SEATTLE, Washington: To most people, the upcoming “Lone Ranger” cowboy movie is just a normal Disney blockbuster featuring action, adventure and Johnny Depp.To Native Americans it’s personal.
The making of the movie, and the announcement that Depp portrays Native American sidekick Tonto, have reawakened feelings about a character that has drawn criticism for being a Hollywood creation spreading stereotypes.
The film is still in production, but Indian Country has been abuzz for months, with some welcoming a fresh take on the show’s characters. Parts were filmed on the Navajo Nation with full tribal support, and an Oklahoma tribe even recently made Depp an honorary member.
For others, the film represents a sore spot – one that goes back to the 1950s television version of Tonto, who spoke pidgin English, wore buckskin and lacked any real cultural traits.
Depp’s role attracted particular attention in April when producer Jerry Bruckheimer tweeted a picture of the actor in his Tonto costume. He had on black and white face paint, an intense gaze, a black bird attached to his head and plenty of decorative feathers.
“The moment it hit my Facebook newsfeed, the updates from my friends went nutso,” wrote Natanya Ann Pulley, a doctorate student at University of Utah, in an essay for the online magazine McSweeney’s.
For Pulley and her friends, the portrayal of Native Americans in Western movies is getting old.
“I’m worried about the Tonto figure becoming a parody or a commercialized figure that doesn’t have any dimension or depth. Or consideration for contemporary context of Native Americans,” she said.
Native Americans are far from a monolithic group, however, and many are opening their arms to the new movie. Some are excited to see Depp take the role.
In New Mexico, where some of the movie was filmed, the Navajo presented Depp, his co-star Armie Hammer, director Gore Verbinski and Bruckheimer with Pendleton blankets to welcome them to their land. Elsewhere, the Comanche people of Oklahoma made Depp, one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, an honorary member.
“In my niece’s mind, I met Jack Sparrow,” said Emerald Dahozy, spokeswoman for Navajo President Ben Shelly and a member of the Navajo group who met with Depp.
He was referring to Depp’s famous “Pirates of the Caribbean” role. “My personal view, I like him playing in a character which he can embody well.”
Dahozy said the “Lone Ranger” production brought something more palpable to the reservation: money. The actors and the large crew lived on Navajo land, eating at local restaurants and staying in towns that rely heavily on tourism.
Disney representatives declined to comment, but Depp has said the film will be a “sort of rock’n’roll version of the Lone Ranger.”
Cheyenne and Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre is willing to give the actor a chance.
“Based on Johnny Depp as an artist, and him going all the way and making this film happen, in my book [he] deserves some credit,” Eyre told Indian Country Today for its occasional “Tonto Files” series. “He wants to change the view of Tonto, and he put his reputation and his career on the line,” he added.
The “Lone Ranger” began on the radio in the 1930s and, according to the Lone Ranger Fan Club, Tonto was played by an actor of Irish descent.
The show rocketed in popularity and made a seamless transition to television, running on ABC from 1949 to 1957. In 2003, a TV reboot flopped. That version featured a Canadian First Nations (i.e. aboriginal) actor playing Tonto.
The 1950s portrayal of Tonto by the First Nations actor Jay Silverheels, who is a Canadian Mohawk, is by far the most recognized.
He was the loyal partner of the crime-fighting Lone Ranger, often bailing out the masked avenger from treacherous situations.
“Here hat. Me wash in stream. Dry in sun. Make whiter,” Tonto says in an early episode setting up his relationship with the Lone Ranger. “Here gun to kill bad men.”
That Tonto has been criticized as being generic and subordinate – a character with no individuality.
Tex Holland, executive director of the 600-member Lone Ranger Fan Club, defended the portrayal.
“I felt the Indians had their own language and in doing so, anyone learning the language is going to speak it broken, whether the person is from Japan or Mexico,” Holland said. “I did not look down on him. All of us thought that’s the way the Indians at that time communicated with us. Did we speak Indian fluently? We’d speak it broken it too.”
Holland, however, was taken aback by Depp’s new look.
“Yuck. I can’t believe that he’s wearing a crow on his head. And he’s looking like some type of medicine man,” Holland said. “Disney chose [Depp] for one thing: box office draw.”
Reportedly costing more than $200 million, “Lone Ranger” is the type of film that can make or break a studio’s summer. It’s already been plagued with budget woes. The movie’s release date in 2013 was recently pushed back a month.
Gyasi Ross doesn’t mind having Depp as Tonto. Knowing its history, in fact, the 36-year-old said he would have been more troubled had a Native American taken the role.
The attorney, who also writes a column for Indian Country Today, is worried the movie will cement a stereotype for years to come because Hollywood doesn’t make many movies with Native American protagonists.
“I’m not sure how much redefining I’m going to expect,” he said, “not sure how much of the movie will be something I can show my son.”