June 10, 2013

Comanche chairman justifies Tonto's stereotypes

Comanche chairman Wallace Coffey provides more details on Comanche culture--more than we've heard from Voelker the Lone Ranger adviser:

Special Advance Screening of Disney’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ To Be Held For The Comanche Nation In Oklahoma

By Nancy MaceCommenting on the film, Coffey, who is serving his fifth term as tribal Chairman and is the great-grandson of Comanche leader Chief Ten Bears, says, “This is not a documentary of the Comanche Nation, this is entertainment; but Tonto resembles a true Comanche warrior of the past. The movie is a modern-day portrayal of a period piece, and is a portrayal of how Native Americans may have spoken during that era, when English was their second language” says Coffey.

Coffey explained the significance of the crow on Depp’s head in the movie as reflecting a traditional Comanche dance called the Tuhu Wii, which is translated to the Black Knife. This was an exclusive warrior society, identified by black shawls around the waist, painted faces, and the dance mimicked the crow, which is a symbol of warfare to the Comanche.

“Each warrior painted their face individually as a reflection of their spirituality and visions, and no one warrior painted their face the same,” says Coffey, who has participated in the Tuhu Wii dance by being a Point-Man.
Look who's taking sides against Depp's stereotypes. The Indian who thinks mascots are great and loves to be called "savage." Yes, here's an analysis of Coffey's claims from David Yeagley, the right-wing Comanche nutjob.

Johnny Depp and the Yamparika Comanche Crow Dancers

By David YeagleyCurrent Chairman Wallace Coffee has contributed new information as well, in order to justify the otherwise bizarre and irrelevant costume of Johnny Depp.

Coffey cites a historical raven dance from a not-so-well-known warrior society called tuhu wii (too wee), or “black knife,” or “black raven.” Actually, no such term appeared in the earliest Comanche lexicons. There is only the word for night, “toh-kahn,” but no word for black. The only record known of this Tuhu Wii warrior society is from anthropological references which came to light in 1933. A “Tuhwi-Crow-Raven” dance is mentioned–as belonging exclusively to the Yamparkia Comanche. There is no known description of the dance or of any special attire associated with it. There are no visuals. And there is no word as to date of origins of the dance, either. Comanche society is highly individualistic, full of clans, clubs, groups, societies, as typifies any people of profound autonomy. That Yamparika had at some late point (probably post-reservation), a Crow Dance for veterans, is not indicative of a universal Comanche tradition at all.

What little there is about this matter is contained in William C. Meadows’ Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche Military Societies (University of Texas, 1999), pp.274-294, esp. p.284. There is a bit more detail given also on the matter of Comanche attitude about the crow. However, again, there is no visual description of any special costume worn by the Crow dancers.

The Yamparika Comanche (originally named for the yap root, a potato-like root) were the northern-most group of Comanche, living nearest the old Shoshone borders, and it is said that they maintained the closest ties to the Shoshone. Comanche people were (and still are) quite faddish in various aspects of our culture, trending with the wind, more or less. The crow bit simply had no significance among the rest of the Comanche, however important it may have been, temporarily, among the Yamparika. It is impossible to know much more at this point in history. Sometimes, history is simply lost, forever.

But why bring all this matter up, to justify Johnny Depp’s costume, when he states explicitly that he got his costume–not from the Comanche, but from a fantasy painting by white man artist, Kirby Sattler? His costume has only the most coincidental, and remote relation to anything Comanche. The Raven has all sorts of cultural significance for all kinds of people, all over the world, in all periods of history. Trying to make it Comanche, for the sake of a movie costume chosen to imitate a white man’s fantasy painting seems “far-fetched,” indeed.

Why do Comanche leaders (in this case, Comanche Chairman Wallace Coffey, and non-Comanche funded bird man Bill Voelker) feel they have to make Johnny Depp’s costume a Comanche costume? The Lone Ranger is a fantasy film, and Johnny Depp’s “Comanche” character is a fantasy character, with a fantasy costume. Why is there a need to try an add authenticity to it?

In my opinion, this is not only unnecessary, but possibly denigrating. I can easily see a new trend starting in Comanche land: dancers are going to show up at pow-wows with raven head pieces on top of their heads. Johnny Depp will have started a new trend, all because some Comanches tried to justify his fantasy costume. They tried to say it was authentic, or Comanche-related. Thus, Hollywood will have affected Comanche tradition. The white man will have made a new mark, a new scar, on Indian country–on the most powerful tribe of the southern plains, the Comanche.
I hate to say it, but Yeagley sounds knowledgeable on the subject. And I agree with his opinion of Depp.

