Long Otter, by Richard Throssel

Johnny Depp's Tonto, Continued: Some Indians Did Wear Birds on Their Heads


A tip of the cap to Indian Country Today Media Network user bigbppr, who left this helpful comment on our most recent Johnny Depp story:

"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."

The poster is right. Some Indians did wear birds on their heads.

For the media and bloggers -- including ICTMN, Native Appropriations, and now Gawker -- who've been scrutinizing Depp's costume and his public statements about it, what does this mean? Most importantly, what does it mean to you? If the bird on Tonto's head has a precedent in American Indian culture -- any American Indian culture -- does that make the costume any more palatable to those who've objected to it thus far?

We'll leave that to the readers, and simply present the images, found at the Library of Congress archive of Curtis' The North American Indian, and described there as of Apsaroke (Crow) Indians:

Medicine Crow by Edward Curtis
Two Whistles by Edward Curtis

Here's another relevant picture, of another Indian identified as Crow, taken by Richard Throssel. Throssel was a student of Edward Curtis, and one-quarter Cree, and this image comes from archives at the University of Wyoming:

Long Otter by Richard Throssel

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erickrhoan's picture
Submitted by erickrhoan on
So? Who cares if some Indians, some where, at some time wore birds as part of their apparel. The issue is not about wardrobe choices, but about stereotyping. This movie could be set in the late 20th Century where the main Indian character is wearing jeans and a t-shirt and it wouldn't have made a difference.

debreese's picture
Submitted by debreese on
Well... we know Curtis had props in his bag that he would use if the person he was photographing didn't have his/her own regalia, so I'm not sure I'd use Curtis as a definitive source of headdress. Even if it were accurate, I don't think Deep has the background knowledge to make an informed choice as to what he is doing. With his costume and his celebrity/fame, he's inadvertently adding to the range of ways in which people can play Indian.

hontasfarmer's picture
Submitted by hontasfarmer on
The question is will they make Tonto accurate to the Apsaroke ways in general or did they just get lucky with this find? My personal opinion has always been that to judge this issue one needs to look at who Tonto was supposed to be in the story. Tonto was supposed to be Potawatomi. Two bands of the Potawatomi nation live in the west, in Kansas and Oklahoma. Both bands are known to have borrowed some elements of the local culture (especially the Prairie band). What's to say that a person from such a culture could not see a headdress like one of the above, think 'that look cool', and decide to wear it? Just to be different. Not unlike the way some people get funky tattos and piercings. Who said all Indains from culture A or B always dressed one way, and one way only with no variations or intertribal borrowing even back then?

heatheranne's picture
Submitted by heatheranne on
As an Individual who does appear to be white for the most part, I have to say in Johnny Depp's defense he has Cherokee & or Creek ancestry. Like many "white" children of Indian families we often struggle greatly with our identity. I understand that while he may not be a legal Indian on paper he is still native by ancestery. Peter Canoe, an elder in the Ojibwe nation, teaches that all people born from Indian people will be Indian and have Indian Souls. Men would look at the stars at night and name them, because those stars represented all the children that would be born from them. Johnny Depp doesn't advertise his heritage or use it to gain movie roles. While he may not always play typical roles in film, he doesn't have to adhere to "Stereotypical Indian" roles because of his ancestry. In my opinion he is a person to be proud of, not berated. I think we will have to see the movie, because Tonto is the only one who can see the crow. Reports say the crow acts as a spiritual guide. I think I'll have to see the movie before I can say Yay or Nay.

theresamarinez's picture
Submitted by theresamarinez on
Did they "wear birds on their heads" in ceremony or did they "wear birds on their heads" as an every day thing like Depp's Tonto apparently does?

