April 15, 2012

Open letter to Johnny Depp's Tonto

Excerpts of an open letter from a "half-Navajo" to Johnny Depp:

An Open Letter to Johnny Depp's Tonto

By Natanya Ann PulleyDear Johnny Depp’s Tonto,

We are going to have a lot to talk about next year when your Disney movie about the Lone Ranger and Tonto hits. An in-production photo of you has emerged and it makes me nervous. You have a blackbird on your head. Johnny Depp Tonto Blackbird-head. Tsk. That bird might pluck your eyes out, man. The moment it hit my Facebook newsfeed the updates from my friends went nutso. What is this look? Is it genuine? Is Johnny Depp Native American or Native enough? Does he, like so too many others, have a distant Indian princess in his lineage? He’s said his great grandmother is Creek or Cherokee. Creek or Cherokee. He’s not sure which—this Creek-or-Cherokeeness of him amounts to one line on his Wikipedia page. Can casually embracing being part of this-or-that tribe somehow carry us forward?
And:The questions come, and not from just one friend or another, but they resonate—and not up and out of the tribal sands so ancient or from drumming ancestors speaking through time… but just in my bones. You know, like how regular folk wonder things. Why another non-Native playing a Native? It’s not as easy as, “There’s no Native American Johnny Depp.” If you tell me, Johnny Depp Tonto, that there aren’t enough of us, I’ll pluck your eyes out myself. We are here. We are out there. Artists, film writers/directors and actors, poets, authors and musicians. Cashiers. Engineers. Doctors. Etc. We are everywhere, just not on your screen or any screens near you. There could be someone even more sexy-slinky-bitingly-dark-but funny-kinda sweet-and-clever and less glossy-superstar than Johnny Depp. A Native American someone. There really could be. But we might never know.

I’ve also heard (a little birdie said) it’s possible that the movie’s Johnny Depp Tonto character might actually be a white man renegade pretending to be Native to hide from the law. Wouldn’t that be something?
And:But Johnny Depp Tonto, I imagine we won’t have these sorts of conversations by the time your (wait, the Lone Ranger’s) movie hits. And I won’t be able to say “Yeah, at least he gets it” when image after image of a “Native American” person comes across my screen and it’s some stoic-faced brave or nature-fairy or cartoon figure Indian. My Facebook newsfeed shows something different, by the way. You should get one. My NDN friends love to smile. Love to laugh. And swear. And ham it up. And normal. You might be surprised by how many birds (wolves and bears) aren’t in our profile pics. Johnny Depp Tonto, I hope you get to be one of ours. I hope there’s more to you than the starkness of your white and black striped face. I hope you get an itch to step off that big screen and take a space in the world that doesn’t knock us back into shirtless whooping half-animal extras. High hopes.Comment:  Pulley sums up the Depp problem nicely. The actor doesn't know which tribe he's from, and it's one line in his biography. His "Indian-ness" is about as minimal as it gets. Yet people tout him as the Great White Savior of Hollywood Indians--sure to do right by Natives because he's "Native" himself.

If Tonto turns out to be a white man playing an Indian--just like Depp himself--I think people will crucify Depp. I know I will. It would be one of the greatest cases of whitewashing a character in movie history.

For more on Johnny Depp as Tonto, see Why Tonto Matters and Johnny Depp in a Crow Headdress.

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