Does Disney's Tonto Reinforce Stereotypes Or Overcome Them? : Code Switch The Lone Ranger has long been a fictional hero, taming the Wild West with his trusty and often stereotyped Native American guide, Tonto. The new version of The Lone Ranger stars Johnny Depp and dabbles with that trope.
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Does Disney's Tonto Reinforce Stereotypes Or Overcome Them?

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Does Disney's Tonto Reinforce Stereotypes Or Overcome Them?

Does Disney's Tonto Reinforce Stereotypes Or Overcome Them?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Narrator) A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty, hi-yo, Silver, The Lone Ranger.


Ah, The Lone Ranger, long an iconic fictional hero taming the Wild West with his trusty Indian guide, Tonto. Disney's newest version is an action comedy that opens tomorrow, with Johnny Depp playing the role of Tonto.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco traveled to the capital of the Comanche Nation to meet up with Depp and get his thoughts on playing the character, and also about Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Tonto has always been the Lone Ranger's sidekick; the faithful Indian companion who helps the white man fight bad guys, speaking in pidgin English.


JOHN TODD: (as Tonto) Maybe him talk Sioux Indian language.

DEL BARCO: Tonto made his first appearance on the radio in the 1930s, voiced by a non-Native American actor, John Todd. In the series, Westerners face down what they call "redskins" and "savages." And trusty Tonto is always on hand to interpret the smoke signals.


TODD: (as Tonto) Sioux Indian dangerous, but Crow Indian friendly.

DEL BARCO: Beginning in 1949, in films and on TV, Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels, an actor who in real life was the son of a Canadian Mohawk tribal chief.


JAY SILVERHEELS: (as Tonto) You, you Kemosabe. Me, Tonto. Now me take care of you.

JOHNNY DEPP: You know, it was entertainment, pure entertainment.

DEL BARCO: Actor Johnny Depp helped create Tonto's character for the new movie.

DEPP: Even at the ripe old age of five or six, you know, seven years old, watching that on TV, I had the very distinct feeling that there was something very wrong, and that Tonto never deserved to be called a sidekick.

DEL BARCO: In Lawton, Oklahoma to promote the movie to the Comanche Nation, Depp talked about playing Tonto as The Lone Ranger's equal partner.

DEPP: In my own small way, it was my way of trying to, you know, at least attempt to right the wrongs of what had been done with regards to the representation of Native Americans in cinema.

DEL BARCO: His Tonto is a deadpan spirit warrior from the Comanche tribe.


DEPP: (as Tonto) There come a time, Kemosabe, when good man must wear mask.

DEL BARCO: This Tonto is first seen in a sideshow diorama labeled "Noble Savage." Depp says the character is meant to be humorous. The Lone Ranger even kids him about the word Tonto meaning dummy in Spanish.


DEPP: (as Tonto) From the great beyond, a vision told me a great warrior and spirit walker would help me on my quest. I would have preferred someone else. But who am I to question the Great Father?

DEL BARCO: Back in the 1950s, Jay Silverheels' Tonto was calm and stoic, wore his hair in a braid, a headband and a buckskin vest. But Depp's new Tonto is tattooed and shirtless. His face is painted white with four black stripes. And on top of his head sits a dead black crow. Depp says he took the look from a painting by Kirby Sattler he found on the Internet.

DEPP: There was a bird flying behind the guy's head, the warrior's head. And I thought wow, that's amazing, the bird - oh, he's not on his head. He should be on his head, you know...


DEPP: an extension of himself or a spirit guide.

DEL BARCO: Depp says he was born in Kentucky, where his great grandparents told him the family had Cherokee blood.

DEPP: There could have been Cherokee, could have been Creek. They may be Choctaw. I don't know. You know, I was always told that growing up. And it was something that I always felt very proud to have.

DEL BARCO: For months, Depp and Disney labored to court Native Americans. The studio gave proceeds of the movie's world premiere to the American Indian College Fund, and Depp donated money to a Navajo reservation. During production, a local Navajo elder blessed the set in Monument Valley. And in Santa Fe, social activist LaDonna Harris adopted Depp as an honorary son and member of the Comanche Tribe.

LADONNA HARRIS: So we gave, his Comanche name is Shape Shifter. He's someone who can change into all these different things he plays, from a Caribbean pirate to a Comanche.


HARRIS: So that was fun.

DEL BARCO: In Lawton, Oklahoma, the chairman of the Comanche Nation, Wallace Coffey, welcomed Depp to a special screening of "The Lone Ranger" for tribal members.


DEL BARCO: Outside the theater, festival dancers greeted Depp on a red carpet blessed by tribal elders. The Comanches who got free tickets to the screening seemed starstruck. After the film ended, Kimberly DeJesus and Anthony Menassy gushed about Johnny Depp.

KIMBERLY DEJESUS: I thought he did a perfect job as Tonto. He was - he was phenomenal. I was speechless the whole time. (Laughing)

ANTHONY MENASSY: They didn't put us down or they didn't make fun of us in any kind of way. So it was real. That was nice.

DEL BARCO: But Disney's spin doesn't convince Kiowa Tribe member Hanay Geiogamah. Frankly, the UCLA professor is offended. He says Johnny Depp joins a long list of white actors playing Native Americans in the movies, including Burt Lancaster, Robert Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Burt Reynolds.

HANAY GEIOGAMAH: He could have, had he wanted to, cast himself as the Lone Ranger, and put a qualified, capable American Indian actor - of whom there are quite a few now - in the role of Tonto.

DEL BARCO: Geiogamah, the former director of UCLA's American Indian Studies program, doesn't like the way Johnny Depp's Tonto talks.

GEIOGAMAH: Monosyllabic, stuttering, uttering. Hollywood Indian-speak.

DEL BARCO: And he doesn't like Tonto's new getup, either.

GEIOGAMAH: We've got Johnny Depp with a taxidermied crow on top of his head and painted to the nth degree, and he looks like a gothic freak.

DEL BARCO: Geiogamah says no authentic Native American goes around wearing war paint outside of ceremonial pow wows - certainly not day and night in the Wild West frontier land.

GEIOGAMAH: It's a major setback for the Native American image in the world. That's how millions of people will think American Indians are now.

DEL BARCO: In the 1990s, Disney called on Geiogamah as a consultant for its two animated "Pocahontas" movies. He advised the filmmakers how to authentically present 17th century American Indian life. Gieogamah says he's surprised Disney would turn around and present old cliches with this new film.

But for his part, Johnny Depp defends his Tonto, saying he was hoping to turn the stereotype on its head.

DEPP: It's a very strange notion. But it occurred to me that in a weird way, certain cliches must be embraced for a millisecond to have the audience understand. Just for that millisecond. I presented Tonto with, I hope, you know, a dignity and a pride and with, you know, with respect.

DEL BARCO: With its $215 million new take on Tonto, Disney is hoping to rope in all kinds of audiences to watch on one of the biggest movie holidays of the year.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.


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