Actor Johnny Depp (who is actually part Cherokee) and Disney are getting flack about the depiction of Tonto as seen in the latest trailers released in the run up to the 3 July premiere.
Critics claim they are using a Hollywood film stereotype for Tonto that harks back to the Jay Silverheels days when he wore a red ribbon around his hair and fringes. Yet, the film’s Comanche technical advisor, William “Two-Raven” Voelker says that Depp’s Tonto and his “outfit” isn’t out of step with what real Comanches would have worn.
The issue, it seems is the stuffed crow that Tonto wears on top of his head as a sort of ornament. That combined with his shirtless appearance and his white painted face with black streaks have some folks calling foul. Depp says the inspiration came from a painting by artist Kirby Sattler, who said his work isn’t specific to one tribe but is modeled after nomadic Plains tribes of the 19th century.
According to William “Two-Raven” Voelker the only people kicking up a fuss aren’t even Indians. He said, “There are a lot of people out there screaming who are not Comanche, as in this story Tonto is supposed to be. They know nothing of bird culture. When we wear or use those feathers, we’re calling on the energy of the entire bird.”
The other thing that people are taking issue to in the upcoming film, The Lone Ranger is the fact that Tonto still speaks broken English and chants prayers. But Depp claims that his Tonto is much less subservient, honors the proud American Indian warrior and displays a dry sense of humor seen throughout Indian Country. The production must be doing something right as they received the blessing of other tribes through ceremonies during filming.
Technical advisor Voelker also said that he never would have agreed to be a consultant on the movie had he not been assured that the production team would be sensitive to American Indian culture and committed to at least some historical accuracy. He goes on to mention that the teepees used in the movie, for example, have four poles to reflect the way the Comanche built them, not the three that are more commonly seen in movies and that actually trace back to the Cheyenne and Sioux tribes. The production also visited Oklahoma to hear the Comanche language being spoken and worked with Voelker and others to give Depp Comanche lines in the movie.
But it appears that not all Native American Indians feel that Disney and Depp have really gotten it right. Michelle Shining Elk, a member of the Colville Tribes of the Pacific Northwest who works in the film industry, said this latest depiction will give the wrong perception of American Indians. She said people will think, “that we are uneducated, irrelevant, non-contributors to society living in teepees out on the Plains.” She expected Depp to deliver his lines in a more realistic and modern manner, “not like a caricature from a John Wayne movie, or 1920s cartoon.”
But William “Two-Raven” Voelker probably makes the best point about the whole “storm in a teepee by saying, “I just hope that the other rabble-rousers out there can just sit back and take this in as a piece of entertainment. It’s not ever supposed to be an end-all to our Comanche culture. If they have problems they can come to us and I take that responsibility.”
By Michael Smith