Johnny Depp, the 'Indian': Is He or Isn't He?
by Angela Aleiss
For his part, Depp told MTV.com that the film is “an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.” The actor has said he hopes to fix years of Indian misrepresentations in Hollywood and has repeatedly stated that his great grandmother had mostly Cherokee blood.
But Native American leaders and educators are not buying it. They question Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage, particularly the studio’s attempt to keep it ambiguous.
“Disney relies upon the ignorance of the public to allow that ambiguity to exist,” says Hanay Geiogamah, Professor of Theater at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware) was a consultant for Disney’s Pocahontas and served as producer and co-producer for TBS’ The Native Americans: Behind the Legends, Beyond the Myths aired in the 1990s.
“If Depp had any legitimate blood of any tribe, Disney would definitely have all the substantial proof of that already. It’s not that hard to establish tribal connections,” Geiogamah says.
Richard Allen, Policy Analyst for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, agrees. He says that many celebrities have claimed Cherokee heritage—often based upon family stories they’ve heard—but like Depp they never try to verify it. “They all tell me they have high cheekbones,” Allen says.
Geiogomah believes that because so few roles in Hollywood go to Native American actors, Disney’s big-budget movie is a “missed opportunity.” Depp could have played the Lone Ranger and instead promoted a younger Indian actor to play Tonto, he points out. After all, Canadian Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels portrayed the character in the 1950s TV series.
“Now they re-introduce Tonto with a non-Indian. So can you call that progress?” Geiogamah asks.
And if he identified ancestors who weren't clearly white or Indian, he could take a DNA test. That alone would tell us what percent Native he is.
Of course, Depp may have pursued these investigations privately. He may already know how Native he is.
The fact that he could determine and release his ancestry but hasn't is suggestive. It suggests he's a white man who wants to identify with his Native "brothers and sisters"--i.e., a wannabe.
If he had some Native ancestry, Disney certainly would want to reveal it to mute the criticism. And if he doesn't, Disney certainly would want to keep it a secret. Because critics would lambaste Depp if they knew he wasn't Native at all.
What's funny is how Depp claims to be honoring his Native side. You know, the one he can't or won't identify.
He shows his "respect" by remaining ignorant about his ancestors and (presumably) their history and culture. By getting a tattoo of a Plains chief. And by fabricating an imaginary Indian from a white man's painting.
Another revealing poster
The tomahawk in the Japanese image reinforces the notion that Tonto is a savage warrior. Which is the main message of the facepaint and bird on the head, of course.
These are strange, exotic things that only a strange, exotic person would do. So Indians and their barbaric customs are far outside the bounds of normality--outside the realm of reality, even.
Depp has confirmed this in several ways. For instance, by making Tonto a generic warrior, and by naming his band Tonto's Giant Nuts. Judging by the trailers, Tonto probably doesn't act savagely, but I doubt he has a huge skill set. This Tonto is all about the primitiveness and strangeness--down to his crude understanding of English.
Good luck getting a person like that elected president or appointed to the Supreme Court. It would be like electing a clown, pirate, caveman, elf, or Jedi Knight. No one would take such a person seriously because they're a cartoon-like character by definition.
That's the real-world harm of a caricature like Depp's Tonto.
P.S. The author is an acquaintance who consulted with me while writing this article.
For more on Johnny Depp, see Skyhawk: Depp Is a Charlatan and Comanche Chairman Justifies Tonto's Stereotypes.