Johnny Depp’s Explanation of Tonto Costume Both Clarifies and Muddles

Johnny Depp cites a painting by Kirby Sattler as his inspiration for Tonto's look.

Indian Country Today

Johnny Depp’s Explanation of Tonto Costume Both Clarifies and Muddles

When producer Jerry Bruckheimer first revealed Johnny Depp's Tonto look for the upcoming film version of The Lone Ranger, in early March, many people were puzzled. The bird on the head, the white face paint, the black vertical lines, the bandanas, the bird on the head—Indian and non-Indian movie followers wondered whether they were looking at a colossal misfire of a costume or something incredibly authentic that had been all but forgotten.

The popular press latched on to one explanation, which was that Depp's Tonto is a lot like his Pirates of the Caribbean character—The Guardian, for example, wondered aloud, "Has Captain Jack Sparrow got a crow perched on his head?"

(Over the weekend, advanced a less plausible theory: that Tonto is based on Marilyn Manson. Moving on…)

Natives spotted the influence fairly quickly: a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler. Depp's Tonto look is almost an exact copy of it, in fact.

In a post at Native Appropriations, Adrienne K takes issue with Depp's decisions. Kirby Sattler is a non-Native artist who, in a statement on his website, says that his paintings are meant to "satisfy my audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy."

So the source material may not be constrained by accuracy. For some who like their entertainment to strive for authenticity—even if it's fiction—this could be an issue. Yet there is a difference between the merely inauthentic and the totally made-up, and this is where Depp may have taken the real misstep. In an Entertainment Weekly story about the origins of his costume, Depp says, “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 most striking element of this costume, then, is not just weird-looking, it is also part of Tonto's worldview. Will Tonto talk to the bird? Will the bird talk to Tonto? Will the Lone Ranger tell Tonto to stop listening to the bird? It all remains to be seen, but it's a sure thing that Depp's Tonto will be highly scrutinized in Indian country when the film comes out (May 13, 2013). Indians like a good popcorn movie as much as anyone else, and the film, as a work of fiction, will necessarily take some liberties with history. But Native audiences might be less forgiving of a portrayal that takes too many liberties with their spirituality.