- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 25, 2012

SEATTLE — Gyasi Ross grew up decades after the “Lone Ranger” aired on TV, but his friends still would call him “Tonto” when they teased him.

“Everybody understands who Tonto is, even if we hadn’t seen the show, and we understood it wasn’t a good thing,” said Mr. Ross, a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana who lives and has family in the Suquamish Tribe outside Seattle. “Why else would you tease someone with that?”

The making of a new “Lone Ranger” Disney movie, and the announcement that Johnny Depp is playing sidekick Tonto, have reawakened feelings about a character that has drawn much criticism over the years as being a Hollywood creation guilty of spreading stereotypes.

The film is still in production, but Indian Country has been abuzz about it for months, with many sharing opinions online and a national publication running an occasional series on the topic.

Some American Indians welcome the movie, which is slated for release next summer. Parts were taped on the Navajo Nation with the tribe’s support, and an Oklahoma tribe recently made Mr. Depp an honorary member.

Some American Indians hope Johnny Depp will improve the image of the Tonto character, played by Jay Silverheels in the long-running TV series also starring Clayton Moore. (Disney via Associated Press)
Some American Indians hope Johnny Depp will improve the image of the ... more >

But for others, “Lone Ranger” represents a sore spot that goes back to the 1950s television version of Tonto, who spoke in broken English, wore buckskin and lacked any real cultural traits.

Mr. 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,” Natanya Ann Pulley, a doctorate student at the University of Utah, wrote in an essay for the online magazine McSweeney’s.

For Ms. Pulley and her friends, the portrayal of American Indians 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.

But American Indians are far from a monolithic group, and many are opening their arms to the movie. Some are just excited to see Mr. Depp take the role.

In New Mexico, where some of the movie was taped, the Navajo presented Mr. Depp, his co-star Armie Hammer, director Gore Verbinski and Mr. Bruckheimer with Pendleton blankets to welcome them to their land. Elsewhere, the Comanche people of Oklahoma made Mr. 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 that met with Mr. Depp. “My personal view, I like him playing in a character which he can embody well.”

Ms. Dahozy said the “Lone Ranger” production brought something more palpable to the reservation: money. The actors and the large crew lived on Navajo land, ate at local restaurants and stayed in towns that rely heavily on tourism.

Disney representatives declined to comment, but Mr. Depp has said the film will be a “sort of rock ‘n’ roll version of the Lone Ranger” with his Tonto offering a different take from the 1950s show.

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