Disney's Tonto Offensive To Some In Upcoming 'Lone Ranger' Film
By Felicia Fonseca
Depp took the image to the film's Comanche adviser, William "Two-Raven" Voelker, to ask if it was far-fetched. His answer: It's not.
"There are a lot of people out there screaming who are not Comanche, as in this story Tonto is supposed to be," Voelker said. "They know nothing of bird culture. When we wear or use those feathers, we're calling on the energy of the entire bird."
Depp's elaborate costumes–as seen in "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Edward Scissorhands"–are nothing new. Voelker said he never would have agreed to be a consultant on the movie had he not been assured the production team would be sensitive to American Indian culture and committed to at least some historical accuracy.
The teepees used in the movies, for example, have four poles to reflect the way the Comanche built them, not three more commonly seen in movies and that trace back to Cheyenne and Sioux tribes. The production also visited Oklahoma to hear the Comanche language being spoken and worked with Voelker and others to give Depp Comanche lines in the movie.
It's astonishing if you think about it. Kirby Sattler didn't know he was painting an authentic Comanche years ago. And Depp didn't know he was basing Tonto on an authentic Comanche when he chose the painting as his source.
And yet, both Sattler and Depp got it exactly right, according to the movie's Comanche adviser. Whose paycheck and reputation aren't at all dependent on his unbiased and professional opinion of the multimillion-dollar movie.
What are the odds that both Sattler and Depp would choose the one look out of a thousand that happens to represent the Comanche? It's almost literally a million-to-one shot.
Indeed, I'd say it qualifies as a miracle. Does Pope Francis know about this?!
When I originally wrote about Depp's costume, I looked up traditional Comanche beliefs to see if there was anything about crow- or raven-heads. I didn't find any mention of birds. So I look forward to learning more about the Comanche bird culture.
Saying Tonto exemplifies "Comanche bird culture" doesn't address whether the costume is authentic or not. It's a classic non-answer answer.
It's like asking Dan Snyder, "Do you understand that many Indians consider 'Redskins' offensive?" And his answering, "We consider it a symbol of pride."
Same with Voelker's claim about "when we wear or use those feathers." For starters, which feathers? Eagle feathers, which are held sacred by most tribes, are radically different from crow feathers, which aren't held sacred by any tribe I know of.
More to the point, "wearing" or "using" feathers is radically different from wearing an entire bird on your head. Until Voelker proves that a crow-headed headdress is part of Comanche culture, he's confusing two unrelated things. Indians aren't challenging the Comanche use of feathers, they're challenging the ridiculous bird on the head.
Who is William Voelker?
Some info on this Comanche adviser:
Comanche repository seeks funds for preservation
By Dana Attocknie
The Sia Essential Species Repository is searching for funds to keep alive its mission of Comanche “preservation through cultural understanding of the eagle in history, science and spirit.”
“All of it is focused on the avian side of our history, the bird cultures,” Sia Founder and Director William Voelker said. “Although eagles are of primary importance, we address our relationship historically with all avian species.”
Sia, the Comanche word for feather, took flight in 1999 when the CNEOI was incorporated under the Comanche Nation as a tribal program.
Although Sia does not rehabilitate birds, it accepts birds that have been rehabilitated and provides a home for them if they can’t be released into the wild.
“We have eagles here from five continents. We feel a strong responsibility to assist with endangered eagles worldwide,” Voelker said
Proud member of the Ohnononuh band of the Numunuh (Comanche). Co-founded Sia in 1999 based on three decades of research and experience with native eagles and raptors of historic cultural significance to the Numunuh. Mr. Voelker is the first Native American to hold federal permits for the care and propagation of Bald and Golden Eagles and the only individual to have successfully produced offspring of both species in captivity via artificial insemination. Three hundred native eagles, most of which were released to the wild, have been hatched in captivity since 1975, one of which was the world's first Bald Eagle produced via artificial insemination in 1982. Expertise involves more than 20 eagle species from five continents as well as the ethno-ornithology of the indigenous cultures of each non-native species of eagle. Mr. Voelker also serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Comanche Nation NAGPRA & Historic Preservation Programs.
Oddly, there are no mentions of Voelker's "Two-Raven" nickname anywhere. Indeed, there are no mentions whatsoever of ravens or crows. Just eagles and other raptors.
Sia has archives containing 24,000 pages of historical documents related to the Comanche, plus historical photos. Surely Voelker and Harris could share some information about the Comanche practice of wearing birds on their heads. No?
Skeptical about Voelker
The Voelker quote led to a discussion on Facebook:
Sounds to me like Voelker's answer is a little shifty. Like, "We love birds, but I'm not gonna tell you which one. If you infer that it's a crow rather than an eagle, that's your problem. I didn't explicitly lie."
The tipis and a few Comanche words may be accurate, but the costume, the broken English, and the use of the woodlands Wendigo are probably inaccurate. That's like a C-/D+ in terms of accuracy. It's not something to "crow" about...get it?
Sounds to me like they brought in Voelker in the middle and told him they were going to be sensitive and authentic. Instead, they should've brought him in in the beginning and asked him if what they planned was okay.
What's he gonna say after they've sunk $100 million or whatever into the production already? "No, it's all wrong. You have to start over." I might say that, but most people wouldn't.
P.S. Maybe William Voelker became William "Two-Pirate" Voelker when he learned Depp was making the movie. And when he saw the costume, he became William "Two-Raven" Voelker.
If Disney wants to hire Voelker again, he'll change his name to "Two-Mouse" (Mickey and Minnie).
In short, color some of us skeptical about this Comanche adviser and his advice. When he documents the role of ravens and crows--not eagles--in Comanche culture, then we can start taking him seriously.
For more on Johnny Depp, see Depp's Tonto: True or False? and Hammer Says Indians Love Depp.
Below: Bill Voelker.