Appropriation (?) of the Month: Who is that Masked Man? Johnny Depp’s New (and Improved?) Tonto

Nicole Aylwin

By Nicole Aylwin

This past weekend The Lone Ranger premiered in theatres across North America. Starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, the Disney film had been widely anticipated, but not always for the right reasons. 

Based on the original 1930s radio serial, the movie has been mired in controversy since its production was announced. 

At the heart of this controversy has been the re-imagining of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Native American sidekick.

The original Lone Ranger series debuted as a radio program in 1933. Each week listeners would tune in to hear about the exploits of a masked man and his trusty sidekick Tonto. Together, the Lone Ranger and Tonto fought against injustice in the old American West. The radio version of the series was so popular that it was later turned into a weekly television show that ran from 1949–1958. It is in the television series that the viewers get their first glimpse of Tonto, who despite being played the Canadian Mohawk First Nations Actor Jay Silverheels was referred to in the original radio scripts as the Lone Ranger’s “half-breed” companion.

The controversy around The Lone Ranger remake has been centered around the question of whether or not Johnny Depps’s “new” representation of Tonto is a progressive one that works to subvert the racist stereotypes that permeate the original series, or instead simply reinforces them, hiding them beneath a kind of “wink and nod” humor that makes racism okay as long as the producers intentions are good and the stereotypes are just played for a laugh.

The debate is more complicated than it may first appear, and it is one that raises difficult questions about the representation of Aboriginal peoples in the media; Hollywood’s complacency in perpetuating a racist historical memory; issues of voice and who can speak for whom; and the role that representations play in marking out our sense of socially acceptable boundaries. I don’t have the space (or enough answers myself) to draw a neat conclusion here about the (re?) (mis?) appropriation happening in this film. So I will simply set the stage here and let you think it over for yourself.

The 2013 version of Tonto is remarkably different than the first representation that appeared on TV in 1949. In his original incarnation, Tonto dressed in buckskin and fringe, spoke pigden English, and was constantly in need of assistance (especially since he didn’t even own a horse). Originally invented so that the Lone Ranger would have someone to talk to, Tonto was the Noble Savage personified; he was backwards and uncivilized, but had a good and honest heart and was very wise. Not surprisingly, this version of Tonto has been heavily and widely criticized for its promotion of racist stereotypes and it perpetuation of the hegemonic history of the American frontier.

Depp’s new Tonto however, is no sidekick. Unlike the original Lone Ranger series that was told from the perspective of the Lone Ranger, the new film is told from Tonto’s point of view and, despite it’s title, Depp has assured audiences that this remake is, “Tonto’s film.” Tonto now also speaks better English then his predecessor, is a full-blooded Comanche, and is portrayed as an equal to the Lone Ranger. However, while Tonto’s English may have improved, his wardrobe remains questionable. As a number of astute observers have noted, Tonto now dresses in what looks to be a left-over costume from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies; he also wears a dead bird on his head (that he regularly tries to feed throughout the film). Critics of Depp’s Tonto (of which there are many) have labeled his portrayal as everything from unabashedly racist to merely culturally insensitive. His supporters, on the other hand, have praised him for his attempt to provide a more nuanced and thoughtful representation that truly does provide Tonto with an agency he was denied in the original series.

Another of the hot-button issues related to Depp’s Tonto has been the implication that this performance is one that takes place in “redface.” Instead of casting an Aboriginal actor, Depp chose to play the role himself, forcing critics to compare him other to white actors that have appeared in blackface. However, complicating this issue has been Depp’s 2002 claim that he possesses some Native American heritage (either Cherokee or Creek, he’s not sure which). Neither he nor Disney have ever provided any proof of this claim, but it has nonetheless been used to deflect the criticism that Depp should have offered the role to an Aboriginal actor instead of taking it on himself.

Disney, who backed the film, has a long history of (mis)representing Native Americans on the big screen (think Pocahontas [1995]), and the company is obviously sensitive to the political implications and bad publicity that have accompanied this casting choice. In an attempt to avert any controversy, Disney donated the proceedings from the premiere to the American Indian College Fund and held a special advanced screening of the film for the Comanche Nation. They also have widely advertised the fact that Depp was adopted into the Comanche Nation in 2012.

So why re-make The Lone Ranger and why re-imagine Tonto in the first place? In an insightful article in Salon magazine, author Daniel D’Addario interviews Chadwick Allen, an American Indian studies professor, who suggests that it is not surprising that Tonto keeps getting “recycled” since as a purely fictional character, Tonto is an extremely malleable figure upon which current dominant fantasies of Native culture can be inscribed. Similarly, Joanne Hearne, in her new book on Indigenous cinema and the Western genre, has argued that Westerns have thrived on “rehistoricizing cycles” wherein the portrayal of Native American’s regularly shifts to align with contemporary US Indian policies. Tonto thus becomes a social and political mirror that reflects contemporary (and often misguided) perceptions of Native American and Aboriginal identity.

Depp has repeatedly stated that his intention in making the film was to turn stereotypes on their heads and to provide Tonto with a voice he never had. But does Depp miss the point? Whose voice was ultimately heard? If we are to truly rectify power imbalances, Native American’s and other Aboriginal peoples need to be given the opportunity to represent themselves both in front of and behind the camera.


Further Reading/Watching/Listening

Hearne, Joanne (2012). Indigenous Cinema and the Western. SUNY Press, Albany.

Coombe, Rosemary. 2001. “Sports Trademarks and Somatic Politics.” In Between Law and Culture: Relocating Legal Studies, edited by David Tho Goldberg, Michael Musheno, and Lisa Bower, pp. 22-49. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian (2011). Documentary, Directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond. Visit the website here.

Imagining Indians (1992). Documentary, Directed by Victor Masayesva.

Johnny Depp - Not My Tonto (2012). Podcast, Ryan McMahnon. Listen here.


The Appropriation (?) of the Month feature, written by IPinCH team members, highlights examples of uses of intellectual property that might be considered appropriations.


Nicole's thoughtful essay

Nicole's thoughtful essay teases apart the highly nuanced nature of "appropriation," leaving it up to the reader to sort out the pieces relative to their own views of Indigenous culture, benefits, and voice. Given the longevity of the Lone Ranger, taking different form and utilizing different media, there is great opportunity here to explore the portrayal of Tonto over the past 80 years. This film is gaining much attention and commentary by both Native American people and anthropologists, who offer a wide range of opinions. Two that I've recently come upon written by anthropologists are by Harvey Markowitz and Kennth Tankersley, who is also a Piqua Shawnee tribal member.

-George Nicholas