The ambiguity of Johnny Depp's supposed Native heritage may have worked in Disney's favor.

Disney Exploiting Confusion About Whether Depp Has Indian Blood

Angela Aleiss

As The Lone Ranger heads for the big screen this summer, many Native Americans are questioning Disney’s campaign to court their approval. They believe that the studio’s public relations gestures mask the real issues of the marketing and identity of indigenous people.

The movie, which stars Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger, will hit theaters July 3. Depp has enjoyed a long relationship with the film’s director Gore Verbinski and its producer Jerry Bruckheimer through Disney’s record-breaking Pirates of the Caribbean series. The megastar is also one of The Lone Ranger’s executive producers, and his production company Infinitum Nihil (Latin for “Infinite Nothing”) was involved with the picture.

But Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage (put forth in 2002 on Inside the Actors’ Studio, although in 2011 speaking to Entertainment Weekly he added “or maybe Creek”) along with his streaked black-and-white painted face and a stuffed crow perched atop his head have caused many to cry foul. Still, others say that Disney—which has a long history of working with Native Americans—is not adequately addressing their issues.

For his part, Depp told that the film is “an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.” The actor has said he hopes to fix years of Indian misrepresentations in Hollywood and has repeatedly stated that his great grandmother had mostly Cherokee blood.

But Native American leaders and educators are not buying it. They question Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage, particularly the studio’s attempt to keep it ambiguous.

“Disney relies upon the ignorance of the public to allow that ambiguity to exist,” says Hanay Geiogamah, Professor of Theater at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware) was a consultant for Disney’s Pocahontas and served as producer and co-producer for TBS’ The Native Americans: Behind the Legends, Beyond the Myths aired in the 1990s.

“If Depp had any legitimate blood of any tribe, Disney would definitely have all the substantial proof of that already. It’s not that hard to establish tribal connections,” Geiogamah says.

Richard Allen, Policy Analyst for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, agrees. He says that many celebrities have claimed Cherokee heritage—often based upon family stories they’ve heard—but like Depp they never try to verify it. “They all tell me they have high cheekbones,” Allen says.

Geiogomah believes that because so few roles in Hollywood go to Native American actors, Disney’s big-budget movie is a “missed opportunity.” Depp could have played the Lone Ranger and instead promoted a younger Indian actor to play Tonto, he points out. After all, Canadian Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels portrayed the character in the 1950s TV series.

“Now they re-introduce Tonto with a non-Indian. So can you call that progress?” Geiogamah asks.

Instead, he worries that Disney’s Tonto feeds into non-Native expectations of Indians frozen in a historic time frame. “That costume ends up making us look like a bunch of oddballs with dead birds on our heads,” Geiogamah says.

But William “Two Raven” Voelker, the movie’s Comanche consultant, says that the costume—including the Crow headdress—is authentic to Comanche culture. “Everyone’s got an opinion who has no knowledge of our culture,” Voelker says. “That’s the part that wears me down.”

Voelker is co-founder of the tribe’s Sia Essential Species Repository, an organization devoted to the rehabilitation and breeding of bald eagles. Comanche activist LaDonna Harris, who adopted Depp into her family, is also a member of Sia’s Board of Directors. Voelker says that Disney has agreed that The Lone Ranger will bring “open-ended” contributions to Sia.

But Gary Brouse, Program Director of Policy and Governance at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), questions claims of cultural authenticity. He had contacted Disney and met with the company’s Corporate Citizenship and Global Publicity divisions prior to The Lone Rangers production.

“That’s one thing that concerns us is a company’s lack of cooperation with indigenous leaders in this particular field, leaders that we recognize as leaders rather than someone they hire as a consultant,” he says.

The New York City-based ICCR encourages member institutions to integrate social values into investor actions and has fought against offensive portrayals of Native Americans in corporate commercials and sponsorships. The organization has successfully campaigned against Denny’s “Chief Wahoo” images on company uniforms and Liz Claiborne’s “Crazy Horse” fashions.

Brouse says that there is no indigenous person at Disney responsible for the company’s policy toward Native American people.

Disney responded that Christine Cadena, Senior Vice President of Multicultural Initiatives, instead played a key role in liaising with the Native American community for The Lone Ranger.

“I think Disney should hire more indigenous people in all kinds of roles,” Brouse says, adding that the company should also have a publicly disclosed statement on record of their policy when dealing with indigenous issues.

