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Will Depp’s portrayal of Tonto add to struggle Natives face in filmmaking?

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, May 27, 2012, at 12 a.m.

I have always appreciated Johnny Depp.

Even despite his recent slam against Wichita in an article that ran in the U.K. paper, the Guardian, where he implied that Wichitans aren’t intelligent enough to appreciate “intelligent” films. OK, that did lower him a notch on my favorites list.

But I have liked his choices in movies, his creative collaborations with Tim Burton, and his ability to completely disappear into a role.

But I am not a fan of his casting as Comanche sidekick Tonto in “The Lone Ranger,” coming out in May 2013. And I particularly do not like the publicity photo teaser that was recently released on the Internet. It shows him with pale, ghostly face paint and a headdress that looks like a crow died on his head. It’s certainly not dress that is authentic to Comanches of the Old West era, and seems to imply ridiculousness for the sake of comedy.

I am Comanche (as well as Pawnee and Shawnee). And I think we shouldn’t be embracing this portrayal, but protesting it.

Just earlier this week, though, it was announced that Depp was officially adopted into my tribe by Ladonna Harris, a Comanche member and president of Americans for Indian Opportunity. Comanche nation chairman Johnny Wauqua was also present for the ceremony that took place at Harris’ home in Albuquerque on May 16.

While I always favor an act of goodwill such as this (and it’s pretty cool to say that Depp is now one of my tribal brothers), I question the intent. Is it simply because Depp is a worldwide superstar? Or is it that we truly embrace the way Tonto will be portrayed in the film?

I think they’re two separate things, even though the act seems to imply that the Comanche nation as whole gives its stamp of approval to the film.

Sure, the film’s production was embraced by the Navajo people in New Mexico, but was it because they were star-struck? I’d like to think that it was done for positive reasons. The film’s production shines a spotlight on their land. And I like that it brought jobs for Native actors in minor roles and as extras.

But even that is a touchy topic. Natives continue to struggle in the mass media, particularly in film. Native actors are forced to get roles as Indian stereotypes merely to build an acting career.

Rarely does any other kind of role come along. Saulteaux actor Adam Beach has had some minor success outside “Native” parts, even having a stint on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” in 2007-08. Wes Studi has had a long, distinguished career, and was cast in such “non-Native” films as “Heat” or the 2009 TV series “Kings.” But ultimately, he’s probably best remembered as “Geronimo.”

“Blind” casting just doesn’t happen, with Natives in everyday roles.

I was very happy when the “Twilight” films came along, because they used Native actors in a high-profile franchise. But they’re playing wolves, for goodness’ sake. They’re not even human.

So while there are plenty of Native actors that could have played Tonto, Depp brought attention to the role and the film merely because of who he is. But it would have been better to let an unknown Native actor have the part.

There are no easy answers to the bigger-picture problem, even though Native people want to see themselves reflected in mass media. It’s an untapped market with huge potential. But no one seems interested.

We as Native people need to initiate change ourselves. We have to tell our own stories in our own way. And we need to get them seen. No easy feat.

But images like Depp’s crazy bird hat aren’t helping.

In all fairness, I haven’t seen the film. Let’s hope it doesn’t set us back any further than we already are.

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