By Gale Courey Toensing
I have an Arab nephew who’s a struggling young actor in Toronto and he’s always being offered terrorist roles, which he turns down because he doesn’t want to support the stereotype. Have you experienced anything like that as an Indian actor?
I think you have to have a certain amount of integrity as a person and as an actor and sometimes those two things in some people’s’ minds clash. In my mind they never clash. I’ve always been true to who I am as an individual way before taking on a role. I’ve always followed my own philosophy that I’m an Indian first and an actor second. My people have always come first before any role I’ve ever played. There are many roles in my 35-year history that I’ve turned down [including Blazing Saddles --Ed.] because they were demeaning, degrading or spoke badly about our people. And my frustration throughout my 35 year career has been that for every role I’ve turned down there were ten Indians waiting in line chomping at the bit to take the role and that included, for example, a role that depicted a decapitation of someone in a sweat lodge! When you think about the mind of Hollywood -- Hollywood has no mind. Its only interest has been and always will be all about money.
What is your take in general on non Indians playing Indians in the movies?
The actor’s mantra is you should be able to play any role and get yourself into it whether it’s an alien or human or whatever. But looking at it from an Indian perspective, Hollywood has a deep rooted history from the time the kinetoscope was invented by Thomas Edison to use our images, tell our stories, and reconfigure our history and it created the Indian villain in the whole scenario of filmmaking. So the Indian has really been the victim of Hollywood’s creation--we had no choice about that. And back in the early days there weren’t many trained Indian actors so it was much easier for Hollywood to spray paint Rock Hudson--like the tanning salons do now--to make him look darker. So many stars that were under contract to studios in those days actually made a living portraying Native peoples. Iron Eyes Cody built a career based on playing Indians and he was not an Indian. I can quote you 20-30 famous actors who played Indian roles at that time and probably only a handful of Indians. Hollywood created the image of the Indian and allowed anybody to play him.
What do you think about the controversy over Johnny Depp playing Tonto in Disney’s new Lone Ranger flick?
So, fast forward to today and Johnny Depp--as I said, there’s nothing new about Hollywood painting up a white person to play an Indian. Johnny Depp is for sale as an actor and the essence of what he’s doing in this movie is trying to sell himself as an Indian and make it believable. Is it wrong for him to do that? Well, it’s wrong on different facets. What my organization, American Indians in Film and Television, has tried to do in 35 years of existence is provide jobs and open doors for Native people in this industry. So when a Johnny Depp or anyone else who’s not Native takes a job as an Indian and gets painted like an Indian, we believe he’s depriving a real Indian of a job. The second thing is when it comes to the director or the producers saying, “We’re going to cut this guy’s head off in the sweat lodge,” the non Indian will say, “Yeah, I don’t see anything wrong with that, go for it!” While an Indian would say, “Wait a minute, guys, that’s not really cool or according to our beliefs and practices.”
Below: "SPOT THE INDIAN! Clockwise from top left: Sonny Skyhawk, Sicangu Lakota; Rock Hudson in 'Winchester '73', Johnny Depp in 'The Lone Ranger', and Italian-American actor Iron Eyes Cody."