But Disney points out that its Human Rights Policy applies across all populations and regions. “Our collaboration with a broad range of interested constituencies, including indigenous people, keeps us sensitive to the potential impacts of our products and services and the interests of our employees, customers and communities around the world,” a Disney representative replied through email.

Still, Brouse explains that part of the problem was that Depp had “a lot of say so” in the film yet did not fully grasp the project’s impact on Native American communities. When Brouse tried to invite Depp to conference calls with Indian leaders, nothing ever happened. “Disney conveyed that Depp was very concerned about this and just passed the message along. We never really knew the reason why he didn’t do it,” Brouse says.

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Vicki Jimerson's picture
Vicki Jimerson
Submitted by Vicki Jimerson on
Russell Means would've made a great "Tonto".. now that's what you call a true American Indian.. he had everything that it takes to portray this actor., very handsome Indian features, muscular build and real hair… R.I.P. Very much a true spirit to our Heritage…

r neeley's picture
r neeley
Submitted by r neeley on
what i find appauling,, is those of who have a relative,,, that was of native blood,,, why do we need someone else to tell us who are relatives were,,, there is no other group of people that can not claim,,, they relatives,,,, this is just a bunch of continued propaganda,,, if your grandmother was Irish,,, then no one questions you have irish blood,, why is it up to the govt or lists they put together,, which were not 100% accurate,,, to tell us,,, a sorry state of controllllllll……

Jeanette Potts's picture
Jeanette Potts
Submitted by Jeanette Potts on
Ask Johnny Depp to do a $99.00 DNA swab. That, by itself will tell us something! (Then have a geneologist do a family search.) How simple can this be? HONESTLY, WE NATIVE AMERICANS DO NOT CARE. WE DO LOVE JOHNNY DEPP, BECAUSE HE IS A CAREFREE SPIRIT!

Lesia's picture
Submitted by Lesia on
Just look at him you can see the Native American in him. His hair color, eye color, his cheek bones and his nose. Even if he hadn't said he was part Native American I would have assumed he was.

Wanda Dillard's picture
Wanda Dillard
Submitted by Wanda Dillard on
Hanay Geiogamah, Professor of Theater at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware) claims that it is not that hard to prove your ancestry obviously has no clear understanding of what it is like for the Cherokee who were marched on the Trail of Tears into Oklahoma, and even more so for those of us left behind hiding or ancestors that were married into white families. It may be easier for those in OK because they were given numbers and registered on the Dawes and other rolls. But for the Eastern Cherokees, many were given white names and melded into the populations of Europeans resettling into the areas who were given their lands in the Land Lottery. On censuses they were listed as white. So with the assimilation complete, it is almost impossible unless you were born on the Cherokee reservation that was not part of the Removal to document your lineage. Most of the indigenous people's history in this country is based on "stories" passed down from our grandmothers/fathers. So the heritage was done that way also. During these times, people were afraid to admit they had Native blood, or ashamed of it, or both. So professor or not, I take issue with a blanket comment about how EASY it is to prove your heritage. Even websites which instruct you on how to search tell you that you are in for a long, difficult and arduous journey and most likely to be disappointed.

Sonny Skyhawk 's picture
Sonny Skyhawk
Submitted by Sonny Skyhawk on
Walt Disney, and his now conglomerate creation Disney / ABC, has a long history of ignoring the concerns of Native people. Not until they come upon or decide to do something like POCAHONTAS, or TONTO & THE LONE RANGER, do Native people even enter their consciousness or consideration. When you ask the company to provide diversity or Native hiring statistics , they produce boiler plate rhetoric or unverifiable figures. Walt Disney, and his present company, has historically " used " and monetized Native images, caricatures and stories throughout various productions, created revenue streams that still exist in its business today,and, not once have they ever had the insight to , at the very least, thank them collectively. Fast forward to today, and they have the audacity to attempt to " sell " Johnny Depp to the world as a Native person, which is totally unacceptable. Disney may monetarily or with a photo op, induce a few star struck Natives to "collaborate", but the rest of us are not for sale. Disney has failed miserably, in that they consulted "hang around the fort indians" instead of the common sense approach of asking the American Indian people, first. That would not have been hard to do. It is about respect, something Disney and Hollywood know nothing about. They are under the incorrect assumption that being who they are entitles them to assume creative license, and we are no longer going to stand idly by and accept that assumption. We are taking back our long overdue intellectual and image property. Aho.

