What's Wrong With Benicio Del Toro and Johnny Depp Playing Indian Characters?

Sonny Skyhawk

American Indians in Film & Television (AIFT) has been the only vocal advocate for the hiring and accurate portrayal of the American Indian in Hollywood for the last 30 years.  The American Indian had never had a voice in Hollywood, until AIFT was founded.  The goal was to open doors for the American Indian, both in front of and behind the camera, in an industry where nepotism and the color of your skin mattered.  Have inroads been made? Of course, but at a snail's pace.  As founder and chairman , I would like to preface this article by thanking the productions that have hired and showcased our Native people -- and our hope is they met your expectations.  These are professional actors with aspirations who have studied their craft, take pride in it, and are most capable.

The question at hand, one that is consistantly asked by our Native people, is why are non-native actors playing “Indian” roles when there is an abundance of capable Native actors available with just as much talent and skills ?  I have posed this question to Network and Studio executives, and the answer is always evasive with a tendency to pass the blame onto others, mostly the writers.

The question of why, in my opinion, carries a very long answer, but to cut to the chase: It is all about money. Successful non-Native actors who played "Indians" were numerous to say the least, but a few stand out in my memory. Michael Ansara, Charles Bronson, Victor Jory -- even Elvis Presley -- played “Indian” and had lucrative careers by doing so.  (Luther Standing Bear, Jay Silverheels and Eddie Little Sky came much later, along with Will Sampson and Sonny Skyhawk.) One of those early screen "Indians" was Iron Eyes Cody, who became better known for his pollution commercial than his stereotypical acting roles. He was  later exposed as a fraud. What has always been the determining factor in “Hollywood”, is whether a movie will make money, and if it does, they sequel it into oblivion. Hollywood makes movies on that premise alone and not because it is the socially or morally responsible thing to do -- they leave that up to documentarians.

Films that feature American Indian characters are far and few between, and when a Native character does have a significant part, what happens? Hollywood casts a non-Indian in the role. It is a dilemma that we as American Indians working within the industry have had to deal with for a long time, and now we are on the verge of becoming extinct in Hollywood.  As Native people we have had to deal with a larger identity issue than just being invisible in film and television.  Our issue is multiplied by the long time practice of marketers using us to brand everything from baking powder to gasoline. Athletic organizations using us as disparaging mascots, and promoting an inaccurate version of history that gives the impression we are still fighting the “Indian wars” of yesteryear.  I don’t mean on the surface so much, but subliminally. We are still perceived as less than equals.  You don’t see Native people in commercials, yet we are consumers just like everyone else. We are totally underserved when it comes to marketing to our people, yet we buy cars, lotions, food, and every conceivable product.  Children’s programming does not contain any storylines or images of  our own people, so our children are deprived of seeing their own images reflected. You can only imagine the psychological or sociological ramifications of that ordeal on innocent children.

On the flip side, though this is not a popular thing to say, I also think “American Indians” or "Native Americans” as we are called today, are somewhat responsible, indirectly, for some of that history due to apathy about our image.  Hollywood and Madison Avenue leveraged that apathy; we became fair game for exploitation.   Our apathy was used as a license to create cartoonish mascot images of our people.  The Native people of this hemisphere deserve better, and maybe our innocence relied on some sense of fair play.  I am in no way condoning the “tanning” or “painting” of non-natives to play “Indians”, or wear chicken feathers or dead birds on their heads -- that is as ludicrous as it looks.  In reality, if we did wear an animal skin or any part of an animal, we were respectful for its sacrifice and did so in honor of that spiritual being.  The disrespect being shown by the character of Johnny Depp as Tonto is to play a shaman or medicine person. No Native person who knows and lives his culture, no advisor or tribal historian, possesses the ability to grant permission to anyone to play a medicine person.  Only a medicine person can be a medicine person,  which brings us full circle to who can play what.  So we come back to the issue of The Lone Ranger, Jimmy P., in which Benicio Del Toro plays an Indian, and the television series Longmire, in which Lou Diamond Phillips plays an Indian -- and again ask: Why ? 

