SPOT THE INDIAN! Clockwise from top left: Sonny Skyhawk, Sicangu Lakota; Rock Hudson in 'Winchester '73', Johnny Depp in 'The Lone Ranger', and Italian-American actor Iron Eyes Cody

Sonny Skyhawk on Johnny Depp, Disney, Indian Stereotypes and White Film Indians

Gale Courey Toensing
June 11, 2013

Sonny Skyhawk (Sicangu Lakota) is a veteran Hollywood actor, author of Indian Country Today Media Network’s “Ask N NDN," and founder of American Indians in Film and Television.  He talked to us in a free-wheeling conversation about Hollywood’s Indian stereotypes, white actors playing Indians, and the controversy surrounding Johnny Depp in the role of Tonto in Disney’s new film of The Lone Ranger.

I have an Arab nephew who’s a struggling young actor in Toronto and he’s always being offered terrorist roles, which he turns down because he doesn’t want to support the stereotype. Have you experienced anything like that as an Indian actor?

I think you have to have a certain amount of integrity as a person and as an actor and sometimes those two things in some people’s’ minds clash. In my mind they never clash. I’ve always been true to who I am as an individual way before taking on a role. I’ve always followed my own philosophy that I’m an Indian first and an actor second. My people have always come first before any role I’ve ever played. There are many roles in my 35-year history that I’ve turned down [including Blazing Saddles --Ed.] because they were demeaning, degrading or spoke badly about our people. And my frustration throughout my 35 year career has been that for every role I’ve turned down there were ten Indians waiting in line chomping at the bit to take the role and that included, for example, a role that depicted a decapitation of someone in a sweat lodge! When you think about the mind of Hollywood -- Hollywood has no mind. Its only interest has been and always will be all about money.

What is your take in general on non Indians playing Indians in the movies?

The actor’s mantra is you should be able to play any role and get yourself into it whether it’s an alien or human or whatever. But looking at it from an Indian perspective, Hollywood has a deep rooted history from the time the kinetoscope was invented by Thomas Edison to use our images, tell our stories, and reconfigure our history and it created the Indian villain in the whole scenario of filmmaking. So the Indian has really been the victim of Hollywood’s creation -- we had no choice about that. And back in the early days there weren’t many trained Indian actors so it was much easier for Hollywood to spray paint Rock Hudson -- like the tanning salons do now -- to make him look darker.  So many stars that were under contract to studios in those days actually made a living portraying Native peoples. Iron Eyes Cody built a career based on playing Indians and he was not an Indian. I can quote you 20-30 famous actors who played Indian roles at that time and probably only a handful of Indians. Hollywood created the image of the Indian and allowed anybody to play him.

What do you think about the controversy over Johnny Depp playing Tonto in Disney’s new Lone Ranger flick?

So, fast forward to today and Johnny Depp -- as I said, there’s nothing new about Hollywood painting up a white person to play an Indian. Johnny Depp is for sale as an actor and the essence of what he’s doing in this movie is trying to sell himself as an Indian and make It believable. Is it wrong for him to do that? Well, it’s wrong on different facets. What my organization, American Indians in Film and Television, has tried to do in 35 years of existence is provide jobs and open doors for Native people in this industry.  So when a Johnny Depp or anyone else who’s not Native takes a job as an Indian and gets painted like an Indian, we believe he’s depriving a real Indian of a job. The second thing is when it comes to the director or the producers saying, “We’re going to cut this guy’s head off in the sweat lodge,” the non Indian will say, “Yeah, I don’t see anything wrong with that, go for it!” While an Indian would say, “Wait a minute, guys, that’s not really cool or according to our beliefs and practices.”

So, you’re opposed to Johnny Depp playing Tonto?

American Indians in Film and Television’s argument is not so much with Johnny Depp, a charlatan at his best, as it is with the machinations of Disney proper. The controversy that will haunt this endeavor and ultimately cause its demise at the box office is the behind-the-scenes concerted effort and forced manipulation by Disney to attempt to sell Johnny Depp as an American Indian. American Indians, as assimilated and mainstream as they may be today, remain adamantly resistant to anyone who falsely claims to be one of theirs. The question of Johnny Depp next playing Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King, as ridiculous as that may sound, is not farfetched as an example.

Disney has been marketing and re-writing the history of our people -- American Indians -- without their permission, ever since the company was born and to my knowledge has never paid a penny for it or even thanked us. Yet it has the gall and audacity to knowingly cast a non-Native person in the role of an established Native character. Tell me the extent of outrage they would encounter if they did that to an African-American character.

Johnny Depp "playing Indian" doesn't bother me as much as the efforts of a conglomerate force feeding the Indian community that he is "Indian.”

What’s your response to the argument that it’s “only” entertainment?

"Entertainment" is an important civil right. The ability to participate and be seen as a contributing member of mainstream America is no different than the right to eat, drink water or go to the bathroom like anyone else. To only show the stereotypical is to deprive the American Indian of due process and the pursuit of the America Dream.

I opine that the intentional effort to deprive American or international audiences from viewing the image and storylines of our people is a denial of a basic and human right -- the right to be acknowledged as an existing and contributing member of our society.

Have you ever played the role of a white man?