E's picture
Submitted by E on
Oh, for God's sake. Johnny Depp walking around in that get up most certainly does not make ALL first Americans “look like a bunch of oddballs with dead birds on our heads." It makes Johnny Depp look like an oddball with a dead bird on his head! If any jackass sees this movie and walks out of the theater believing that all this time he has been hoodwinked by all the first Americans who haven't dressed like this, are we really concerned with that person's opinion? Is there anything in the script that has Depp/Tonto saying, "Yes, we all dress like this. All the tribes. Abenaki to Zuni. All the time. Don't smear the makeup, please." Let's try to get a grip.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
If Johnny Depp can't understand the impact this kind of role has on the indigienous community,and coupled with the fact that his great grandmother is Cherokee,it is sadly, and more than likely,that he is not Native American.He could have and should have come forth with some proof by now, and should have respect for our Native leaders and show up to the conference calls ,at least.i am sad to hear this about Jonny Depp.I had such high regard for jim,initially believing he was Native American.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
a non Indian playing an Indian I don't believe….it's never happened before….really I'm native and I could care less if they hire a native to play native…..much more real issues

jai jacobia's picture
jai jacobia
Submitted by jai jacobia on
Unless Depp can prove he is an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe-Cherokee, Creek, or whatever, he and Disney both may be violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act as it applies to 'art' in all its forms including the literary and theatrical arts. Depp took pay for the theater art of acting by claiming he is Cherokee or Creek. By doing so he took one of the few jobs available to American Indians and by publiciing his lie, he and Disney violated the law. Dozens of artists in various art forms have made a career of falsely claiming they are American Indian, usually Cherokee. The author/playwright Diane Glancy and the politician Elizabeth Warren attempted to skirt the law by claiming "Cherokee heritage" which is equally galse unless since unless their parents were enrolled members, they were never Cherokee. I know people who paid to have their DNA analyzed to prove they have Cherokee heritage which they believe will give them an artistic advantage. Their efforts were fruitless and would not qualify them for tribal membership anyway. They don't understand that being Indian is not a racial/DNA thing, but a cultural one. Where are the lawyers? This is a class act suit on behalf of the many American Indian actors, writers, and others. It could bring public attention to this ofen ignored law.

Glen Douglas's picture
Glen Douglas
Submitted by Glen Douglas on
How "Indian" could Mr.Depp really be . No language, no ceremonial knowledge,no community excepting his newly adopted one, and no culture. How " Indian is that. Like many others you just list some nations after your name and that seems to do the trick. Soon it will be Johnny Depp Cherokee/Comanche

Martin's picture
Submitted by Martin on
It is just as difficult to prove Native blood as it is to disprove it. Many of us are proud of our Native heritage even though is was not "cool" to have any "Indian" in you generations ago. On old census records you had to put "Black" or "White". Those that mis-represent themselves as Natives for monetary gain should be called out. I personally have more shame from being part European blood than I could ever have for my Native American blood.

jalit's picture
Submitted by jalit on
Why am I writing these comments when they never appear on the site? I'll save my brain for more interesting things. jai

G. Pago's picture
G. Pago
Submitted by G. Pago on
I don't know any Comanches who have a problem with their fellow Comanche, Johnny Depp, naturalized according to traditional ways of the tribe and adopted by one of the most respected elders of the tribe. Who is Gary Brouse? He is not Comanche, but is inserting himself and his professional organization into this with a bunch of other people who are not Comanche. Why do non-Comanches get front and center seat in this debate? Why is the voice of Comanches silenced, disparaged, ridiculed and deemed irrelevant.

Harry Redhawk's picture
Harry Redhawk
Submitted by Harry Redhawk on
This is something that needs to addressed. In my heart every movie that portrays a Native American tribe should have their Elders to speak on tribal accuracy. This next week, I will honor my Great-great-Grand Father Little Bigman's who fought at Greasy grass. I will remember a story my Great-Grand mother who told me that Tom and George Custer killed them selves and I am sure that the same historical fact is told among the Arapahoes and the Cheyennes. HONOR TO OUR BROTHERS LOST AND TO OUR CURRENT ELDERS, MAY OUR CREATOR REMEMBER THEM IN THIS WORLD AND THE SPIRIT WORLD.

