Depp’s Tonto Recycles Stereotypes for New Audience


Author Michelle H. Raheja is an assistant professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. Her articles have appeared in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, American Quarterly, and edited volumes.

In Reservation Reelism:  Redfacing,
Visual Sovereignty, and Native Americans in Film
, I examine the kinds of
discursive violence Hollywood has enacted on Native Americans since the film
industry’s inception, primarily through the genre of the Western. The typical Western
almost always situates Native people as either somewhat sympathetic victims of
history doomed to disappear as a race or as relentlessly savage perpetrators of
violence whose genocide is deserved and desired.  At the same time, the book considers more
complex and nuanced alternatives to this binary opposition, as it is found in
films from the silent era to the present, that were either directed by a Native
filmmaker or starred a Native actor in a leading role who worked on and off
screen to complicate stereotypical images of Indigenous peoples.

The release of
Disney’s The Lone Ranger earlier this
month brought the concerns of the book to the forefront of the important and
often heated national and international debates on social media concerning
representations of Native Americans in popular culture in general, and in Hollywood
films in particular.  The film has been
almost universally panned by both Native and non-Native critics who were
disappointed in the casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto, given the large number of
talented Native American actors; the scarcity of Native American characters’
speaking roles (I counted only two); and the deployment of every single
Hollywood Indian stereotype, from Tonto’s pidgin English and bizarre regalia to
Chief Big Bear’s pronouncement that Native Americans are a vanishing race
beyond hope and without a future.  On her
blog Native Appropriations, Adrienne Keene writes that the film “combine[s] ALL
the stereotypes”; Hanay Geiogamah argues in a Los Angeles Times interview that the film “represents a major
setback in our efforts to combat stereotyping of our image.”  Others, such as actor Saginaw Grant, who
plays Chief Big Bear in the film (one of the two speaking roles played by a
Native), endorse the film and Johnny Depp’s role as Tonto.  Fidel Rodriguez contends that the film sheds
light on the genocide of Native people and presents them in a positive light (since
the film’s villains are two white men, a corrupt railroad baron and a
cannibalistic Indian killer).  While I
have found these discussions enormously engaging, I was disappointed that the
occasion for such debate led to a generally lackluster, boring, and clichéd
regurgitation of the worst parts of the original television series.  I don’t put much faith in Hollywood’s
interest in presenting or ability to present Native Americans as complex human
beings with a viable present and future whose past precedes the founding of the
United States by tens of thousands of years. Given the growing number of
Indigenous filmmakers who are producing vital, vibrant, and interesting work
that operates outside of the Western film paradigm, a prominent conversation
about these films and the artists who create them seems long overdue.  For example, Chris Eyre, whose Smoke Signals (1998) is perhaps the best-known
film by a Native American filmmaker, has created work in a number of different
genres that challenges stereotypes about Indigenous peoples.  Igloolik Isuma and Arnait Video Productions,
two Inuit filmmaking collectives, also recently produced Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), Before Tomorrow, and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, the
latter a poignant, award-winning, and often humorous trilogy of stories about
Native American lives that was shot in Nunavut, Canada, and features Inuktitut
dialogue. This film presents Indigenous history and stories from an Indigenous

Disney’s recent rehash
of The Lone Ranger reminds me of Jim
Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996), a deeply
humorous and scathingly critical but entertaining sequel to the queer, colonial
buddy story.  It is also a much more
nuanced, thought-provoking, and interesting postmodern Western rendition of the
original radio show than Disney’s recent release. Johnny Depp stars in both
films, but as very different characters. Unlike The Lone Ranger, which relies on the name recognition of its single
star actor, Dead Man features a much
more compelling cast:  Crispin Glover,
Robert Mitchum, William Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Iggy Pop, Alfred Molina, and Billy
Bob Thornton.  Shot in black and white, Dead Man centers on the relationship
between the ironically named William Blake (Johnny Depp), a hapless accountant
from Ohio who inadvertently ends up on the wrong side of the law, and the equally
ironically named and often comedic Nobody (Gary Farmer), an enigmatic Native
American poetry aficionado who quotes from Blake’s poetry throughout the film
and resurrects the white anti-hero from near death, only to usher him on to the
spirit world at the film’s conclusion.  Dead Man addresses the issue of Native
American genocide, but it does so with the understanding that Indigenous people
have a present and a future.  Farmer,
an accomplished Cayuga actor, is much more critical of settler colonialism than
Depp’s tragic Tonto character; his lines include “”stupid f***ing whiteman” and
“often the evil stench of white man precedes him.” He outlives Blake,
indicating that Native American characters aren’t merely anachronistic bit players
in the colonial drama of the frontier.
Instead of mocking the rituals of prayer and gratitude, as Tonto does in
the Disney film by shakily “feeding” the dead crow headpiece he wears whenever
he feels the need to appear mentally unstable, Nobody continually asks Blake
for tobacco throughout the film, a request for reciprocity and an acknowledgment
that theirs is a relationship of equals.
In the end it is revealed that Blake needs the tobacco in order to thank
Nobody for putting him in a canoe and sending him back to the spirit world.

Since performing
the role of Tonto, Depp has reportedly offered to purchase land at the Wounded
Knee site in South Dakota and repatriate it to the Lakota people in
appreciation of Native Americans.
Perhaps a more effective way of positively influencing Native lives and
changing public perceptions would be to found a project dedicated to funding,
training, and disseminating works by Native American filmmakers that feature
much more nuanced and exciting representations of contemporary Indigenous
people. It may help limit the kinds of shopworn screen stereotypes Disney has
recycled this summer.

-Michelle H. Raheja

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