Or not. Last year the president of the nonprofit group Americans for Indian Opportunity adopted Depp into her family and tribe as a gesture of goodwill. The film’s Comanche consultant endorses the final product. Depp says his great-grandmother was Cherokee, or Creek, or something, and promised to “reinvent” the character of Tonto for 21st-century moviegoers.
So no big deal, right?
Yes and no, says Paul Chaat Smith, associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian and author of “Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong.”
“It’s more important to us than it should be,” he says. “I don’t know what other minority group takes so personally or invests so much of their hopes in a commercial vehicle. I used to think it’s a bad thing and I just wanted us to get over it and say, ‘Christ, it’s just a movie. Have fun or don’t see it or whatever.’ But it does then become a conversation — the amount of calls the museum is getting about [‘The Lone Ranger’], for example — and therefore it’s an opportunity to advance the conversation.”
Volume and visibility are hallmarks of a summer blockbuster. So when an A-list movie star represents a people who still feel unseen and unheard by the rest of the country, does it matter that he’s using that affected, halting Tonto accent?
How seriously do we ponder the kernels of truth (and fiction) inside the buttery popcorn?
“The bottom line is that Tonto is probably the only Indian that a lot of Americans are going to meet,” says Theodore Van Alst, who directs Yale College’s Native American Cultural Center and has studied the depiction of Indians in film.
Which is part of the reason that the first “Lone Ranger” publicity photos landed with a thud on the Internet when they were released more than a year ago. The consensus was that Depp’s hair and makeup — inspired by the work of a non-Native painter — were a blend of stereotypes, and creepily derivative of his Captain Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Such images confine Indians to history or the imagination rather than establish them in day-to-day America, says Adrienne Keene, who has written critical pieces about the pre-release publicity of “The Lone Ranger” on her blog Native Appropriations.
“It starts to feel even more like blackface, more like a costume, like masking the race,” says Keene, 27, a Harvard University PhD student who’s researching Natives and the college application process. “Even if the image had been authentic, I think it still would’ve made me uncomfortable. Because then it’s ‘authentic to what’? To what time period? To what community?”
From the earliest days of each medium, cinema and television cemented a certain characterization of Native Americans. Cecil B. DeMille directed three different versions of “The Squaw Man” — about a Native woman who marries a British aristocrat and commits suicide — between 1914 and 1931. John Ford’s westerns depicted the American frontier as a manifest destiny for honorable white settlers in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, while “The Lone Ranger” established the notion of the Indian as a sidekick, first on the radio in 1933 and then on TV from 1949 through 1957 with Jay Silverheels in the role of Tonto.