July 16, 2012

Blogger attacked for criticizing Depp

Adrienne Keene reports on some incredible blowback she received after writing about Johnny Depp as Tonto in her Native Appropriations blog:

Real Indians Don't Care About Tonto[L]et's notice that all of my posts focus on either 1) the choice of Johnny Depp to play Tonto 2) the costume and character choices Johnny made for his role, based on Johnny's own words, and 3) What "Tonto" means on a larger level in terms of representations, stereotypes, and our future as Native peoples. I said nothing about the Native actors in the films, nothing about the Native involvement in the film, I just talked about Johnny Depp. A public figure, who, as such, is open to criticism and questioning.

This is where things get interesting. In the comments on the post, I received a comment from actor Saginaw Grant, wishing to speak to the "author of this blog." I emailed him at the address he provided, and set up a time to talk with him, his publicist, and his personal assistant via phone. In hindsight, I'm not sure why I said yes, but I was also curious to hear Saginaw's thoughts, since he has a role in the film.

Fast forward to the phone conversation. I spent 2.5 hours on the phone being berated for my coverage of Tonto. Saginaw told me over and over again that the "Indian way" was "not to criticize" and that if I did so, I had "no right to call [myself] an Indian." I was told that "everything you know, you learned in books" and that all my degrees were just "pieces of paper." I was told I was being disrespectful to all of the Indian actors on the film, as well as the broader Indian community, and that if I continued to write, no producer would hire Indian actors ever again because they would want to avoid the "controversy," so I was hurting all Indian actors chances of working in Hollywood. They went on, and on, and on with all of the ways I had apparently messed up.

His team had written down tweets and quotes from my blog, read them back to me, and forced me to defend myself. I was in a horrible position, because if I defended myself and stood by my words, I would have been perceived as being "disrespectful" towards a "respected elder," so instead I avoided directly addressing their questions, to which I was called "evasive" and therefore, "disrespectful." I was so polite and tried to show the utmost respect, though I was shown none in return. I sat there, for over two hours, and listened as my identity was questioned and my writing torn apart. I listened carefully, because I know I'm wrong all the time--and if I was wrong about this, I wanted to know. But instead, the only message I heard was that I was not Indian if I dared question this film. At one point, after about the twelfth time I was told I had "no right to call [my]self an Indian"--I broke down and said (in Cherokee), "I'm Cherokee, not a white person." I didn't know how else to defend myself.
The attacks on Adrienne continued when she mentioned Depp again in passing:The "bird on their head" linked back to one of my Depp posts. To which I received the comment from Saginaw's assistant, Andrea:I guess your privilege of hearing Saginaw Grant's words of wisdom were not taken as advice, just words. I am witness to the conversation because the conversation was a conference three way, your words were that you were going to refrain from the movie in it's entirety. You speak with fork tongue and you wonder why you receive negative and/or hate mail from many of the people. As I said, you are inciting animosity amongst people who don't know better. You told Saginaw that you had much respect for him, well, that was untruth on your part and we are disappointed and furthermore, you do not speak a few words you have learned in Cherokee to a person who is Sac/Fox. Only his publicist new what you were talking about. Shame on you.Readers respond

Fortunately, disapproval of these attacks was swift and sure. Some of the many comments on Adrienne's blog:shantique

Where is the respect for the younger generation? To say that you are a "young one" is to try to discredit you and your opinions with ageism. I understand respecting our elders, but my elders have always shown me respect too. A good elder knows that us young ones will one day be elders our selves. They should be leading by example and showing the way. Raising us up, so that we may stand on their shoulders. Not tearing down those who speak out.

I'm deeply disappointed that Saginaw and co. can't seem to take any sort of criticism (even indirectly) regarding a project that they are working on. Criticism does not diminish their work nor Saginaw's role in this film or any other film but it raises the public's awareness so that they may ask questions such as "Is this respectful? Why? Why not?"


"Why does Johnny get a free pass?"

