March 16, 2012

Why Tonto matters

I've explained why stereotypes matter about a thousand times, but Adrienne Keene does an excellent job of it in her latest Native Appropriations post:

Why Tonto MattersHere's the thing. Yeah, Tonto is a fictional character, and there are plenty of white actors and actresses who play fictional characters, and we don't automatically assume that white people are fictional, so it shouldn't matter, right? We saw Natalie Portman as an evil-crazy-swan-human in the Black Swan, and we don't assume that Natalie Portman's character is representative of her, or all white people, in real life. But that, my friend, is white privilege at work. Everyday we see millions of representations of white people in varied and diverse roles. We see white actors as "real" people, as "fantasy" characters, and everything in between.

But for Native people, the only images that the vast, vast majority of Americans see are stereotypical in nature. You go to the grocery store and see plenty of smiling white children on cereal boxes, contrasted with the only readily recognizable Native image--the Land o' Lakes butter girl. In advertising we see plenty of non-Native folks participating in everyday life, and then we get ads like this featuring Native people. There are also hardly any (if any) Native people in current, mainstream television shows. And this carries over even more strongly into Hollywood.

The last big blockbuster series to feature Native characters was the Twilight series, and we are portrayed as wolves. Think of every recent major studio film that featured a Native character or Native actor. All of the ones I can think of off the top of my head were set in a historical context, were a fantasy film, or were offensively stereotype laden. There have been so few accurate, modern, nuanced portrayals of Native people it's not even funny.

So, when we live in a world where there are other, more nuances portrayals of Native people for non-Natives to draw upon--when there are Native people featured in mainstream romantic comedies, dramas, sitcoms, even reality TV, or news--then, maybe, will I be able to be looking forward to a stereotypical mess of a Tonto on the big screen. But I doubt it.
And:There are several sub-arguments that I've seen in the last few days, citing how many Native actors would miss out on work as extras if this movie weren't made, or how Johnny Depp's "star power" was needed to get the film made in the first place. Those arguments are upsetting to me. We need to demand more. We can't be complacent with just going to that "excited-happy-place" every time we see any representation of an Indian on screen. We can't be thankful that 50 Native actors are able to ride around bareback in the background of a film, or be psyched that a big name Hollywood actor put a crow on his head to "honor" us--talk about ongoing colonization of the mind. Our community is so much better than that. We are worth so much more than background roles and misrepresentations.

Ryan [McMahon] also said something that resonated with me beyond this issue alone, quoting his grandmother:Everything you do, grandson, is going to be political because you’re Anishinabe.The way we represent ourselves is, therefore, inherently political. These "trivial" issues are representative of deeper, darker, larger issues within Indian Country. For those who live in predominantly Native communities, fighting against cultural appropriation and misrepresentation may seem like the cause of a privileged few who can sit in their ivory towers and point fingers all day, ignoring the "real" issues in Indian Country. I've said it many times before, and I'll say it as many times as I can until it sticks:

Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior--that's the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to "western" values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp's Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the "real" problems in Indian Country) simply doesn't exist in the minds of the dominant culture.

How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, nation building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations? I argue that we can't--and that, to me, is why Tonto matters.
Comment:  Bingo! Excellent job, Adrienne.

Let's reiterate the key point:How can we expect mainstream support [when] 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations?These arguments are relevant to most stereotyping issues. Take Indian mascots, for instance. If they comprised only one or two of every 100 Native images in the media, no one would pay them much attention. They'd be like the Fighting Irish or the leprechauns on St. Patrick's Day: almost irrelevant compared to the politicians, executives, actors, and other famous people who are Irish.

But mascots and similar images comprise the vast majority of what Americans see when they see Indians. These stereotypical images control and determine what Americans believe about Indians. It's a form of brainwashing--and I suspect movies and television are the most effective brainwashing tools ever invented.

The same applies to "jokes" about Indians, hipsters dressed like Indians, New Agers and wannabes pretending to be Indians, etc. All these things generate false impressions in people's minds. We think Indians are primitive people of the past because our culture and media tell us so.

The problem is simple and so is the solution. The beliefs won't change until the images that create the beliefs change. That's why Tonto and Indian mascots and hipster headdresses matter.

For more on the subject, see Tonto as a "Spirit Warrior," Johnny Depp in a Crow Headdress, and Sources for Depp's Crow Headdress.


Anonymous said...

At some point in the 20th century, white people decided rather quickly that Indians were either 1) random four-bit mooks (Seriously, the old Westerns show Indians behaving exactly like the enemies in Tempest.) or 2) magical fantasy creatures. A third option, people getting rich off casinos and oil money, wsa offered by Ronald Reagan in the 80s, because Reagan, well, Reagan was, ah, "special". (Probably too many advanced glycation end-products from all those jellybeans.)

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting if people interpreted every one of Natalie Portman's roles as being indicative of Israelis. Padmé especially. (Considering Sand People are basically Space Indians dressed like Bedouins.)

However, she was also in V for Vendetta, which lets me express my issue with right-wingers while alliterating: Verily, in my view, I doubt the vague veracity of villains of the vox populi vis-a-vis veterans of verification. How it vexes me, the venom of these virulent vermin against venial vice, a vendetta, held as a votive, where the only valid verdict is vengaence; versus these men, one must remain vigilant.

(That, and you've never wanted a Guy Fawkes mask as much as the day Tunisia was taken down.)