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What's Wrong With Benicio Del Toro and Johnny Depp Playing Indian Characters?

Sonny Skyhawk on portrayals of American Indians by Johnny Depp (Tonto), Benicio Del Toro (Jimmy P.), and Lou Diamond Phillips (in Longmire).

American Indians in Film & Television (AIFT) has been the only vocal advocate for the hiring and accurate portrayal of the American Indian in Hollywood for the last 30 years. The American Indian had never had a voice in Hollywood, until AIFT was founded. The goal was to open doors for the American Indian, both in front of and behind the camera, in an industry where nepotism and the color of your skin mattered. Have inroads been made? Of course, but at a snail's pace. As founder and chairman , I would like to preface this article by thanking the productions that have hired and showcased our Native people -- and our hope is they met your expectations. These are professional actors with aspirations who have studied their craft, take pride in it, and are most capable.

The question at hand, one that is consistantly asked by our Native people, is why are non-native actors playing “Indian” roles when there is an abundance of capable Native actors available with just as much talent and skills ? I have posed this question to Network and Studio executives, and the answer is always evasive with a tendency to pass the blame onto others, mostly the writers.

The question of why, in my opinion, carries a very long answer, but to cut to the chase: It is all about money. Successful non-Native actors who played "Indians" were numerous to say the least, but a few stand out in my memory. Michael Ansara, Charles Bronson, Victor Jory -- even Elvis Presley -- played “Indian” and had lucrative careers by doing so. (Luther Standing Bear, Jay Silverheels and Eddie Little Sky came much later, along with Will Sampson and Sonny Skyhawk.) One of those early screen "Indians" was Iron Eyes Cody, who became better known for his pollution commercial than his stereotypical acting roles. He was later exposed as a fraud. What has always been the determining factor in “Hollywood”, is whether a movie will make money, and if it does, they sequel it into oblivion. Hollywood makes movies on that premise alone and not because it is the socially or morally responsible thing to do -- they leave that up to documentarians.

Films that feature American Indian characters are far and few between, and when a Native character does have a significant part, what happens? Hollywood casts a non-Indian in the role. It is a dilemma that we as American Indians working within the industry have had to deal with for a long time, and now we are on the verge of becoming extinct in Hollywood. As Native people we have had to deal with a larger identity issue than just being invisible in film and television. Our issue is multiplied by the long time practice of marketers using us to brand everything from baking powder to gasoline. Athletic organizations using us as disparaging mascots, and promoting an inaccurate version of history that gives the impression we are still fighting the “Indian wars” of yesteryear. I don’t mean on the surface so much, but subliminally. We are still perceived as less than equals. You don’t see Native people in commercials, yet we are consumers just like everyone else. We are totally underserved when it comes to marketing to our people, yet we buy cars, lotions, food, and every conceivable product. Children’s programming does not contain any storylines or images of our own people, so our children are deprived of seeing their own images reflected. You can only imagine the psychological or sociological ramifications of that ordeal on innocent children.

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On the flip side, though this is not a popular thing to say, I also think “American Indians” or "Native Americans” as we are called today, are somewhat responsible, indirectly, for some of that history due to apathy about our image. Hollywood and Madison Avenue leveraged that apathy; we became fair game for exploitation. Our apathy was used as a license to create cartoonish mascot images of our people. The Native people of this hemisphere deserve better, and maybe our innocence relied on some sense of fair play. I am in no way condoning the “tanning” or “painting” of non-natives to play “Indians”, or wear chicken feathers or dead birds on their heads -- that is as ludicrous as it looks. In reality, if we did wear an animal skin or any part of an animal, we were respectful for its sacrifice and did so in honor of that spiritual being. The disrespect being shown by the character of Johnny Depp as Tonto is to play a shaman or medicine person. No Native person who knows and lives his culture, no advisor or tribal historian, possesses the ability to grant permission to anyone to play a medicine person. Only a medicine person can be a medicine person, which brings us full circle to who can play what. So we come back to the issue of The Lone Ranger, Jimmy P., in which Benicio Del Toro plays an Indian, and the television series Longmire, in which Lou Diamond Phillips plays an Indian -- and again ask: Why ? 

I would venture to say that if Disney asked Johnny Depp to play Martin Luther King in a movie, there is no doubt in my mind that the African American community would be up in arms, and it would not happen -- absolutely not. Then why is it that Hollywood feels no compunction in casting a non-native as an iconic American Indian. As Native people, we have more pressing and serious matters to address, and that is a fact. But the basic reason we still to this day, suffer from an identity crisis, is because of our own apathy towards this issue. We will no longer stand idly by and allow Hollywood to arbitrarily replace us with non-native players. We will challenge those choices in the press and all social platforms available. Our actors need jobs. Our stories deserve to be told and we deserve to tell it from our perspective. So what are we left with after The Lone Ranger? That remains to be seen. One thing I am sure of , the Halloween costume of the bird-on-the-head Tonto will be with us for many Halloweens to come. What isn’t funny about this production is one human person lost his life in the process of making the show, and we convey to his family our sincere condolences. In the future our people will have to be continuously reminded of these non-indian characters and their individual actions and portrayals. We will continue to play second banana to the Johnny Depps of Hollywood, and the rest as they say, is history.

Rest assured that after the laughs have subsided, the explosions and train wrecks have ended, the photo-ops and the premiere tickets are used up, and the Johnny Depps and his kind laugh all the way to the bank, we will still be left with the same empty feeling we had before this film came along. The Native people of America need to rid themselves of the apathy and start caring about how their images are used or abused. We owe it to our present generations, our children and the memory of our ancestors who paid such a dear price for us to be here today, to do so.

As a final request from this writer, please don’t waste your time in the effort to convince me that Johnny Depp and Lou Diamond Phillips are Indian. Johnny Depp’s adoption was a farce and a photo opportunity for LaDonna Harris and nothing more. The same goes for the photo op with the Chairman of the Dine people -- it also was equally a farce . As for Benicio Del Toro, he may be the only one of the three that has indigenous blood. Just sayin'.