Johnny Depp cites a painting by Kirby Sattler as his inspiration for Tonto's look.

Johnny Depp's Explanation of Tonto Costume Both Clarifies and Muddles


When producer Jerry Bruckheimer first revealed Johnny Depp's Tonto look for the upcoming film version of The Lone Ranger, in early March, many people were puzzled. The bird on the head, the white face paint, the black vertical lines, the bandanas, the bird on the head—Indian and non-Indian movie followers wondered whether they were looking at a colossal misfire of a costume or something incredibly authentic that had been all but forgotten.

The popular press latched on to one explanation, which was that Depp's Tonto is a lot like his Pirates of the Caribbean character—The Guardian, for example, wondered aloud, "Has Captain Jack Sparrow got a crow perched on his head?"

(Over the weekend, advanced a less plausible theory: that Tonto is based on Marilyn Manson. Moving on...)

Natives spotted the influence fairly quickly: a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler. Depp's Tonto look is almost an exact copy of it, in fact.

In a post at Native Appropriations, Adrienne K takes issue with Depp's decisions. Kirby Sattler is a non-Native artist who, in a statement on his website, says that his paintings are meant to "satisfy my audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy."

So the source material may not be constrained by accuracy. For some who like their entertainment to strive for authenticity—even if it's fiction—this could be an issue. Yet there is a difference between the merely inauthentic and the totally made-up, and this is where Depp may have taken the real misstep. In an Entertainment Weekly story about the origins of his costume, Depp says, “It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top. ... 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.”

The most striking element of this costume, then, is not just weird-looking, it is also part of Tonto's worldview. Will Tonto talk to the bird? Will the bird talk to Tonto? Will the Lone Ranger tell Tonto to stop listening to the bird? It all remains to be seen, but it's a sure thing that Depp's Tonto will be highly scrutinized in Indian country when the film comes out (May 13, 2013). Indians like a good popcorn movie as much as anyone else, and the film, as a work of fiction, will necessarily take some liberties with history. But Native audiences might be less forgiving of a portrayal that takes too many liberties with their spirituality.

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theartistt's picture
Submitted by theartistt on
The crow is a dream guide. That is what I had always been told, so I never once questioned crow on this head. I like the look, but am hopeful/worried about Tonto's portrayal just in general.

bigbppr's picture
Submitted by bigbppr on
Apsaroke Indians wore a full bird as part of their headdress. There are 2 photos in the book of Edward S Curtis photographs entitled, "The Great Warriors".

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
NAI have always recognized "Animal Totems" as well as "Ancestor Guides" on their "Walk of Life". To walk this "Plain" is a Test of "The Spirit", mankind is often helped when they ask for it from "The Creator & Divine Mother". Many Teachings avoid that information, because of "Conventional Religions",but that does not say they are not there when you need them. His name should be "Bird On The Head" & NOT "Tonto" - Kimosabe!

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
My view of all of this is 'maybe Marilyn Manson got his inspirational look from the the people who took on these representations long ago?' I don't think the question of 'authenticity' should be the matter. I think the representation of 'what it meant' is more important. Much has been lost through the decades, centuries due to the mass slaughter of not only different peoples here but their languages, their everyday way of life, their very being in the ambitious attempt by foreigners to make extinct forever the original 'anything' of people in this country alone. Not to make a bold statement here but when looking at things in such detail here one can see why a lot of things today are always in question in regards to the Indigenous. In many cases also some of those Indigenous peoples themselves may be just as confused. Very few know exactly what something like this may or may not mean. I for one think Johnny is sincere in trying to get it right whether it is correct or not in peoples views. But you also have to take into consideration that those people long ago, even as a people, as a family had their own slight individual looks and meanings that were given to them. Look for meaning in things and less in 'authenticity'. This includes one's own view.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Hollywood has been portraying our people poorly since they started making films. Why would we expect anything to be different now. And my wife who is all white says," So what' s with the stupid Hollywood stilted speech pattern? I cringed when I saw the trailer and heard him talking! I made me sad and angry"

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Pueblo&shoshone I will not see this movie. I will not see this movie because johnny depp is NOT a indian/ american indian/ native american/ PC BS. I will not see this movie because johnny depp is playing a indian with his face painted wearing a bird on his head. I will not see this movie because for the few lines he spoke, johnny depp tried for a indian accent. If i ever get curious, if i ever feel the urge to see if he brings something to his portrayal of indian people i will download his movie for free just because i dont want to give him or the studio any money for this movie.

dominic06's picture
Submitted by dominic06 on
This is different look of warrior- white painted face, bird on head. People love this look.