Levi Rickert, editor-in-chief in Native Condition. Discussion »
Jay Silverheels as Tonto
Baby boomers can remember growing up watching the television reruns with Clayton Moore playing the role of the Lone Ranger, complete with a black mask riding gallantly on a white horse, named Silver, in black and white.
In the days of homeland security, one has to wonder if the Lone Ranger could get by in contemporary times wearing his black mask. In other words, the Lone Ranger would probably be unmasked today.
To that point, so would his sidekick, Tonto.
Those of the Millennial Generation know little, if anything, about the Lone Ranger and Tonto. If Johnny Depp has anything to do with it, they will.
On one hand, we were proud to see Jay Silverheels on television - a real Indian playing an Indian. On the other hand, Tonto was nothing more than a sidekick to the real hero, the Lone Ranger, who spoke in broken English.
The late great scholar and prolific writer, Vine Deloria, Jr., Sioux, unmasks Tonto in his powerfully-written book "Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto":
"It was Tonto - the Friendly Indian Companion - who galloped onto the scene, pushing the historical and the contemporary Indians into obscurity.
Tonto was everything the white man had always wanted the Indian to be. He was slower, a little dumber, had much less vocabulary, and rode a darker horse.
Tonto was a cultureless Indian for Indians and an uncultured Indian for whites.
Tonto cemented in the minds of the American public the cherished falsehood that all Indians were basically the same - friendly and stupid.
But, Tonto also had another quality about him. Although inarticulate to a fault, he occasionally called upon his primitive wisdom to get the Lone Ranger out of a tight spot. Tonto had some indefinable aboriginal knowledge that operated dues ex machina in certain situations. It was almost as if the Lone Ranger had some tragic flaw with respect to the mysterious in nature which Tonto could easily handle and understand."
Now comes Johnny Depp wanting to play Tonto. It is reported that Depp wants to give Tonto a new dimension on the big screen.
Television and movies are powerful mediums that produce long lasting images. One would hope Depp really gets into tune with Native culture before he ever plays Tonto.
American Indians have been portrayed by Hollywood in negative ways as Deloria presents as he unmasked Tonto. We need to get way past the backward Indian who is the subservient sidekick to the masked non-Indian.
updated 3:37 pm; posted August 24, 2011 11:50 am edt
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I Hated Tonto (Still Do) by Sherman Alexie; Los Angeles Times; June 28, 1998 http://articles.latimes.com/1998/jun/28/entertainment/ca-64216 Sherman Alexie...
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