Native American Controversy in Hollywood

In an age where Native Americans are expected to play themselves, it is difficult to stray away from the mold.  However, Johnny Depp may be the exception.  Why wouldn’t Disney try to capitalize on their cash cow by expanding him to a new franchise? Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger has reawakened the controversy over stereotypical Native American characters created by Hollywood. Native Americans have mixed reactions to the news. People criticized Tonto from The Lone Ranger TV series for speaking broken English, wearing buckskin, and lacking any real cultural traits. Trailers for The Lone Ranger seem to suggest Tonto has not changed much since the 1950s, but some tribes disagree.

Native Americans are not upset that The Lone Ranger is being remade or that Johnny Depp was casted in the film.  With plenty of talented Native American actors, Native Americans are upset that a white male was chosen to play Tonto instead of one of their own. The belief is that a Native American would better portray cultural traits in a non-stereotypical manner. Sonny Skyhawk says,

Disney has been marketing and re-writing the history of our people—American Indians—without their permission, ever since the company was born and to my knowledge has never paid a penny or even thanked us. Yet it has been the gall and audacity to knowingly cast a non-Native person in the role of an established Native character. Tell me the extent of outrage they would encounter if they did that to an African-American character.”

 To make matters better or worse depending on how you look at it, Johnny Depp stated that he was Native American.  He said,

I guess I have some Native American somewhere down in the line . . . My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky [where Depp was born], which is rife with Cherokee and Creek.”

He isn’t the first actor to claim Native American ancestry. Lou Diamond Phillips claimed Native American ancestry when appearing in Young Guns. Thus, many Native Americans remain skeptical about the claim. Could it be a public relations ploy to win the approval of Native American communities?

However, several tribes are fully supportive of Johnny Depp as Tonto.  The Comanche tribe made Depp an honorary member. They believe he is supportive of the American Indian Movement and is making a genuine effort to learn the Navajo language and customs to portray Tonto in a new dimension.  Emerald Dahozy, spokeswoman for the Navajo President and a member of the Navajo group, also supports Depp as Tonto.  The filming helped raise revenue for the Navajo reservations, and she believes in Depp’s ability as an artist to portray Tonto in a positive and entertaining manner.

If you see The Lone Ranger this weekend, let us know whether or not you believe Tonto portrayed Native Americans positively without stereotypes.


Fonseca, Felicia. “Disney’s Tonto Offensive To Some Im Upcoming ‘Lone Ranger’ Film.” Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/12/disney-tonto-offensive-lone-ranger-film_n_3263071.html

Nikolewski, Rob. “Johnny Depp as Tonto? “They could have gotten a Native American,” one NM lawmaker says.” New Mexico Watch Dog. http://newmexico.watchdog.org/11403/johnny-depp-as-tonto-they-could-have-gotten-a-native-american-one-nm-lawmaker-says/#sthash.usIlhpWl.dpuf

Toensing, Gale Courey. “Sonny Skyhawk on Johnny Depp, Disney, Indian Stereotypes and White Film Indians.” Indian Country. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/06/11/sonny-skyhawk-johnny-depp-disney-indian-stereotypes-and-white-film-indians-149841

Valdes, Manuel. “New Tonto, familiar feelings for Native Americans.” The Washington Times.  http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/jul/25/new-tonto-familiar-feelings-for-native-americans/



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