“Everybody understands who Tonto is, even if we hadn’t seen the show, and we understood it wasn’t a good thing,” said 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 Native American groups have been abuzz about it for months, with many sharing opinions online and in a national Native publication running an occasional series on the topic.
Some Native Americans welcome the new movie, slated for release next summer. Parts were filmed on the Navajo Nation with the tribe’s support, and an Oklahoma tribe recently made Depp an honorary member.
But for others, the “Lone Ranger” represents a lingering sore spot _ one that goes back to the 1950s television version of Tonto, who spoke in broken 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.
But Native Americans are far from a monolithic group, and many are opening their arms to the new movie. Some are just 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. “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.
American Indians aren’t the only ones conflicted about the character of Tonto, which means “dumb” in Spanish. For Mexican Americans who grew up in the Southwest, the character draws up memories of one of the first dark-skinned heroes in popular culture and anger over a white man calling a brown-skinned person “dumb,” said Rosa-Linda Fregoso, author of “Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture” and a Latino Studies professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.