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The Tonto Files: In Defense of Comanches

Filmmaker Jason Asenap on Johnny Depp playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger.
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The Tonto Files is an occasional series of ruminations and riffs on Tonto, a fictional sidekick from the radio days who is suddenly the world's most talked about Indian. That'll happen when Johnny Depp plays you a $250 million summer blockbuster (coming June 2013). First up, filmmaker Jason Asenap. Take it away, Kemosabe:

Let’s all of us, in Indian Country, take one big collective deep breath now.


Okay. So I’ll start off by saying hold your horses, pun intended. Enough with the knee jerk reactions. The interwebs are aghast with the news that the Comanche tribe has adopted Johnny Depp. The reasoning behind this I can only surmise has to do with perceived opportunism. The Comanche tribe and Mr. Depp must have agreed to this “arrangement” to better themselves or to put themselves in an advantageous position. I mean, I think this is why some in Indian country are upset. (God forbid it be jealousy or any of those other traits that can exist in Indian country, where we like to tear each other down)

Johnny gets to become Indian, and more specifically a Comanche by way of this adoption process and gets an opportunity to learn about a tribe who accepts him and his good will and heart. The tribe gets to position itself as a host of Mr. Depp and perhaps opens lines of communication in the world of entertainment and popular perception, i.e. stereotype. The tribe in effect gets to have a say, albeit a small one, in how they can be portrayed in the future by having opened this line of communication.

I’m trying to find the fault in either of these scenarios.

To get it out of the way, if one knows any Comanche history at all, which a lot of the naysayers don’t, you will understand that the tribe has a long history of taking captives and making them Comanche. To be blunt we stole people. There weren’t ID cards issued on the rough and tumble southern plains. You either made it out alive or you didn’t. In this case, you either were a citizen of a southern plains tribe or you were the enemy. The Comanches weren’t the only tribe known to take captives either, far from it. Our Kiowa brothers and many others of the southern plains tribes took captives all the time.

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One need only look at the history of Quanah Parker, a significant leader in the Comanche tribe, to understand this very basic theory. Quanah’s mother was Cynthia Ann Parker, part of a Parker family killed and captured in Texas. Young Cynthia was captured and became Comanche for all practical purposes, marrying a chief in the tribe and bearing children, one of which was one of the most feared Comanche warriors the southern plains ever saw, one Quanah Parker.

No one questioned his identity, and I’m pretty sure when cavalry soldiers were being chased by Quanah they didn’t stop and ask for his Certificate degree of Indian Blood.

Look, at the end of the day this is a grand opportunity, for not only Comanches but also Indian country in general. As an independent filmmaker, I welcome the notion that Depp will now keep in mind his new Comanche family and additionally, who knows, maybe he can make contributions in some way to Native film. Stranger things have happened.

It’s too late to take the crow off his head but it’s not to late to educate Mr. Depp and show him the fellowship that he has chosen to share with the Comanches. His heart is in the right place. Several of my friends and family attended this adoption and they have nothing but good things to say about him.

At the end of the day, this is a grand opportunity for Indian country to build bridges of communication and could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship and dialogue.

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt Indian country.

Take a deep breath, it will be okay.

Jason Asenap (Comanche/Muskogee Creek) is a veteran of the American Indian Arts/Disney/ABC Summer Television and Film workshop, and was one of four Sundance Institute NativeLab fellows. His current projects include Rugged Guy and a documentary about the history and influence of the Comanche Nation on the Native American Church.