I would venture to say that if Disney asked Johnny Depp to play Martin Luther King in a movie, there is no doubt in my mind that the African American community would be up in arms, and it would not happen -- absolutely not.  Then why is it that Hollywood feels no compunction in casting a non-native as an iconic American Indian.  As Native people, we have more pressing and serious matters to address, and that is a fact.  But the basic reason we still to this day, suffer from an identity crisis, is because of our own apathy towards this issue. We will no longer stand idly by and allow Hollywood to arbitrarily replace us with non-native players.  We will challenge those choices in the press and all social platforms available.  Our  actors need jobs.  Our stories deserve to be told and we deserve to tell it from our perspective.  So what are we left with after The Lone Ranger? That remains to be seen.  One thing I am sure of , the Halloween costume of the bird-on-the-head Tonto will be with us for many Halloweens to come. What isn’t funny about this production is one human person lost his life in the process of making the show, and we convey to his family our sincere condolences.  In the future our people will have to be continuously reminded of these non-indian characters and their individual actions and portrayals.  We will continue to play second banana to the Johnny Depps of Hollywood, and  the rest as they say, is history.

Rest assured that after the laughs have subsided, the explosions and train wrecks have ended, the photo-ops and the premiere tickets are used up, and the Johnny Depps and his kind laugh all the way to the bank, we will still be left with the same empty feeling we had before this film came along.  The Native people of America need to rid themselves of the apathy and start caring about how their images are used or abused.  We owe it to our present generations, our children and the memory of our ancestors who paid such a dear price for us to be here today, to do so.

As a final request from this writer, please don’t waste your time in the effort to convince me that Johnny Depp and  Lou Diamond Phillips are Indian. Johnny Depp’s adoption was a farce and a photo opportunity for LaDonna Harris and nothing more. The same goes for the photo op with the Chairman of the Dine people -- it also was equally a farce . As for Benicio Del Toro, he may be the only one of the three that has indigenous blood.  Just  sayin'.



chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on

of course its wrong for non native people to portray same in movies, plays, etc...duh....and i dont agree that the fault is partly on native actors...however, i absolutely agree that it is all about the $$$ a 'named' actor will bring in as opposed to a non 'name' actor....but damn...how are our native actors ever supposed to gain money making reputations if the industry wont even let us in even on a minimal level...even actors of other races had to start somewhere...

Sklyansky's picture
Submitted by Sklyansky on

You had me until the MLK analogy, I don't think playing Tonto and playing MLK are even remotely analagous, its not as if MLK was just some "iconic character." If Depp were playing Russell Means, Dennis Banks, or John Trudell in a film, that analogy might make more sense. In general, it seems difficult for minorities to make it into TV and film, I see TV shows and such, and movie previews, and can't help but be amazed at how there is no minority presence whatsoever, and if there is, they're usually a buffoon who provides comic relief.

Sam Harris
Sam Harris
Submitted by Sam Harris on

@ Chahta ohoyo very well said I completely agree however I found out that Johnny paid for the movie to be started and he wanted to play Tonto and he did. I completely agree with you and I do not think that it's any native's fault what so ever. All I can say is that I refuse to see this movie because to me it's a little insulting to natives and walking around with a dead bird on his head looks ridiculous. Yes us natives wear feathers but not dead birds. Birds have always had a sacred meaning for native tribes, I know the humming bird was very important to my tribe. But I find this whole thing insulting honestly with a dead bird on the head.

Michael Arnold
Michael Arnold
Submitted by Michael Arnold on

Del Toro may at least have some acculturated sense of what it means to be indigenous - or at least ethnic, in this country - important point there being "in this country". Depp, on the other hand, comes across blatantly as a performer, more interested in appearances from the Hollywood sales angle than much truly invested cultural involvement. Speaking to this as an accurately acculturated breed of mixed heritage who knows, in order to be tribally connected one has to be with the tribe - not to rely on film, books and art, and not for go visit for new friends/family/photo opps, but over time and going back, if one is raised away from it. It helps to choose the actual inherited tribe(s) also, not to pick & choose to fit - and to honestly know what you are before attempting. It's about behavior - not acting.
Currently involved on the front end in developing promotion visuals for the annual Red Nation Film Festival, have gotten an inside on Hollywood behavior today - the main studio mindset is still far from being real with American Indians, preferring that real examples in film by Native filmmakers and performers be kept at a minimum, to put it politely.
In some ways on this level, the field is slanted uphill so that the indigenous film community is pretty much required at the mainstream level to work "with them". Regardless, we keep doing the real art & film, though - because of this very thing.

samsmith71's picture
Submitted by samsmith71 on

Its just a movie everything Hollywood does is over the top.If you know anything about the subject of a movie you are usually laughing at how ridiculous and unreal it is. I have been reading on several Native American sites and have seen a lot of complaints about mascots and the like, I am white and understand that some portrayals and team names like redskins are offensive. The redskins name should be changed, however most of the names are chosen out of admiration, respect, and the desire to emulate or be even remotely associated with the traits of great people. In a lot of cases I wish it could be seen for what it is, respect.

