Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Tonto Challenge: Keeping a Straight Face

07/02/2013

Tontos throughout the years: Jay Silverheels in the 1950's TV series “The Lone Ranger,” Michael Horse from the 1981 cinematic bomb "The Legend of the Lone Ranger," and Johnny Depp from this year's “The Lone Ranger,” which opens July 3.

Some Indians are disgusted that Disney chose to cast Johnny Depp as Tonto in the new Lone Ranger movie. People are complaining that not only does this further a long standing Hollywood stereotype of the stoic, generic Indian, but the casting choice deprives a real Indian of a job.

But I think the real reason that Disney chose Depp is that they couldn’t find any real Indians who could do the Tonto voice while keeping a straight face.

The new Lone Ranger movie opens opens Wednesday, July 3. And while I admit to being a huge fan of the old TV show, I’m having a tough time getting my mind around a Tonto played by Johnny Depp.

Depp, who by his own description is “Native-ish” has his fair share of fans in Indian Country. As a matter of fact, I am risking the wrath of my godmother, Cleo, by criticizing him, but such are the dangers of journalism.

Like so many folks from this part of the country where there are no reservations or significant Native populations, Depp (who was born in Owensboro, Kentucky) claims that his great-grandmother was Cherokee. His only missing claims are the assertions that she had coal black hair and was a princess.

Although, like some folks in Indian Country, I am irked by this latest in a long line of bad depictions of Native people in film, the silly factor is too good to pass up.

Check out this video of Depp (below, left) as he addresses the Gathering of Nation’s Powwow in Albuquerque last April. He seems to have tapped into his inner Tonto at a level I would not have dreamed possible. Watching him is more embarrassing than witnessing one of those Unitarian Universalist services in which non-Indians try to sing and play hand drums.

As some fun summer refreshment, check out a “real Indian” response to the Johnny Depp/Tonto controversy from Tito Ybarra (below, right). Ybarra is Anishinabe from the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota and member of those smarty pants Indian comedy group the “1491’s”. He’s also a character in one my all-time favorite videos, “Slapping Medicine Man.”

Enjoy and have a great Fourth!

Left, Johnny Depp’s greeting to the Gathering of Nation’s in April. Right, a parody response from Indian comedian Tito Ybarra. Since the Comanches adopted him, Phat Johnny (Ybarra) says, he’s been gaining weight and his electricity went out. “That’s why I have the candles in the background.”