Honestly, I'd say it's an issue of privilege. Not only is Depp famous, but he's a man (and a rich, and powerful-thanks-to-that-wealth-and-fame one at that). There's undoubtedly sexism involved in telling a woman that her voice is inherently less meaningful than that of men, especially a man with so obviously less knowledge and experience on the subject than the woman. I'm not interested in playing culture wars with anyone, mapping out genealogy and cultural heritage, but Depp's [own] words showed that--at the very least, until taking this role--he is/was largely ignorant to Native culture. Dismissing your knowledge on the subject just seems...ridiculous.


I was thinking along similar lines, both with regards to Depp and Saginaw. Their actions reek of privilege and entitlement.

In Depp's case, his choices reek of white privilege, in first of all feeling comfortable claiming Native ancestry (certainly possible in any USian born person) as justifying and legitimating his taking on this role and forming it around his imagination; that he (apparently) did not feel that in depth research into either his heritage (so he knows what nation that heritage even comes from!) or cultural accuracy in his portrayal of Tonto or into the politics of representing an iconic (for all the wrong reasons) Native character on screen was at all necessary.... Who but a white person could feel so entitled?

In Saginaw's case... Well... His actions speak of someone who is used to power and is comfortable exercising it over others. Even the best of men sometimes fall prey to this behavior, in my experience and observation, and the class-privileged (of all genders) are often just as bad. The point is, how fucking entitled is it to think it's ok to call someone up and berate them for speaking out in a way that he doesn't like? To question their identity and talk down to them in this way, BECAUSE OF A DISAGREEMENT? I mean really... And then to keep an eye on them the way he and his assistants have done? To harass Adrienne when she steps a toe out of line (in their view)? Who but a man could feel so entitled?

I can only shake my head at this, and I want to encourage you, Adrienne to stay true to who you are and what you're doing.


What's with all the "you are too young and inexpierenced" and "not a real Indian(tm)" BS? Classic dismissal of argument and only one step above outright ad hominem. These people may have had a point, but engaging in hurtful, dismissive and downright abusive behaviour (stalking your blog, questioning your identity, trying to frighten/shame you into silence) makes it hard to take anything they say seriously--what point could they have if they don't even grasp basic human dignity and respect?


There's a big difference between and ELDER and an OLD PERSON. I too was taught from a very young age to never question or say no to an elder. All in the name of respect.

I recently learned this valuable lesson in the past year of how to recognize this difference and now know that I don't have to give my respect to anyone that has not earned it. Elder is a title that is earned. It is not an automatic membership you get when you reach a certain age.

Most importantly, elders do not shame youth!


Keep blogging. By the way, it is a crime that people will use the "respect" argument to shut people up. We are our own worst colonial bullies. We tear down each other for the colour of skin. Where we live. What our education is. We don't take the time to lift each other up. To see our value. Instead we dig into a position and dig and dig with no way of looking at anything else but the dirt. I have been blogging for about 3 years and cover some of the identity topics as well. It is your thoughts and your attempt to get people to actually Look, that upsets people. The Native actor, Saginaw, is in the movie. He does not want to feel like he took part in something that is not good for Indians. Therefore, if someone says something bad about the movie he took part in, they are saying something bad about him (in his mind). No one wants to be part of something bad. So Saginaw is interested in taking care of his investment. He invested himself in the movie. Which is a good thing. But he is now closed to any discussion on the Tonto role.

Beth Z

Frankly, this sounds to me like Hollywood recognizing that they have a big PR problem and simply trying to bully you into silence to keep the problem from getting out of hand and attracting further attention. The people in charge of this film may or may not be familiar with the whole casting debacle that surrounded "The Last Airbender." If they are, though, they'll know how much focus that movie gained as example of what's wrong with Hollywood's treatment of race. I'm sure to them this debate looks like it has the potential to become even more widespread, especially as the movie features Johnny Depp and thus will inevitably make money even if the movie is completely awful. They're trying to shut you down so the film can make buckets of money without anyone learning anything.

