Johnny Depp As Tonto: I’m Still Not Feeling ‘Honored’

By Guest Contributor Adrienne K., cross-posted from Native Appropriations

I guess we can put all the talk about Johnny Depp “honoring” Native people to rest now. ‘Cause it’s been over a month since those first horrendous publicity pics of Depp-as-Tonto surfaced, and more information has been trickling out about Depp’s “inspiration” for his lovely costume. I think we’ll now see just how careful, respectful, and honoring Mr. Depp was with his “research” for his role.

As background, Depp has said in numerous interviews that wanted to change the role of Tonto, and wanted to “reinvent” the relationship between Indians and Hollywood. He also cited his Native heritage–“Cherokee or maybe Creek”–as part of his reasoning behind taking the role. In this clip from MTV news, Johnny describes his plans for Tonto’s character, which, out of context, actually sound pretty good:

He says in the clip:

I like the idea of having the opportunity to sort of make fun of the idea of Indian as sidekick… throughout the history of Hollywood, the Native American has always been the second class, third class, fourth class, fifth class citizen, and I don’t see Tonto that way at all. So it’s an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.

Based on all of these interviews, I was still holding out a shred of hope that there was some major piece of information I was missing, that maybe Johnny had actually done his research, or that maybe he had no control over the actual costuming of Tonto, and that all of this anger and blame should be placed on some wardrobe stylist on-set.  But Entertainment Weekly published a blog post on Sunday that confirmed what I had been arguing all along. Johnny Depp decided to “honor” Native peoples and “reinvent” our role in Hollywood by relying on the most tired and stereotypical tropes imaginable. On his “inspiration” for Tonto’s makeup:

“I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it. The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.”

Though that quote makes absolutely no sense (“separate sections of the individual?), the picture in reference is below. The connection between the Sattler painting and Depp’s costuming was actually caught quickly in March by some fans of the Native Appropriations facebook page, one of whom even took the time to call Sattler’s studio. The PR rep on the phone assured her to wait until the movie came out and that she was certain “everything would be done in an appropriate manner.” I guess “appropriate” is relative?

The thing about Kirby Sattler, a non-Native painter, is that he relies heavily on stereotypes of Native people as mystical-connected-to-nature-ancient-spiritual-creatures, with little regard for any type of historical accuracy. He says, right off the bat, that the images come from his imagination:

My paintings are interpretations based upon the nomadic tribes of the 19th century American Plains. The subjects are a variety of visual sources and my imagination…I purposely do not denote a tribal affiliation to the majority of my subjects, rather, I attempt to give the paintings an authentic appearance, provoke interest, satisfy my audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy.

So he’s telling us, in so many words, that he makes these subjects up based on the (heavily stereotyped) images in his own head. Just listen to the language he uses to describe his paintings:

Each painting functions on the premise that all natural phenomena have souls independent of their physical beings. Under such a belief, the wearing of sacred objects were a source of spiritual power. Any object- a stone, a plait of sweet grass, a part of an animal, the wing of a bird- could contain the essence of the metaphysical qualities identified to the objects and desired by the Native American. This acquisition of “Medicine”, or spiritual power, was central to the lives of the Indian. It provided the conduit to the unseen forces of the universe which predominated their lives.

Note the past tense, since clearly Indians don’t exist anymore. Note the presumption that all Indians were/are the same, and that all our spiritual practices were/are the same. To refer to an entire population of diverse, living, breathing people of over 500 nations as “The Native American” is more than a little patronizing and offensive.

I say all this to establish the “credibility” of Johnny Depp’s source material. But Depp’s descriptions of why he was so drawn to the piece are even worse. On the striped make-up representing the “separate sections of the individual”:

There’s this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, and angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual. That makeup inspired me.

Because Tonto happens to be Native American, he has to be “wise,” “tortured and hurt,” “angry and rageful,” and “very understanding and unique”? That’s like Hollywood Indian Stereotypes 101. Finally, on the hideous crow headdress itself:

It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top. I thought: Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive … The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least — especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger’s assistant … As you’ll see, it’s most definitely not that.

