July 12, 2013

Shawnee professor justifies Tonto's stereotypes

Here's an article that's been reprinted a few placed. Because it purports to be culturally accurate, it's worth going through line by line.

History vs. Hollywood: Does 'The Lone Ranger' Accurately Represent Native Americans?

UC Professor and Native American expert Ken Tankersley offers his take on Tonto in the new Disney movie.

By Allison Stigler
The Lone Ranger and his trusty Native American sidekick Tonto are racing across film screens this week. Starring Johnny Depp, the movie adaptation of the old TV and radio shows is a box office hit, but does the film accurately portray American Indians?

Actually, yes. Several details in the movie realistically captured Native American customs, traditions and dress, according to University of Cincinnati's Native American expert Kenneth Tankersley, a Piqua Shawnee and an anthropology professor for the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.
Whatever a Piqua Shawnee is, it's not a federally recognized tribe. Not that it necessarily matters, but it makes you wonder.

Oh, here it is:

Welcome to the home of the Piqua ShawneeWelcome to the Piqua Shawnee website. Our tribe has approximately 300 members, and is a recognized tribe by the State of Alabama.So Tankersley is an Alabama "Indian" who works in Ohio? He's about as far removed from Tonto's Comanches as I am, and about as qualified to talk about them.

Back to the article:After watching the film during its opening week, he declared the movie to be a “quantum leap” over other many previous film and television depictions. “They did a really good job.”

Tankersley noted that, although not a “card carrying” member of a Native American tribe, Depp does have Native American ancestry. “He is from Kentucky and Melungeon by ancestry.

“Melungeons were Sephardic Jews and Muslims, escaping to religious freedom in the New World. When they arrived, they married into the Native American community.”
Did Tankersley study Depp's family tree and find a Melungeon ancestor? Being from Kentucky doesn't necessarily mean Depp is Melungeon, much less Native.To prepare for the role, Depp immersed himself in the Native American culture. He listened to stories from descendants of Quanah Parker, a dominant figure in the Comanche tribe, and was adopted into the tribe by LA Donna Harris, a Comanche social activist.That's the first we've heard of Depp's reading about Quanah Parker. If it's true, it doesn't show in his performance, according to all the reports.

It's LaDonna, not "LA Donna." She adopted Depp into her family, not the tribe. And being adopted after the movie was done doesn't make Tonto any more authentic.With the exception of Tonto speaking pidgin English, the film employed authentic Native American details, many of which could be missed by the casual viewer, Tankersley said. Below are some he noticed. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)With the exception of perhaps the biggest flaw, Depp's portrayal isn't flawed? Wow, thanks for that unqualified endorsement.

Professor gets schooled

Let's examine Tankersley's claims one by one:Tonto drops corn on the ground and appears to feed it to the dead raven he uses as a headdress. Tankersley said this is actually a blessing, because corn is sacred.Did the movie explicitly call the act a blessing? Did it call the foodstuff corn? Because every review that mentioned the foodstuff labeled it birdseed, not corn.The raven is a symbolic messenger in both Native American culture and the film to signify impending events. Tonto’s raven headdress comes from a painting Depp saw that depicted a warrior.Weak reference to "Native American culture," not Comanche culture. Not true of many Native cultures. And the headdress came from a white man's fantasy painting, which means it's false and stereotypical.A few Native American practices were borrowed from other tribes including the windigo, an evil cannibal spirit that is the villain in the movie. The windigo comes from Algonquian mythology, rather than the Comanche tribe."Borrowed" = stupidly and wrongly misappropriated. Mixing of Native cultures = false and stereotypical because it implies all Natives are the same.

To give you an idea how far off this is, would you borrow centaurs or Medusa for a story about Norse mythology? Greek is to Norse as Algonquian is to Comanche.Tonto frequently calls the Lone Ranger "kemo sabe." The word is from the Potowatomi language and means “friend,” according to Tankersley.Actually, the origin of "kemosabe" is unknown. The best guess is that it comes from a camp's name that may or may not be a corruption of an Ojibwe word.

In the old Lone Ranger series, what did "kemosabe" mean?

And we should give the movie credit for repeating a 75-year-old concept from the original radio show? Big freakin' deal.The Spirit Horse (which the Lone Ranger rides) is white, symbolic of the Spirit of the North Wind, which provides guidance and wisdom of the ancestors.Why would the Comanche care about some northern wind thousands of miles away? Sounds like more generic Indian nonsense, at best. Since Tankersley didn't even attribute it to generic Indians this time, he may have made it up.Tonto remains in face paint through most of the film. Typically, Native Americans donned the paint only during ceremonies. Because Tonto felt threatened by the windigo through much of the movie, the paint served as a mask to protect him from the evil windigo spirits. The paint does not appear in scenes that took place after the threat was eliminated.More generic Indian nonsense. Not applicable to Tonto since he's supposed to be Comanche, not Algonquian. And did the movie state this, or is Tankersley making it up again, like the "spirit horse"?

Breastplate and feathersTonto’s costume includes a typical Comanche breastplate. Filmmakers took artistic license with its color and composition (they typically were white bone or shell, but Tonto’s is black water buffalo horn).It's a "typical Comanche breastplate" except for its color and composition? What's the typical part? And water buffalo are found only in Asia, not America.Tankersley also noted that the Comanche actors wore real eagle feathers, while the non-Native American characters donned painted turkey feathers, since only Native Americans are permitted to have eagle feathers.Again, did the movie state this? If not, how does he know?

Even if true, it's a trivial detail that no one--not even a Native reviewer--has noticed. That makes it irrelevant.Tankersley hopes the film’s portrayal of Tonto will spur more accurate depictions of Native Americans in future movies and will help Native American children take pride in their heritage.Yes, let's hope future portrayals are better than this false and stereotypical portrayal.

Every one of Tankersley's points is either wrong, misleading, unsubstantiated, or unimportant. If I were grading his review, I'd give it a C or C- at most.

For more on Johnny Depp and Tonto, see Depp Justifies Tonto's Stereotypes and Comanche Chairman Justifies Tonto's Stereotypes.

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