Sloane Cornelius

If I were Saginaw, I would be ashamed. This is something extremely, and unfortunately, pervasive in Indian Country -- the idea that you should, never could, never will, and never shall question an "Elder." Even if the "Elder" is someone who is taking advantage of their communities and using their culture as a shield. And whenever you bring it up then people just BLOW a gasket and say that YOU'RE the one being offensive because how dare you call into question a human being's ideas. They don't mean a human's ideas, they mean their ideas. How dare you diminish their ideas, and in front of people too. It's a distraction tactic that they're unconsciously deploying of what I can only assume is guilt at being a part of something that they know is both not right and not good for their people. The idea that you should never question an Elder is so offensive and stops Native communities from making a lot of progress that we should. How can we change and grow as a people without questioning each other in a proactive, constructive way? Elders that have earned that title understand that, one would hope. From the handful of Elders that I know, they are so humble and understanding that I can't ever imagine having a problem questioning their ideas or bringing up my concerns.

Oh, and, "You speak with a forked tongue?" I don't know any Native (young or old) that speaks like that. Stupid.

T. S.

Wow, so sorry to hear that Saginaw Grant and his staff have taken to cyberbullying you over your thoughts on your blog. I enjoy your work and think a lot of it is spot on. A truly "respected" elder wouldn't attempt to bully someone into silence. I have lost respect for him based on his actions here. Keep speaking out and speaking the truth. Stay strong.
Comment:  Good thing Saginaw's people didn't try to call and harangue me because of my criticism. I would've kicked their butts all over the map if they had.

I added my two cents' worth to this chain of comments. Everyone knows what I think about Johnny Depp as Tonto, so you can imagine what I said.

I've received similar comments from Saginaw's people when I posted about Tonto on Facebook. And when I criticized Saginaw's "Uncle Tomahawk" role in the Cowboys & Findians episode of The Dudesons. So if Andrea and company claim they didn't say these things, don't believe them.

For more on the subject, see Comanche Filmmaker Criticizes Depp and Depp's Intent Doesn't Excuse Stereotypes.


dmarks said...

"Saginaw told me over and over again that the "Indian way" was "not to criticize" and that if I did so, I had "no right to call [myself] an Indian."

Wow. So many things wrong with that statement. Starting with the fact that there are many diverse views that are different "Indian" ways.

And that Saginaw is basically demanding that Natives (or others?) be like actual Uncle Toms and go quietly, and not complain or raise their voice about anything.

Have I covered it? I'm sure there's something else pretty bad here that I've missed.

Not everything is kosher from the other side, though. "Whats" said: "Who but a man could feel so entitled?"

That is sexism, and as bad as anything Grant said.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Who the heck is Saginaw grant and who cares? I don't buy into this respect for elders crap either. Are these the same elders that sold out lands, cultures and ceremony to anthropologists while their grand kids become alcoholics and pass them up on highways? If your tribal chairman is corrupt or your grandparents hang out at the casino, where do the young matter?

You have a right to your opinions, right or wrong, otherwise, freedom is for certain age groups, races, etc,.

I met jay silver heels once, but I never saw him as tonto, only an aging man. Depp knows this role was gonna turn heads for him, but just the same, it has stirred debate inside and outside of Indian country, and I think it's about time.

Rob said...

For more on the subject, see:


Thank you, and moving forward

Dear Family, Friends, and Supporters of Native Appropriations,

I am beyond humbled at the outpouring of support and praise I received after my last post. I am so grateful for your kind and powerful comments, tweets, emails, and phone calls--and it was so unexpected.

I wrote the post not thinking anyone was going to read the nearly 4000 word behemoth, and really just needed to put it all on paper to be able to move forward and write again without feeling silenced or worried. So I was a bit taken aback at the response, but I feel so very loved and supported, so thank you, truly.

As always, I want to clarify and reiterate some things before they get out of hand. If you read my words, you'll notice I don't attack any of the parties involved, I simply reported on the events that occurred, and quoted from publicly available comment streams, while saying how they made me feel. None of my original posts on Tonto and/or Depp mention, or even refer, to Indian actors in the film, nor do they even attack Depp. I questioned his choices, his words, and his mis-match between intent and action, but never him as a person. That's why all of these words against me felt so out of place and even more hurtful.