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Who's an Indian? Johnny Depp

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Of all the sovereign authority tribes once held, the least compromised by Congress is the tribe’s ability to determine who is a member of the tribe or who is an Indian. The US census of 2010 determined there were some 3 million American Indians belonging to tribes, a number that can easily be disputed. Not all American Indians care if they are counted. There's a tribe in Florida that has never been recognized by the United States for one reason: They won’t hand over their rolls to the government. They don't believe the enemy should know how many of them there are. To this day, they prefer to be a non-federally recognized tribe of Indians, though they still make and hand out tribal identification cards to its members, something all tribes do. Which brings us to this recent hot-button topic: What’s wrong with Johnny Depp playing an Indian? Nothing now, because he is an American Indian. If the Comanche say it, then it is so. He has received some expert advice on Indians from none other than the political and cultural genius of LaDonna Harris. No one can argue with the fact a tribe has the right to determine who is an Indian. If the Comanche Nation wishes to adopt a space alien, it would not be in any tribe’s interest to criticize. Another tribe would only be limiting their own authority to do the same. From some of his statements, I don’t think Depp really knows enough about us to have come up with this brilliant way of eliminating all the questions about his being Indian. Again I take my hat off to Harris and the Comanche Nation for walking into the middle of what could have been a nasty long-term debate and putting an end to it. Johnny Depp is an Indian. I really do hope that Depp has a good experience out of all this Lone Ranger business. He can do a lot to help us by shining a light on all kinds of issues in Indian country, and now that he is one of us, he carries the spirit and the responsibility. I think he might have been blown away by all the criticism, but he did ask for it. I was reading some of his interviews and the problem became very apparent—he doesn’t know much about Indians. Not that he has to, he just has to be able to act like an Indian, but check out what he said. Speaking about the painting he took his inspiration from for Tonto said this, "It just so happens, Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior's head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top," Depp revealed. "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." It sounds like Depp didn’t know Indians wore birds on their head. In most tribes, the medicine men who wear bird headdresses. Now that he's one of us, he'll need to learn more to help us. When you get down to it, the original Tonto and the Long Ranger were developed in a very racist time in America by a non-Indian. There were lots of stupid folks with stupid ideas (kind of like today), with black face and racist comics everywhere. A sit-around-the-fort Indian runs with a masked man and they fight for justice. It was a figment of someone’s imagination for the period it was set in. Nothing profound or deep about it. You can put a medicine man in it and the result will still be a shallow, unrealistic plot. Many Indian actors have not worked in a while and likely won’t until Hollywood starts buying screenplays written by Indians. Mr. Depp can be a real help in this area. I think he should have played The Lone Ranger and Gary Farmer should have been Tonto—that would have gone a long way to dispel stereotypes. Depp himself suggested that he had intentionally attempted to address the stereotype of Native Americans in society with his role. "The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least—especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger's assistant," Depp told Entertainment Weekly. "As you'll see, it's most definitely not that." So what is an Indian stereotype? One of the most common is that we are all some kind of mystic or medicine man/woman. We have seen that play out very recently when James Arthur Ray, a man playing a medicine man, killed some people in a sweat lodge. So, inadvertent as it may be, Johnny Depp is playing into the stereotypes of American Indians by playing one as medicine man, Tonto. All this because he really doesn’t know what he is doing, so I suspect it will end up a dark comedy. So now, with advisors like Mrs. Harris and the Comanche Nation, I think Johnny Depp is well on his way to mainge some positive, needed contributions to our world. I hope it is not all make-believe, and that the spirit finds him worthy. Dan (SaSuWeh) Jones is the former chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. He is a filmmaker and Vice Chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, appointed by former Oklahoma Governor, Brad Henry.