Why 'The Lone Ranger' Is Not 'Just' a Movie

Michelle Shining Elk
June 25, 2013

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 wish 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 -- 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 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. These in turn affect all outside interactions, perceptions and understandings that the mainstream, and the rest of the word, has of us. 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, and popular culture determined by the majority. (We are not in this mix, just so you know.) In this, Hollywood has propagated, 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 -- the one shaped by Hollywood and non-Natives -- about who we are. 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. Johnny Depp made promises that he would move away from damaging stereotypes and provide a more well-rounded Tonto, but he failed to do so -- and regardless of what anyone wants to say or think, 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, yet we continue to be forced to deal with these old problems. When can we say that enough is 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.  Just as we have regained control of our lands and resources, it is time we take charge of our image. If we don’t, negative depictions of us created by non-Natives will remain, as it has into this, the 21st century -- we have to come together, like we do for so many other causes, to send the message that we are not okay with these gross misrepresentations of who we are.

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, "Hey, this is great and we are happy to keep being the doormat on America’s doorstep for all to walk on -- especially if it is in the name of entertainment."

To quote Sonny Skyhawk: "Johnny Depp has 'played' the American Indian people, more than just physically while laughing all the way to the bank.”

Michelle Hall Shining Elk is an activist and consultant to the entertainment industry. She is a member of the Colville Tribes Arrow Lakes and Okanogan Bands. This essay originally appeared at lastrealindians.com.



John O'Donnell's picture
John O'Donnell
Submitted by John O'Donnell on

I am not Native American but I was a part of a Group years ago who practiced many of the traditional customs. I have always loved the Native People and respected their ways. I am truly sad to see money seems to rule instead of truly showing the Native People as they truly are. Thank You.

Moirraine's picture
Submitted by Moirraine on

Depp should be doing comedies or exciting movies like Carribean - but not "playing" something his is not.

Depp needs a new agent if he believes that his acting is acceptable in many of his movies - in particular I found Benny and Joon, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and several more...

21 Jump Street and Carribean - wow, how about some more fun stuff rather than trying to reinvent that which should have had original casting in the first place.

darrin's picture
Submitted by darrin on

I've enjoyed a lot of Depp's performances, but the clips from this one looked so ridiculous I won't be seeing it. If more people boycotted movies, maybe Hollywood would get the message.

Sonny Skyhawk's picture
Sonny Skyhawk
Submitted by Sonny Skyhawk on

I appreciate the comments and the quote Michelle, I wish that our people, besides the more pressing concerns we face, would also care about how we are seen, percieved, and what and how our image is used. RESPECT is defined in the dictionary as : "To consider worthy of high regard". and I happen to think we have earned and are worthy of that high regard.

Phoenix 's picture
Submitted by Phoenix on

its obvious to me that medias soul purpose is to infiltrate societies mind to reality. its never been about money they don't need money. mind control at its best.

Don Silva's picture
Don Silva
Submitted by Don Silva on

I understand your points, but it seems that you're reacting to the commercials rather than the movie itself. Have you seen it? Because the film presents an entire council of well-spoken, reasonable, "modern-thinking" Native American leaders who explain that Tonto is not the way that he is because he is Native American, but because he's somewhat touched in the head owing to a traumatic childhood experience.
You are certainly welcome to continue to find the film objectionable, but to omit this key piece of information from your coverage of the film (or to omit mention of the fact that you have not seen the movie) is not particularly responsible on your part.

Submitted by texasouthwind on

I am Cherokee and Choctaw ,Irish and French, I am RED<WHITE AND BLUE. I am proud of my Indian Ancestry, I love the Native american people! Susie marie baker,Texas

Submitted by texasouthwind on

I am Cherokee and Choctaw ,Irish and French, I am RED<WHITE AND BLUE. I am proud of my Indian Ancestry, I love the Native american people! Susie marie baker,Texas

Louise Wayka's picture
Louise Wayka
Submitted by Louise Wayka on

I so understand what the author is saying in this article, I remember when my sister was Miss Menominee we would go all over to pow-wows and people would ask if we still live in " teepees" no offense to the lakota people, sometimes it just irks me how we are depicted movies all dumb and "savage" drinking "firewater" not all native people are drunks, is the ignorance of Hollywood ever going to stop?

Apesanahkwat's picture
Submitted by Apesanahkwat on

once again,we are depicted as Bafoons because a non Indian portrayed us that way because they know nothing of our Beliefs,our Spirtuality,and the Integrety Maligned because they are not Us! How could they,they're White angloSaxen People who don't know of any of the Noble characteristics of the Many Nations who are Us! They Humiliate our Beings disgrace our Honor!

Maria Keown's picture
Maria Keown
Submitted by Maria Keown on

Well written article and true to the point, even in the movies that are set in more modern times, the Native American is most often portrayed as either a drunk or gambler. And the movies that indeed do justice to the culture, do not get the recognition they deserve...."into the west" comes to mind, that's one movie that ought to be shown in schools....my opinion on the tv series 'Longmire' is still out, though...I try to do my small part and share articles like these in hopes to increase the awareness.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

OMG it's only entertainment. We continue to make much of nothing when we should be spending that time working to better our real lives, instead of complaining about our "reel" lives. Please direct your efforts to do something important. Thank you