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,” Mr. 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.”
The “Lone Ranger” began on the radio in the 1930s. Tonto was played by an actor of Irish descent, according to the Lone Ranger Fan Club.
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 First Peoples actor from Canada playing Tonto.
But the 1950s portrayal of Tonto by Jay Silverheels, a Canadian Mohawk First Nations member, is by far the most recognized.
He spoke in pidgin and was the loyal partner of the crime-fighting 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 and no life beyond helping the Lone Ranger.
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,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. Holland and his fellow fans, however, were taken aback by Mr. 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,” Mr. Holland said. “Disney chose [Mr. Depp] for one thing: box office draw.”
Reportedly costing more than $200 million, plus yet-to-be-added marketing costs, Disney’s “Lone Ranger” is the type of film that can make or break a studio’s summer. It already has been plagued with budget woes. The movie’s release date in 2013 was recently pushed back a month.
Back on Suquamish land, Mr. Ross said he doesn’t mind having Mr. Depp as Tonto. In fact, the 36-year-old said he would have been more troubled had an American Indian taken the role, knowing its history.
He is worried that the movie, which certainly will attract a large audience, will cement a stereotype for years to come because Hollywood doesn’t make many movies with American Indian protagonists. The popular ones stick in people’s minds.