By Aura Bogado
Tonto action figures are already being sold as “Native American warrior spirit” caricatures. The Lego Corporation is pushing its “Comanche Camp” toys. And Subway is hawking plastic soft drink containers with Tonto snapshots that guarantee the image, which is offensive to so many Natives and non-Natives alike, will live on in consumers’ kitchens for years to come. While “The Lone Ranger” film will come and go in theaters, and perhaps to be revived on DVD and in film awards, corporate promo deals will sustain the Tonto image for years to come—and will make millions off of retailing Native stereotypes while doing so.
But it’s not just corporations that stand to make serious profit from the film. Just last week, Jezebel touted a $2,000 Lone Ranger belt created by an “actual Native American designer.” Racked, meanwhile, reported on the same designer, stating that a “Native American chief” made the accessories. A project that features Native artisans would be a great thing (notwithstanding the problematic nature of dissolving all Natives into “chiefs”). Except the artist in question, called Gabriel Good Buffalo, is not a “chief,” as Racked wrote. He’s not “Lakota Sioux,” as Jezebel wrote, either. In fact, Gabriel Good Buffalo is not even Native. Rather, he’s a striking example of how the burgeoning market for Native appropriation and branding operates.
It might be easy to confuse Good Buffalo for a Native. The last name he uses is not uncommon among certain Natives. And his own website features “Cheyenne War Shield Yell” and “Sioux Turtle Clan” designs. In an email, Good Buffalo claimed that Will Leather Goods, the company that originally marketed him as a “Native American chief” did so without his knowledge. He said the company had informed him it would change that on its website (as of publication, it has not, and a phone call to the company store was answered by a clerk who explained that Good Buffalo is a “prestigious Native American craftsman.”).
Comment: This article ends up focusing on "Good Buffalo" the Indian wannabe. But the main point is in the first two paragraphs. Even if the movie tanks, we'll be seeing LEGO sets and Halloween costumes for years to come.
And unlike the movie, whose fictional aspects may or may not be obvious, there's no context for the ancillary products. Children will assume they're authentic--especially since Depp and company have assured us of their authenticity.
Heck, even adults have swallowed the bilge that because Depp may have Cherokee blood, or was adopted by a Comanche family, Tonto must be okay. How are children supposed to know any better? If you think a child can tell a phony Indian from a real one, you're living in a fantasy world much like The Lone Ranger's.
For more on Johnny Depp, see Critics Agree: Lone Ranger Is Bad and New Tonto as Racist as Old Tonto.