daveburkhart's picture
Submitted by daveburkhart on
Here we go again...Hollywood, obviously they have learned nothing over the past 100 years of film making, or simply don't care. I wish I could be more like Chris Eyre and find it hysterical, personally, I find it pathetic. Ignorance and stupidity knows no bounds. The more things change, the more they stay the same! hollywood

heatheranne's picture
Submitted by heatheranne on
Let us remember that Native people in the past did not view the tribe they where in as set into stone, he could easily be a Potawatomi adopted into the Comanche. The Comanche people are located closely to the Potawatomi in Oklahoma, who is to say there are no intermarriages there. The Kansas band of Potawatomi have adopted a lot of Dakota, Osage, Fox, and other lifeways before my band went on the Potawatomi Trail of Death. Although I think that they should keep Tonto as a person from my people (haha, insert a we are the best people joke :) ). Johnny Depp probably didn't get to make the script anyway. Not to mention the Lone Ranger is a historical fiction character to begin with. The first actor who played Tonto was Chinese, so a white guy with some native heritage is an insanely great improvement. Living in this melting pot there are fewer and fewer "full Blooded" Native People. It's a good thing we get to chose who will be our citizens.

dreajean's picture
Submitted by dreajean on
Heatheranne, your summation is about the best I have read yet. You are correct and birds most certainly would be considered spiritual guides, they are further messengers and to those that wore or wear them in dance, ceremony and the like, they have special meaning to that person. Your closing statement that we will have to see the movie to have the purpose of the crow and its meaning certainly will be revealed, then perhaps that will bring clarity for all.

dreajean's picture
Submitted by dreajean on
Heatheranne would seem to speak with some knowledge behind her and I'm right behind you girl. You speak it like it is and there is no denying the facts!

dreajean's picture
Submitted by dreajean on
Heatheranne, facts are facts and you got that girl!

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Heatheranne: Being an American Indian myself. I am curious as to where you received your information regarding Johnny Depps Indian heritage. Look forward to a response.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
I fill when one has something to display I think the head is the best place to do so and most of all the bird, I think it's so wonderful that we as special Indians in the eye's of our Creator he is the Creator and blessings from from him ,as to dance with wildlife on our heads in our hands we hold wings of feathers we pray and dance with feather dress as to pray for the animals whereing them on our heads .pleaseing to the Creators son Jesus giving us life to worship all his creations,so when you pow wow where a animal on your head and pray for our animal kingdom

Geoffrey Sea
Geoffrey Sea
Submitted by Geoffrey Sea on
The article and most comments treat the wearing of birds as if it were a style or type of "regalia," when this was far from the case. There was a very specific REASON why some Indians wore birds or feathers in their hair. Some tribes, especially of the Algonquian and Siouan families, subscribed to the belief that human spirits are carried in bird form after death to the place in the sky where spirits are reborn. Wearing birds or feathers in the hair was a way of preparing for death, showing no fear of death, or connecting to the world of the ancestors. The Jesuit accounts of early contact with Great Lakes tribes record these beliefs. Likewise, the Great Lakes Indians fashioned birdstones that were worn in the hair as part of some kind of death ceremony, and they believed that human hair transmutes into feathers at death. Such beliefs were especially strong among the Ojibwa, the Potawatomi, the Shawnee, and the Kickapoo. Since Depp portrays Tonto who is supposed to be Potawatomi, it's very fitting that he wears a bird, in keeping with ancient spiritual tradition.

Tori Jackman's picture
Tori Jackman
Submitted by Tori Jackman on
I'm a huge Johnny Depp fan but that doesn't deter me from being insulted. I'm not disturbed by his costume but that they didn't cast an authentic Native American as Tonto! It's common sense, CAST A NATIVE AMERICAN FOR A NATIVE AMERICAN ROLE!!!!!!!!!! I mean come on! Is Hollywood that shallow, stereotypical, and racist?!??!?!?!?! Johnny Depp has talent no doubt, but why not get someone more made for the role? Someone of the same Tribe as Tonto, someone who is Native American and can sound like one without it being so sterotypical sounding.

judiann's picture
Submitted by judiann on
It seems that the difficulty with The Lone Ranger is that the whole thing is fiction and written with a script that does not portray people accurately and to many people is very offensive. Hoping that better movies will be made that do not stereotype People in negative ways. Most likely all Nations and Cultures have at one time been portrayed wrongly and have led to hurtful stereotypes. Bigotry and prejudices need to stop in portrayals of all Peoples.

justsaying's picture
Submitted by justsaying on
Kahay! The Crow Nation is know at the Apsaalooke: People of the big beaked bird. This was a mistaken interpertation of the white man of the name the Crow called themselves.