Why Tonto Matters
But for Native people, the only images that the vast, vast majority of Americans see are stereotypical in nature. You go to the grocery store and see plenty of smiling white children on cereal boxes, contrasted with the only readily recognizable Native image--the Land o' Lakes butter girl. In advertising we see plenty of non-Native folks participating in everyday life, and then we get ads like this featuring Native people. There are also hardly any (if any) Native people in current, mainstream television shows. And this carries over even more strongly into Hollywood.
The last big blockbuster series to feature Native characters was the Twilight series, and we are portrayed as wolves. Think of every recent major studio film that featured a Native character or Native actor. All of the ones I can think of off the top of my head were set in a historical context, were a fantasy film, or were offensively stereotype laden. There have been so few accurate, modern, nuanced portrayals of Native people it's not even funny.
So, when we live in a world where there are other, more nuances portrayals of Native people for non-Natives to draw upon--when there are Native people featured in mainstream romantic comedies, dramas, sitcoms, even reality TV, or news--then, maybe, will I be able to be looking forward to a stereotypical mess of a Tonto on the big screen. But I doubt it.
Ryan [McMahon] also said something that resonated with me beyond this issue alone, quoting his grandmother:
Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior--that's the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to "western" values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp's Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the "real" problems in Indian Country) simply doesn't exist in the minds of the dominant culture.
How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, nation building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations? I argue that we can't--and that, to me, is why Tonto matters.
Let's reiterate the key point:
But mascots and similar images comprise the vast majority of what Americans see when they see Indians. These stereotypical images control and determine what Americans believe about Indians. It's a form of brainwashing--and I suspect movies and television are the most effective brainwashing tools ever invented.
The same applies to "jokes" about Indians, hipsters dressed like Indians, New Agers and wannabes pretending to be Indians, etc. All these things generate false impressions in people's minds. We think Indians are primitive people of the past because our culture and media tell us so.
The problem is simple and so is the solution. The beliefs won't change until the images that create the beliefs change. That's why Tonto and Indian mascots and hipster headdresses matter.
For more on the subject, see Tonto as a "Spirit Warrior," Johnny Depp in a Crow Headdress, and Sources for Depp's Crow Headdress.