It's curious that Yeagley says "Coffee has contributed new information." Because Yeagley acts like he already knew about the Black Knife or Crow Dance. If so, why didn't Yeagley speak up in the last year or so, when Comanches and other Indians were discussing Depp to death?

But let's assume Yeagley knows what he's talking about, for once, and address a few points.

Tonto talk

Note how Coffey justifies Tonto's broken English. Actually, if you speak a newly learned second language, you generally make a lot of mistakes--especially with the more complex parts. You don't speak it perfectly except for an occasional dropped word, like Tonto's pidgin English.

Consider a typical "Tonto phrase": White man speak with forked tongue.

It's been almost 40 years since my last Spanish class, but I can translate that to: El hombre blanco habla con [forked tongue]. Or, El hombre blanco habla como una culebra. [The white man speaks like a snake.]

Obviously I don't remember advanced vocabulary words such as "forked" and "tongue." But simple verb tenses (habla, he speaks) and articles (el, the) are literally the first things you learn on the first day of your first Spanish class. And the last things you forget.

So the problem isn't just that Tonto speaks English badly. It's that he speaks it badly in a way that makes him look ignorant compared to a typical ESL student.

To prove the point, read novels or watch movies about the 19th century. Can you imagine an Irishman saying, "Me like'um drink on St. Paddy's Day"? No. No foreigner or immigrant ever speaks English the way Tonto does.

And so what if you did find an Indian who spoke that way? What's the justification for making Tonto look more ignorant than average? If Depp's Tonto is supposed to be an improvement, then improve him. If you continue to stereotype Indians as uneducated savages, you're guilty as charged.

The "Crow Dance"

You can read more about the Black Knife Society and Dance here:

Comanche waist shawl

Let me reiterate Yeagley's arguments, since I've made them before myself, and add a few:

  • Coffey says the movie is "entertainment" as if it won't affect people's perceptions of Indians like thousands of previous Westerns. If so, then why are he and Voelker defending Depp so vigorously? Simply say that Tonto is a fabrication that bears no resemblance to Comanche culture and we'll leave you alone.

  • A ceremonial outfit worn only during a religious rite is radically different from everyday clothing. Turning a ceremonial outfit into an action-adventure costume is again a sign of disrespect, not respect.

  • Yeagley is wrong about the Meadows book being the only source of information about the dance. I found an article about it in the Boca Raton News (July 25, 1977).

    The key points: 1) The "braves" wear black breechcloths, not crow headdresses, to symbolize a crow. 2) The dance was performed for only the fourth time since 1918.

    So the dance isn't part of and doesn't represent mainstream Comanche culture. It's an obscure practice that may almost be extinct.

    More important, a crow dance isn't the same as a freakin' crow on the head. Neither Coffey nor Voelker has addressed the no. 1 objection to Tonto's costume.

  • It can't be said often enough that Depp got his costume from a white man's fantasy painting. Even if Tonto's costume resembled a Comanche's outfit exactly, it would be a fluke. A freakishly lucky coincidence. It wouldn't prove Depp wanted to honor Indians, it would (continue to) prove the opposite.

    Repeat: Depp invented a phony costume because he couldn't be bothered to research or consult with Indians in advance. In other words, he doesn't respect real Native cultures. Period. No amount of matching the costume to Comanche culture after the fact will change that.

  • For more on Johnny Depp, see Hammer Compares Depp to Scissorhands and Depp Derangement Syndrome.

    Below:  "Johnny Depp is flanked by Comanche Nation Chairman, Wallace Coffey, right, and the First Lady, Debbie."

    1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    Dutch Ethnologist Ten Kate recorded a Comanche Crow or Raven soldier society in 1885 while doing Fieldwork among the Numuunuu people. It coresponds with other Plains peoples crow or raven (owner) soldier societies (Lowie and Wissler). The Blackfeet - Siksika of Montanna and Alberta crow owner society's chief wore (according to Thomas Mails) a complete Raven on the head, It's wings were ornamented with quilled rawhide slats. Since most soldier societies among the Numuunuu were adopted from other plains peoples quite late in the 19th century we should take a look there. Alfred Kroeber depicts a headdress of a complete crow for the Arapaho, a people in close contact with the Numuunuu since the medicine lodge treaty in the late 1860's. It does not make Depp's costume look any better or more "Comanche" but denying that Raven/crow societies existed among the Numuunuu is also bending the truth and Raven headdresses existed on the southern plains. Lighten up ... It's just hollywood, the problem just get's bigger and more visible when more people start spreading half truths about it to make more of it than it actually is.