Wendy South's picture
Wendy South
Submitted by Wendy South on
Everybody has some really good points, all valid in their own way, but have you tried considering that it really just boils down to Entertainment and how well Johnny Depp can play a Native American (Comanche I believe), and how well Armie Hammer plays The Lone Ranger. It is not like the story of The Lone Ranger is Real or anything, so now if they got Johnny Depp to play a real life Native persona such as Chief Dan George, then they bloody well better get a real full blooded Native to play him and who looks like him as well. Whereas we have no idea what Tonto could have even looked like cuz he didn't exist. I think it is about time though that there were more Native American and Canadians portrayed in more films. Anyway it is just a movie and Johnny Depp is hot and he rocks.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
whatever the Dept of Interior is full of Cherokee heritage Indians…that should be far more important issue. No one mentions that!

Monica's picture
Submitted by Monica on
whatever, the Dept of Interior is full of Cherokee "heritage Indians" (enrolled members from descendancy)…that should be far more important issue. A bunch of 1/500th never been Indian except for the paper to prove it, making and running Indian Country. No one mentions that!

michelleshiningelk's picture
Submitted by michelleshiningelk on
Why "The Lone Ranger" is not "just" a movie. It keeps being said about the upcoming movie "The Lone Ranger”, "it's just a movie," it's not going to "change the world." Well, I wish that were true and I wished this were JUST about "a movie." But sadly, it goes deeper and farther back than many realize, or have taken the time to think about, especially when considering how we, as Indian people, are perceived by mainstream society and the perpetual time warp we are stuck in because of how we continue to be portrayed in film and television. It's all about framing and I advocate re-framing the negative images. Framing…what do I mean? Framing can be subtle or invisible, harmful stereotypes or perceptions that cause problems that are more overt that manifest themselves in all degrees of subtlety. How is the damage done – because all of these things are embedded in the public psyche and roll into our modern day existence and continue to be seen everywhere. We are trapped in a muddy time warp and defined by stereotypes and historical images that are NOT accurate by any stretch of the imagination. The "Injun say how!" way Depp delivers his character "Tonto" is NOT helping, no matter how much "courting" he and Disney are doing to get "in good with the Indians." Any group that has an interest in obtaining or achieving success in the world, at large, understands that portrayals have consequences. Hollywood continues to portray American Indian people in ways that perpetuate damaging stereotypes and inaccurate depictions of who we are and that, in turn, affects all outside interactions, perceptions and understandings that mainstream has of us – worldwide. Lost and seemingly unknown is the fact that we are current, educated, relevant, multi-dimensional people and tribal nations, and NOT the images, symbols, portrayals or caricatures that exist and constantly used in film and television to define us. This is about the baggage, the Hollywood baggage we can't seem to ditch. The baggage that, has for decades, created inaccurate perceptions of who we are as the first people of the Nation. Baggage we have been trying to dump for years. Hollywood caters to popular culture – popular culture is comprised of predominantly members of the majority (we are not in this mix, just so you know). In this, Hollywood has, and continues to, propagate misinformation, skewed perspectives and inappropriate depictions of who we truly are as NDN people. What's the big deal you might ask? Well, the big deal is that we continue to end up being defined by inaccurate depictions and skewed perspectives because the members of the majority (the group that doesn't include us) internalizes the misinformation and depictions as fact and the way things are (when it's completely not the way things are), because they do not know any better. It's a sad fact, but true. It's time we change the public paradigm about who we are — the one shaped by Hollywood and non-Natives. People keep saying, "It's JUST a movie". Well, I'm not JUST an Indian willing to accept perpetuating damaging stereotypes for the sake of "JUST A MOVIE". Depp made promises that he would move away from damaging stereotypes and provide a more well-rounded "Tonto" but he failed and regardless of what anyone wants to say, or thing, Depp's been driving this bus since the day he became an Executive Producer and took the film off the "dead" projects shelf. Some say "It's a new era, modern day movie, made to entertain…get over it." I say, "Yes, it is a new era, modern day movie, but when is our cultural group going to stop being the entertainment?” It’s a new era, but yet we continue to face, and be forced to deal with these old problems. When is enough, enough? It's time that we place ourselves into the American society equation as a contemporary force and as a people of interest that is nothing like the damaging stereotypical images and depictions that continue to define us. To sit complacent: to not say or do anything about what is wrong with the stereotypes being perpetuated in this film, is more or less saying, it’s ok. We might as well just say…Hay! This is great and we are happy to, and will continue to be, the doormat on America’s doorstep for all to walk on; especially, in the name of entertainment.

