First, a reminder of what the old Tonto was like:The Release of "The Lone Ranger" is a Good Time to Recall Vine Deloria's Tonto
By Levi Rickert
"Tonto was everything that the white man had always wanted the Indian to be. He was slower, a little dumber, had much less vocabulary, and rode a darker horse… Tonto was a cultureless Indian for Indians and an uncultured Indian for whites. Tonto cemented in the minds of the American public the cherished falsehood that all Indians were basically the same–friendly and stupid. Indeed, the legend grew, not only were the tribes the same, but all Indians could be brought to a state of grace–a reasonable facsimile of the white–by a little understanding."
Johnny Depp's Tonto isn't stupid. But he talks like something's wrong with him. He's apparently touched in the head and not quite rational. He's a fantasy Indian untethered to a particular culture. And he works through a white man rather than taking the lead.
In many ways, he's similar to the old Tonto. The critics agree:
Depp’s Tonto: an upgrade on a stereotype or just an updated stereotype?
By Dan Zak
“The bottom line is that Tonto is probably the only Indian that a lot of Americans are going to meet,” says Theodore Van Alst, who directs Yale College’s Native American Cultural Center and has studied the depiction of Indians in film.
Which is part of the reason that the first “Lone Ranger” publicity photos landed with a thud on the Internet when they were released more than a year ago. The consensus was that Depp’s hair and makeup—inspired by the work of a non-Native painter—were a blend of stereotypes, and creepily derivative of his Captain Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Such images confine Indians to history or the imagination rather than establish them in day-to-day America, says Adrienne Keene, who has written critical pieces about the pre-release publicity of “The Lone Ranger” on her blog Native Appropriations.
“It starts to feel even more like blackface, more like a costume, like masking the race,” says Keene, 27, a Harvard University PhD student who’s researching Natives and the college application process. “Even if the image had been authentic, I think it still would’ve made me uncomfortable. Because then it’s ‘authentic to what’? To what time period? To what community?”
By Mandalit Del Barco
"He could have, had he wanted to, cast himself as the Lone Ranger, and put a qualified, capable Native American actor ... of whom there are quite a few now, in the role of Tonto," says Geiogamah, who used to head UCLA's American Indian Studies program.
Geiogamah doesn't like the way the 2013 Tonto talks. "That sort of monosyllabic stuttering, uttering. Hollywood Indian-speak."
And he doesn't like Tonto's new getup, either. "We've got Johnny Depp with a taxidermied crow on top of his head and painted to the nth degree with paint, and he looks like a gothic freak."
Geiogamah says no authentic Native American goes around wearing war paint outside of ceremonial pow-wows, and certainly not day and night in the Wild West frontier.
"There's no way you can look at this and not say it's odd, unusual, strange, arresting, startling," he says. "It's a major setback for the Native American image in the world because that's how millions of people will think American Indians are now."
In the 1990s, Disney called on Geiogamah as a consultant for its two animated Pocahontas movies. He advised the filmmakers how to authentically present American Indian life in the 17th century, even though the purported romance between Pocahontas and a white settler was pure fiction.
Geiogamah says he is shocked that Disney would turn around and present old cliches again with The Lone Ranger.
"After all these years and all this effort to try to get Hollywood to understand their portrayal of Native Americans, and some real good work having been accomplished, to see it all sort of pushed aside because a big star wants to play Tonto," says Geiogamah, who notes there has not been an organized reaction again the movie yet. "It's kind of [a] resigned, 'Oh well, what can we do about it? Johnny Depp's a big star. At least we got a major star playing an Indian.' That kind of resigned helpless response. ... Further hardening ... the notion that Hollywood just ain't ever going to get it right. The movies are never going to do right by the Indians."
A new film revives The Lone Ranger, but has it eliminated the TV series’ racist undertones?
By Jerry Adler
Although Tonto’s grammar has improved greatly since the “Me go now” dialogue of 60 years ago, Depp still reads his lines in the sententious, wisdom-of-the-elders cadences that Indians call “Tonto-speak.” “He could have treated the Tonto-speak as a joke, like the spirit-talk and the funny hat,” muses Theodore C. Van Alst Jr., director of the Native American Cultural Center at Yale. “In 2013, that could work. But by playing it straight, he gives the impression that Indians really were like that. And I’m afraid that Tonto is the only Indian most Americans will ever see.”
The actor's turn as a Comanche character is another chapter in an ugly racial history, experts say
By Daniel D'Addario
But it was his halting speech that made Tonto such a memorable character—a halting speech pattern that would seem to be only slightly dialed down in the trailer, in which Depp says, “A vision told me, great warrior would help me on my quest” and “You find treasure, you find the man who killed your brother.” In both clauses, a definite article has been sucked into the vacuum produced by an ethnic stereotype. Silverheels’ Tonto “didn’t have power to articulate his point of view in a way that had any eloquence with the viewing public,” said Joanna Hearne, a professor of English at the University of Missouri and the author of “Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western.” “It didn’t reflect the eloquence of indigenous people and it certainly didn’t reflect the knowledge embedded in the language systems of indigenous people.”
As for Silverheels himself, said Hearne: “He was typecast, but he did use his power to work behind the scenes for Indian actors in Hollywood. [...] He helped them with their professional careers, he helped them get on-screen. He helped politicize that work in a productive way.” Depp, for all that he has been adopted by the Comanche tribe (after saying that Indians “have to think, somewhere along the line, I’m the product of some horrific rape. You just have that little sliver in your chemical makeup”), is in fact undoing Silverheels’ advocacy by taking a role away from an Indian actor by playing Tonto.
Controversy surrounds Johnny Depp's portrayal of native sidekick
"Movies where we have 'redface' going on are essentially inappropriate in this day and age. We've come to that conclusion with so many other cultures and races and yet there's an issue in terms of getting over that mountain with First Nations people."
Maybe it overcomes some stereotypes and reinforces others. Which is about what happened in the 1950s and '60s, when portrayals started changing.
Really, how is this Tonto any better? True, his independence and self-motivation are better, but his accent is the same. His costume and animal-talking "spirituality" are worse. Overall, it's roughly a wash.
So we've barely progressed in half a century. With hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal, Depp's Indian is easily surpassed by Chief Dan George in Little Big Man (1970) or Will Sampson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next (1975). Congratulations on giving us a better Indian than the pure savages in Stagecoach (1939) or The Searchers (1956), Johnny. Whoopee.
Tonto the lone stranger
Tonto gets the weird "othering" treatment while the Lone Ranger is handsomely normal. Why not put a bird on the Ranger's head, or put him in clown makeup, as well? Or do something else that's equally strange?
Because Depp's take on Indians is that they're odd and exotic. Unearthly and supernatural. It's the same thing we've seen in countless other stories, where the Indian has shamanic powers. Or is cursed and demonic. Or is linked to beasts, usually wolves (e.g., Twilight).
Therefore, Depp's Tonto isn't just stereotypical. By singling out the Indian for a macabre makeover, Depp's Tonto is racist.
For more on Johnny Depp, see Videos Rip Johnny Depp's Tonto and Depp to Indians: "You're Still Warriors".