Not in the context of your question. In reality, I’ve been playing the role of a white man every time I put on a suit and tie, which has been most of my adult life, out of necessity. You won’t see it on my acting resume, but I’ve had to “play” the role for far too long. When you equate life to a three-act play, you’re born, you live life and then you spend the rest re-living it and waiting for the final curtain, then, yes, I have played a white man. Other than that, no -- and I resent the attempt of a white man playing an Indian. Not only is he inept, but he has to be painted up and put a dead bird on his head, adding to the farce. Above all else that makes it wrong, he deprives a real Indian actor of a job that’s rare in the first place. I’ve played Native Hawaiians, Mexicans and Native American people of this hemisphere proudly and with respect.

So, it’s a little blurry – Al Jolson in black face, white actors playing Asians, French actors playing Arabs (in The Siege) -- how do you reconcile your belief as an actor that actors should be able to play any role and your objection that white actors playing Indians deprive real Indians of jobs? 

Well, that’s the conundrum -- the fact that, as an actor you have to work but at the same time you’re weighing what you’re doing in a role with how much money you’re going to get paid and so on. The actor has to decide for him or herself whether you’re going to sell out your people or not get the job. It’s very difficult for somebody who’s trying to build a career as an actor to turn these things down because after all that’s what you’re trying to do -- build your career so you can get other, hopefully, better jobs. Most Indian actors I know have had to struggle with that dilemma with the exception of a handful of people.

Do you think it would occur to Disney to hire an Indian actor to play Tonto?

Oh, it would probably occur to them but that’s as far as it would go. What’s important is they have an individual -- Johnny Depp -- that they are beholden to because he has created a billion dollar franchise with Pirates of the Caribbean. When they ask Johnny Depp, “What would you like to do next?” and Johnny Depp says, “Oh, I’d like to play Tonto in The Lone Ranger,”  Disney says, “Oh, ok, we’ll put it together”  – and that’s how it works. It’s that simple: Johnny Depp is a cash cow for Disney; consequently, Disney is going to bring us anything that he wants to do. Whatever Johnny wants, Johnny is going to get.

How important has Tonto been in generating the image of the Indian?

Well, I think of Jay Silverheels  [the actor who played Tonto on the television series The Lone Ranger] -- and I knew Jay and his wife and kids -- wasn’t willing to sacrifice his Indianness for roles. At least, that’s my opinion. I think Tonto gained a lot of respect, integrity, and some dignity in how Jay Silverheels played the role.

What prompted you to become an actor?

When I was a young boy, as an Indian kid coming off the reservation, I was raised by my grandparents who were migrant workers. We were traveling from state to state and my grandparents always registered me in the local schools where I experienced a lot of racism in those days because of the fact that I more than likely volunteered the information that I was an American Indian -- I was always very proud of that. So when I said, “Yeah I’m a Sioux Indian from Rosebud, South Dakota,” I experienced a lot of racism from kids, a lot of taunting and war whooping and stuff like that.

In 7th grade there was a little girl I was interested in when I finally found out there was a difference. I was constantly trying to impress her, but she wouldn’t even look at me mostly. One day I found out that the seventh grade was putting on a play called Jack and the Beanstalk and she was  one of the stars, so I asked the drama coach if I could be in the play. He said he had already cast the whole play “and the only thing I have left is for you to play the beanstalk, which means you’ve got to go from stage left to stage right on cue. Can you do that?” So here I was this beanstalk trunk with netting over my face so I could see where I was going. And I finally managed to break the ice with this young girl. She allowed me to carry her books home and we became boyfriend-girlfriend and we continued on and did countless  plays in high school.

So love prompted you to become an actor?

Well, no, the gist of the story is that the other kids respected me for acting in the play more than they disrespected the color of my skin. I found that by being an actor people saw me in a different way so acting was my way of moving away from being taunted as an Indian. They respected me for being someone else rather than being an Indian. So I found acting to be a way to counter the racism I experienced as a young person.

What’s the most important issue raised by the controversy around Depp playing Tonto?

We have many issues that need to be aired -- the denial by media conglomerates of Native participation in the industry both in front of and behind the cameras of their studios, the presentation of our images and stories in non-stereotypical ways, including content that allows our children to see themselves on television as contributing participants in mainstream society.

We buy and use any and all products that are marketed to the mainstream, including the airwaves that deliver the television signals, traverse our lands and airspace, but yet the networks and Madison Avenue continue to perpetuate the exclusion of our existence by not showing -- which amounts to denying -- that we are consumers.

Stories transmit our existence and culture. If we’re not in the storytellers' minds, we cease to exist in the transformation from the stereotype to the real image in media platforms and the visual recognition of our people.

Will you go see Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger?

I don’t know that I’m going to make an effort to go and see Johnny Depp.  It’s a Disney film and they’ve thrown in every possible computer generated graphic and then Johnny Depp will bring them into the movie house.  It’s a Native version of Pirates of the Caribbean. Natives are very funny people, they joke all the time and make fun of each other. If Johnny Depp ends up making fun of the white man I think that would be a positive. He said he would turn the tables on Hollywood and make this a Native character that would do that. So I’m kind of wishy-washy about Johnny Depp playing an Indian but the reality is he has deprived a real Native person of playing that role.

Who would you cast as Tonto?

I would probably cast Adam Beach or Chaske Spencer from Twilight. And there’s another young guy who’s going to be a fantastic actor one of these days and his name is Moses Brings Plenty.

What do you think about Disney’s claim that the tribes have embraced the project?

Disney Chairman Alan Horn, says tribes have been "collaborating,” to which I respond: B.S. A few individuals do not constitute tribal collaboration.