Right. So, I like the calling of the subject in the painting a “warrior,” based solely on the fact that he is Native and male (stereotype #1). Of course the “warrior” has to have a “spirit guide” (stereotype #2), and has a mystical connection that outsiders cannot understand–”It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him” (stereotype #3). I think, Mr. Depp, when you said you hoped to “mess around with the stereotype of the American Indian,” you actually meant “completely play into the stereotype of the American Indian,” because I’m really not seeing anything subversive or new about your language or this mess of a portrayal. If this is your “salute” to Native Americans, I’m really afraid to watch the actual movie. Also, since we haven’t seen a clip of the film yet, it remains to be seen if Depp will talk in the stereotypical broken-English “Tonto speak.” Let’s hope he drew the line somewhere.

What we have here is a case of an extreme mismatch between intent and impact. Johnny Depp might have entered this project with the nobelest of intentions, hoping to “honor” his heritage, “re-invent” the role of Natives in Hollywood, give Tonto more agency, and move him from his sidekick status–but he went about it in exactly the wrong way.

I don’t know what the right way would have been, perhaps going to talk to some Comanche community members (turns out Tonto is “full blooded Comanche” in this version, not Apache as I had reported earlier) to ask how they would feel comfortable being portrayed on the big screen–or if they even felt comfortable at all. I know the right way would have been doing a little more research into Hollywood portrayals of Native peoples, and realizing that picking your costume from a non-Native painter who openly admits he has no regard for historical accuracy would probably be a bad idea. Many people have given Johnny a free pass because of his Native heritage, but I think that means we should hold him to a higher standard. If he is serious about honoring his ancestors and his past, he needs to realize that costuming Tonto like a fantasy Indian stereotype is not helping Native people, and his “intent” in the portrayal doesn’t save him.

Johnny Depp might have thought his intent cleared him of any criticism. That we would stand back and say “well, he didn’t mean to be offensive.” or “his heart was in the right place.” But that logic ignores the impact of his statements and his portrayal of Tonto. Think how many policies in Indian country were done by people with “good intentions,” and how all that turned out for us. The impact here is that millions of people will see this film, and they will walk away with this inaccurate and stereotyped image of American Indians burned in their brains.

So if Johnny Depp is serious about wanting to “salute” Native peoples, I would urge him to start a major PR campaign, since it’s presumably too late to change the costume. Admit your mistake, start a national dialogue about how American Indians are portrayed in film. Continue to support important Native causes (I hear Johnny has agreed to be the spokesperson for teen suicide prevention in Navajo?), and bring light to how issues of stereotyping are real and incredibly problematic. Because despite the best of intentions, these images continue to marginalize contemporary Native peoples, and no amount of face paint is going to hide that fact.

And if you’re still not convinced this is even worthy of talking about, check out my earlier post: “Why Tonto Matters.

Entertainment Weekly (they link to me, which is kinda exciting!): “Johnny Depp reveals origins of Tonto makeup from ‘The Lone Ranger’
Native Appropriations: “Johnny Depp as Cultural Appropriation Jack Sparrow…I mean Tonto
Native Appropriations: “Why Tonto Matters
Indian Country Today: “Tontomania: Who are we’z anyways?
Guardian: “Why I’m Willing to Believe in Johnny Depp’s Tonto
Ryan McMahon gets angry episode 4: “I Ain’t Gettin’ On No Horse
Academic Article on Hollywood Stereotypes: “The White Man’s Indian: Stereotypes in Films and Beyond

  • niagrara

    HEART HAYS AND JOHHNY DEPP NEED TO MEET!
     http://www.hearthays.com/

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Depp seems to no longer care about trying to give his characters “depth”, otherwise he wouldn’t have failed so miserably at providing a better representation of Tonto. 

  • Cherry Davis

    I’ve been over Depp for a long time!  I’m ESPECIALLY over his and Tim Burton ‘love’.  I swear Tim Burton sends out casting notices that straight up say NO POC!!! Since he rarely has POC in his movies!!!!