lynx's picture
Submitted by lynx on

The vicious cycles I see as an objective 'white,' I'll say, it's killing me. Not literally obviously, and that's the difference. As far as life choices, I mean. So many obstacles are created by fear of the unfamiliar, even though we like to believe, without thinking twice, that we think of Indians as good, symbolizing what is natural. Right or wrong, I keep gravitating to thinking basics have to be taken on first, and so much of it seems to require be handled in a legal (forcing the government to follow through) way and part of that is educational difficulties.
Lawyers, actors, everyone needs to be educated. And education can and should be government funded in cases of extreme handicaps, which Native Americans are handed from square one. Disabled people, physically and mentally handicapped people are given grants, so why can't a nation who's struggling against the rest of the world, especially in their own country get educational grants. The handicap is excruciating to observe. If our 'white' verbal attempts and crazy hats seem limp in comparison to what is long overdue... doesn't mean the attempts aren't sincere.

laurel ferguson's picture
laurel ferguson
Submitted by laurel ferguson on

The dead bird thing, to me, seems to be a complete misunderstanding of the bird in native culture. Feathers are gifts given to use. I use a raven's feather when I burn sage in a new house. Ravens are said to be the reincarnation of medicine men, I often say "Hello, Little Father" when i see a raven. A dead bird on the head is not mystical, it's ignorance.

Jenniifer McBride
Jenniifer McBride
Submitted by Jenniifer McBride on

It's all about the money in Hollywood, and the tickets a big name will sell. You can't really argue on that one. I was not aware, though, that native actors had not made huge steps in recent years. I have enjoyed much of their work, whether they were playing obviously "indian" roles or not. Unfortunately, I am of the minority when I say that I would not waste my money seeing Depp, who I DO like, play Tonto.

I just want to say, that as someone who grew up in a northeast area that has heavy NA history, I was always proud to have lived on Mohawk Trail, or to have gone to Shawnee High School. To me, the using of native american names was something that celebrated our local history, and the image of the indians as our school mascots or whatever you want to call them were that of a proud, strong individuals - never a cartoon or something silly or demeaning. I remember being surprised when I first became aware that these images angered native people - but not all of us non natives see them in the same way.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on

To be fair, Iron Eyes Cody (who was born Espera DeCorti) earned the respect and love of many Native Americans for his contributions to various Native causes. They freely accepted him as one of their own (as did the Comanche with Johnny Depp).

Who are we to say who is a fake Indian and who is not? Certainly there are those who claim Native ancestry for their own benefit, but when their interest is clearly NOT profit why should we complain?

I'm also disturbed by the notion of NDNs claiming to be "more" Indian than thou, and poking fun at those they see as less worthy. Have we forgotten "All my Relations?"

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on

Hollywood has NEVER been fair to indigenous actors, musicians or artists.

The irony is that oftentimes the story of how ethnic actors are discriminated against are addressed in the film, but a NON-indigenous actor is hired to play the actor. This was true with La Bamba where the storyline mentioned over and over how Richie Valens had to change his name from Ricardo Valenzuela to make it famous, then they hired Lou Diamond Phillips to play the part (as opposed to any of the numerous Mexican-American actors).

Many actors from the movies of the early 50s and 60s played NDNs and some were more convincing than others. Charles Bronson was much more believable than Chuck Connors.

Still, there are MANY Native actors now, but Hollywood won't cast them unless it's "Dances With Wolves" (even then they were secondary actors to Kevin Costner). Even MORE rare are films about the lives of MODERN NDNs. We continue to be irrelevant to Hollywood unless they need us to portray "the honorable savage." This should end.

Therefore, I try to support EVERY Native-made film I hear about. I've become acquanted with fine actors like Gary Farmer, John Trudell, Irene Bedar and so forth.

Wordslinger's picture
Submitted by Wordslinger on

Tonto isn't real -- he's a fictional character played by a professional actor. The movie is a western fantasy and Depp is a good actor with tremendous box office appeal.

Indian actors need to pay their dues and if they have talent and prove their worth at the box office, they'll get work.

Who said Indian actors always have to play Indians? Did Anthony Quinn, Ricardo Montalban always play Mexicans?

Movies aren't reality and never have been.

Actors are hired for their ability to pretend in front of a camera. Star actors are people who have built a track record within the industry.

