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LeAnne Howe: Blame Hollywood, Not Depp, for Latest Tonto

LeAnne Howe, the Choctaw writer and scholar, has weighed in on the buzz about Johnny Depp and The Lone Ranger.
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LeAnne Howe, the Choctaw writer and scholar, has weighed in on the buzz about Johnny Depp and The Lone Ranger.

In its latest “A Minute With...” news series, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign posted a Q&A with Howe, the university’s Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English, Native Studies and theater and a former journalist turned a novelist, poet, playwright, and screenwriter. She was recently awarded a $50,000 US Fellows grant

By coincidence, Howe has been immersed in the subject of movie Indians and recently published a book as co-editor with professors Harvey Markowitz, of Washington and Lee University, and Denise K. Cummings, of Rollins College, called Seeing Red, Hollywood's Pixeled Skins: American Indians and Film. Published in March by Michigan State University Press, the book includes a collection of 36 recently published reviews on nearly a century of films that have portrayed Native Americans.

Tonto is not just any American Indian character, Howe said: he was the only on-screen hero American Indians had growing up in the 1950s. Although Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto with a dead bird on his head is the worst kind of stereotype, making it easy for American Indians to dismiss the film, Depp’s adoption by the Comanche Nation is not insignificant, Howe said.

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The stereotype can be explained in one word, Howe said: “Hollywood. Seriously, American Indians have a long and complicated relationship with Hollywood films. Over the last 100 years, images of American Indians have populated Hollywood films so much so that when viewers see an Indian in a headdress they recognize the story as American,” Howe said. She notes that “real” American Indians worked as consultants and advisers to filmmakers as early as 1908 – supposedly to make the storyline more authentic. “For example, Lillian St. Cyr and James Youngdeer, enrolled members of the Nebraska Ho-Chunk Tribe, embraced moviemaking and worked as technical advisers for D.W. Griffith’s Indian Runner’s Romance (1909) and other films. A former chief of the Abenaki Tribe, actor Elijah Tahamont, stage name Dark Cloud, was another early technical adviser for such films as The Song of the Wildwood Flute (1910),” Howe said.

The latest updating of “The Lone Ranger” used cultural advisers from the Comanche Nation. The film’s portrayal of Tonto is a continuation of a Hollywood tradition, complete with the stereotypical bare-chested warrior in a feathered headdress, Howe said. “What makes this film unique for moviegoers is that Johnny Depp was officially adopted into the Comanche Nation in May 2012, in a ceremony in Lawton, Oklahoma. It is a case where art becomes life. Depp plays Comanche and is then adopted by respected Comanche elder LaDonna Harris, founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity.”

As Harris’ adopted son, Depp is an honorary member of the tribe, but not an enrolled citizen. “The adoption ceremony that honored Depp is more than just recognition, it’s a reciprocal relationship between obligated parties,” Howe said. “Depp gave gifts to those in attendance as a sign of respect. In return, he’ll be received as a family member within the Comanche Nation.”

Asked about the differences in the Tonto character in radio, television and film compared to other Indian portrayals and why he’s such a hero, Howe said perhaps it is Tonto’s longevity that sets him apart. “Tonto emerged in 1936 on the radio and evolved through many script transformations until the television series The Lone Ranger solidified the character. Tonto was played by Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels, who had his own fan club and newsletter, titled ‘The Tom Tom,’“ Howe said. “For American Indians my age, Silverheels was the only Native actor we would ever see on television. Imagine growing up in America and never seeing a white actor on television – except one. So of course Tonto was a heroic character for us.”

Howe explained why Indians have been such a key part of American movies – even when they’re not actually in them. “Conquest is an American master narrative; it permeates our culture. In a film like Independence Day (1996) the storyline is about aliens landing on Earth and attempting to wipe out all indigenous life. Sound familiar? Aliens want to harvest all the planet’s resources. Ditto. The film references Europeans’ hunger for other lands and resources, only this time the indigenous people are not going to lose it, as Native Americans did, to aliens. When President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) gives that rousing speech about not going quietly into that good night, American audiences cheered in theaters around the country. The film simultaneously twins the history of Native Americans with American exceptionalism, and the “Indians,” or rather human beings, win.