Isobel's picture
Submitted by Isobel on
It's quite odd how 'being Indian' is now defined even by many Indian people as the Government concept of having the card/being enrolled. As someone wrote here the Cherokees (and also the Creek and quite a few others) intermarried so much so long ago, someone can have blood but no 'on paper' proof of it and some people who can name their Indian relatives, but grew up outside Indian communities, never bother to get the card to prove it. Before noticing that Johnny Depp had claimed Indian blood it seemed obvious he had, he hardly looks Caucasian. Many Americans have Indian blood and it is visible in their looks but they have not got any tribal affiliation. I feel a bit sorry for the Comanches here because they seem enthusiastic bout this and it's sad if it's attracting so much controversy. Johnny Depp is a 'cool dude' and extremely popular, if Tonto is portrayed by him it's unlikely kids are going to mock Indian people as a result is my feeling. Apparently he is shown speaking Comanche as Tonto, I know the broken English is controversial but that is how an Indian would have spoken in that era; portraying it otherwise would overlook that they were coping with foreigners speaking a language they didn't know. How could they be fluent, I know some are concerned Indian people will be mocked because of the speech but the answer to that is point out how they would speak if trying Japanese, or Russian or some European language they didn't know. English was a foreign language to Indian people and they had to deal with that as well as dealing with the encroaching presence of the English speakers on their land. Without seeing the movie it's difficult to judge but I think he had the best of motives, he will make being Comanche trendy I think! Johnny Depp is very popular.

kati's picture
Submitted by kati on
yah well look how disney potrayed native americans in pirates of the carribean completly reduculusly in accurate on to many levels to count. first off arawak , carrib, tawira miskito, tawahka, kukra indians didn not remotely look like this nor were canibals in fact the why the island peoples where so easily conquered and taken advantaged of by mainly the spanish/ italian explorers is the were known as the most kind peaceful generous people they had ever met who were known for their great physical beauty and still are.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
but yah searching native geneology is not always as easy has people claim native americans that were mixed when the role counts were done or married someone of a different race were counted as non native americans others were afraid to claim heritage because they would be relocated or children taken to brain washing boarding school. native americans of central america and south america any of their records destroyed during the various wars and country revolutions or non natives wanting to take their land rights for profit. honestly i always though jonny depp was some part native american by just looking at his facial features.

Jeff Bear's picture
Jeff Bear
Submitted by Jeff Bear on
Its Hollywood! What do we expect? Accuracy? What has been the practice in this world of make believe is what fuels the fantasy world of America. If most American kids aspired to be Native American as opposed to Macklemore perhaps we might be in better shape. If the producers had cast Graeme Green or Wes Studi, they would not make the kinds of money and controversy they would for casting Johnny. So most of these arguments are ringing, what about me? For for the person who is mystified by wearing birds on our heads only displays how ignorant we are of one another. C'mon America, how are you? DON'T YOU KNOW I'M YOUR SON?

Carrie Starr's picture
Carrie Starr
Submitted by Carrie Starr on
First of all, the bird on his head is a stuffed RAVEN not a stuffed CROW. Two different species; ravens are much smarter. Secondly, I am so sorry that Depp is not coming clean onthis issue, whichever way is the truth. I suspect he/they just saw this as a good movie to springboard into another wildly popular series. I'm still going to see the movie–anything that makes the Lone Ranger look dumb has to have redeeming social value, but I hope it's true that Depp's claim to Native ancestry is true.

Carrie Starr's picture
Carrie Starr
Submitted by Carrie Starr on
First of all, the bird on his head is a stuffed RAVEN not a stuffed CROW. Two different species; ravens are much smarter. Secondly, I am so sorry that Depp is not coming clean onthis issue, whichever way is the truth. I suspect he/they just saw this as a good movie to springboard into another wildly popular series. I'm still going to see the movie–anything that makes the Lone Ranger look dumb has to have redeeming social value, but I hope it's true that Depp's claim to Native ancestry is true.

Sam Harris
Sam Harris
Submitted by Sam Harris on
Ok from what I heard from Native Actor Jay Tavare said was that Johnny Depp put his own money into getting the movie started. He wanted to play Tonto and he got. He is a big actor with lots of money and he used it to get what he wanted. Do I think it was fair? Hell NO! But that is how it turned out. I am disappointed with Disney for not actually considering a real native to play the role. I am not crazy about the make up and the ridiculous dead bird on the head either. It's just this typical stereo type garbage you don't want.