Movies are a business. Actors act. Frankly, I'd love to see Samuel Jackson as Tonto, and a Native American in a full headdress playing a neuro surgeon.

Putting Depp down for playing Tonto is no less racism than a white sport fan cheering for his favorite "redskin" team.

Will Sampson and Jay Silverheels understood this.

sweetgrass777's picture
Submitted by sweetgrass777 on

Another downfall. Benicio Del Toro no matter how good of an actor is not REPRESENTATIVE of Native American People and our struggles. What is the problem with casting a Native born American into the role??? There are no Native American actors in all of the United States that have the talent to play the part of their own people???? Again this is a blatant slap in the face of Native america! There are talented Native Actors from that tribe or another tribe looking for acting work and whose career could be elevated by playing this role. If Native people do not wake up you will regret it. Our Identity and heritage is being hijacked at every angle. You are being deprived of acting jobs and participating in the accurate portrayal of your own people! How ignorant and blind can we all be??? Hollywood had done nothing but destroy the image of our people with misconceptions and lies while we sit back and uphold this. Its all about money and you are sellouts if you let this happen. Benicio Del Toro gets famous and Rich and so does all of those Hollywood producers. We are going to be the cause of our own demise! Protest this movie like your dumb asses are protesting the use of the name "Red Skins". That is why many of us are going nowhere fast!

Elly  W. Kloetinge Holland.'s picture
Elly W. Kloeti...
Submitted by Elly W. Kloeti... on

As a member of a Dutch group, supporting people on the res in N.Am.
Always filled with critics towards movies etc. Yes, its time things will turn for the good, keep trying, you have support here!!
N.A.N.A.I and Kiva. Holland are donig something!!!!

Robert W. Hakim, Mexican Indian's picture
Robert W. Hakim...
Submitted by Robert W. Hakim... on

I have scripted a great Native themed feature titled, TOO MANY MOONS. This story could very well be a vehicle for many of our actors to portray Natives as we are, not as hollywood sees us. [email protected]

Q.Hatshep's picture
Submitted by Q.Hatshep on

While there are other more important issues, it's not a dilemma of whether to address this OR that, it's prioritizing this AND that. Entertainment can't just be waved away as "just Hollywood." People get a lot of opinions about life from TV and movies; this has an effect on the mind just by repeated exposure. It's insidious and pervasive, especially now because of technology. It's not the same as people not having their basic needs met, but it can reinforce prejudice and other attitudes that make it more likely. High profile celebrities of all types have more responsibility toward their society whether they want it or not - "with more power comes more responsibility." People, especially from the groups who are affected, have every right and even a duty to complain when a celebrity says or does something harmful.

2late2matter's picture
Submitted by 2late2matter on

Actors portraying various individuals in character acting roles have long been the staple of Hollywood and the world's film industries. It is hardly necessary in the depiction of a prostitute for the female to actually be a prostitute; that is the profession of acting.

Where there are admittedly few notable Native American actors in film and television production, one must nevertheless understand that any individual can be adequately impersonated by an experienced actor.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

I believe in hiring Native American actors/actresses to play these parts, as I would expect a black person to play a black character. That's not too much to expect.

George Nightwalker Sr.'s picture
George Nightwal...
Submitted by George Nightwal... on

Hollywood in LA LA land is/was/ and will always be about money. That's it..bottom line! About being Native? I think when a person's Spirit hurts/aches from the pain an ancestor has experienced when they "clashed ", with the europeans that came here to annihilate to them, that is a sure sign you're Native. Even more so what you can trace in direct lineage a name connection to the person/persons who suffered and at times died trying to protect loved ones and trying to maintain their ways of life.

Amy's picture
Submitted by Amy on

Not to long ago, I read an article on the WWII. I about fell out when someone ask, how many African Americans died in that war. It actually made me angry!" I wrote my own article asking, how many Native Americans gave their lives for a country that took their homes, their language, their culture, and killed off whole nations.
FOR WHAT? BECAUSE THEY WERE ON OUR LAND WHEN WE GOT HERE? HOW DARE THEY!" And this is said in pure outrage and anger on my part against our government..... Hollywood, and the history books not to mention the teachers during my education have poisoned our minds and the minds of our children today on total lies and ignorance. We were never told the truth about the slaughter, lies, greed, Murder and the thief of Native American land. Hollywood, should spend their money on the real truth about our real history instead of wasting it on something so shameful as the Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp playing a wanna be Indian. Something for which he could not even start go understand to be a Real Native American.