May 25, 2012

Jones:  "Depp is an Indian"

Who’s an Indian? Johnny Depp

By Dan JonesWhich brings us to this recent hot-button topic: What’s wrong with Johnny Depp playing an Indian? Nothing now, because he is an American Indian. If the Comanche say it, then it is so. He has received some expert advice on Indians from none other than the political and cultural genius of LaDonna Harris. No one can argue with the fact a tribe has the right to determine who is an Indian. If the Comanche Nation wishes to adopt a space alien, it would not be in any tribe’s interest to criticize. Another tribe would only be limiting their own authority to do the same. From some of his statements, I don’t think Depp really knows enough about us to have come up with this brilliant way of eliminating all the questions about his being Indian. Again I take my hat off to Harris and the Comanche Nation for walking into the middle of what could have been a nasty long-term debate and putting an end to it. Johnny Depp is an Indian.

I really do hope that Depp has a good experience out of all this Lone Ranger business. He can do a lot to help us by shining a light on all kinds of issues in Indian country, and now that he is one of us, he carries the spirit and the responsibility. I think he might have been blown away by all the criticism, but he did ask for it. I was reading some of his interviews and the problem became very apparent—he doesn’t know much about Indians. Not that he has to, he just has to be able to act like an Indian, but check out what he said. Speaking about the painting he took his inspiration from for Tonto said this, “It just so happens, Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top,” Depp revealed. “I thought: Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive.”
Jones eventually notes what's wrong with that:So what is an Indian stereotype? One of the most common is that we are all some kind of mystic or medicine man/woman. We have seen that play out very recently when James Arthur Ray, a man playing a medicine man, killed some people in a sweat lodge. So, inadvertent as it may be, Johnny Depp is playing into the stereotypes of American Indians by playing one as medicine man, Tonto. All this because he really doesn’t know what he is doing, so I suspect it will end up a dark comedy.And just to let you know who Jones is:Dan (SaSuWeh) Jones is the former chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. He is a filmmaker and Vice Chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, appointed by former Oklahoma Governor, Brad Henry.Comment:  Here's how I summarized this op/ed on Facebook and Twitter:

Ponca leader thinks Depp is now a full-fledged Comanche citizen with voting rights, etc. Too bad there's no evidence of it.

Unless the "adoption" makes him a Comanche citizen with voting rights, casino profits, etc., Depp still isn't an Indian.

The key line in Jones's piece is:If the Comanche say it, then it is so.Which is my point. The Comanche tribe hasn't said it--at least not in the published reports.

When the Comanche people, speaking through their duly elected government, declare Johnny Depp to be one of them, I'll concede the point. But LaDonna Harris isn't the Comanche people. As far as I know, she has no authority to make unilateral tribal membership decisions. And the Comanche government hasn't addressed the issue.

Chairman's presence makes it official?

This led to more discussion on Facebook:From what I've read, "In attendance were Comanche Nation Interim Tribal Chairman Johnny Wauqua, AIO’s staff and close family members."

So, leadership was aware....
The chairman's attendance doesn't change the point. I presume he doesn't have the power to unilaterally enroll people either. And no one has said he even participated in Harris's ceremony. It sounds to me like he merely observed it.

"Leadership was aware" means the leadership thought it was nice that Harris was conducting her own personal ceremony and bringing good publicity to the tribe. That's not the same as legally ratifying her adoption and enrolling Depp as a tribal member.

If the entire tribal council attended and had an ad hoc vote to ratify Harris's adoption, then you might have something. As far as I know, that didn't happen.

Enrollment usually happens through a committee that examines a person's genealogy and then votes on whether to accept him or her. Right? As far as I know, most tribes don't allow individuals to bypass this process by hold adoption ceremonies for non-Indians. Or by waving magic wands over them.

In conclusion, Jones is wrong. Until Depp is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation, he isn't an Indian. He's still a white man with a small amount of Indian "blood."

For more on the subject, see The Magical Power of Adoption and Questioning Depp's Comanche Adoption.

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