that a word?), your humor wins, hands down. Everyone today is trying so hard to be as politically correct as the white population about our own people, we forget that we really dont give a damn who plays tonto, as long as we can laugh at it. it is our humor that has kept us alive, and if we start getting as stoic and serious as our hollywood stereotypes, we're not gonna get to have any fun anymore. I totally agree...lighten up...tonto means ugly in spanish, and I doubt it means anything in the Depp tribe, so whatever, I just hope he makes me laugh as much as he did playing a pirate(and I dont remember the pirates union in mogadishu complaining he wasnt authentic enough). Again, Ray, thanx for that Ray of humor, it was refreshing, and sooo true. But Im certain you will get your piles of politically correct hatemail about "no respect", and I bet your used to it. Skins have to have a good sense of humor, and also thick skin...otherwise we will go insane. And your comment about going to the movies instead of buying that 6 pack is the greatest 'elder' wisdom I've heard since my sobriety ceremony... RH

mizzy's picture
Submitted by mizzy on
What's interesting to me too... is that I think the editorialist is sorta calling out the blogger for acting as some sorta academic Billy Jack. What nobody likes, it seems, is to have for someone speak for them. Why, because its sorta paternalistic. And there is a long history of paternalism.... But, then there is the Billy Jack syndrome. Let me explain. A friend of mine who is just writes as a hobby says he will hates the whole idea of Billy Jack. No, not jeans and boots and hats, but rather this mixed blood guy who is going to go in... and based on his own identity, turn things around overnight... arrest the police etc. My friend thinks its paternalistic in its own way. And I think in a similar way, this editorialist is saying that the blogger's POV doesn't define him, that he would rather speak for himself. That so often the academic... which I think "blogger" is sorta coded here for "mixed native, academic, female (and possibly middle class)" is not the way he lives in the world, and this Tonto stuff doesn't bother him too much, and no one should attempt to change... blah blah blah. That's why I think he starts to talk about how dang Mohawk is wife is and all that. There's a subtle accusation at work, some might say--not so subtle, in his editorializing... real natives don't give a *#&#$ about Johnny Depp and Tonto, its a a waste of cyber space and all that. And I for this and other reasons, I don't agree with the editorialist. I do agree with the fact he should write if he feels strongly about all of it--neither opinion is a waste of cyber space, and people really start to say how they feel. So, I wish all the backbiting would stop.

heatheranne's picture
Submitted by heatheranne on
I agree that voicing your feelings and opinions is not a waste of cyber space on Ray's part, the blogger's, or any of the comments here. I have to say I'm all for Ray's opinion otherwise, and he raises some great images to mind towards the end. Broken cars, yeah we've had our share! As for the person who said that Johnny Depp was not "Indian Enough" you need to stop stereotyping your own people. Please look at my picture, my skin is white as hell but I'm a registered, voting member of my tribe. I have a degree in Anthropology and let me tell you, skin color doesn't mean shit when it comes to who you are inside. And as far as him not looking Indian, you are wrong. Johnny Depp is a multicultural person, he DOES have a lot of native american features to his face. This is bone structure folks, and it is genetics something that cannot really be quartered out.