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Why 'The Lone Ranger' Is Not 'Just' a Movie

Michelle Shining Elk discusses the issues with Johnny Depp's portrayal of Native American character Tonto in The Lone Ranger

It keeps being said about the upcoming movie The Lone Ranger: "It's just a movie. It's not going to change the world." 

Well, I wish that were true and I wish this were just about "a movie." But sadly, it goes deeper and farther back than many realize, or have taken the time to think about, especially when considering how we, as Indian people, are perceived by mainstream society -- the perpetual time warp we are stuck in because of how we continue to be portrayed in film and television.

It's all about framing, and I advocate re-framing the negative images. Framing -- what do I mean? Framing can be subtle or invisible, harmful stereotypes or perceptions that cause problems that are more overt that manifest themselves in all degrees of subtlety. How is the damage done? Because all of these things are embedded in the public psyche and roll into our modern day existence and continue to be seen everywhere. We are trapped in a muddy time warp and defined by stereotypes and historical images that are not accurate by any stretch of the imagination. The "Injun say how!" way Depp delivers his character Tonto is not helping -- no matter how much courting he and Disney are doing to get "in good with the Indians."

Any group that has an interest in achieving success in the world at large, understands that portrayals have consequences. Hollywood continues to portray American Indian people in ways that perpetuate damaging stereotypes and inaccurate depictions of who we are. These in turn affect all outside interactions, perceptions and understandings that the mainstream, and the rest of the word, has of us. Lost and seemingly unknown is the fact that we are current, educated, relevant, multi-dimensional people and tribal nations, and NOT the images, symbols, portrayals or caricatures that exist and constantly used in film and television to define us.

This is about the baggage, the Hollywood baggage we can't seem to ditch. The baggage that has for decades created inaccurate perceptions of who we are as the first people of the Nation. Baggage we have been trying to dump for years.

Hollywood caters to popular culture, and popular culture determined by the majority. (We are not in this mix, just so you know.) In this, Hollywood has propagated, and continues to propagate, misinformation, skewed perspectives and inappropriate depictions of who we truly are as NDN people.

"What's the big deal?" you might ask. Well, the big deal is that we continue to end up being defined by inaccurate depictions and skewed perspectives because the members of the majority (the group that doesn't include us) internalizes the misinformation and depictions as fact and the way things are (when it's completely not the way things are), because they do not know any better. It's a sad fact, but true.

It's time we change the public paradigm -- the one shaped by Hollywood and non-Natives -- about who we are. People keep saying, "It's just a movie". Well, I'm not just an Indian willing to accept perpetuating damaging stereotypes for the sake of just a movie. Johnny Depp made promises that he would move away from damaging stereotypes and provide a more well-rounded Tonto, but he failed to do so -- and regardless of what anyone wants to say or think, Depp's been driving this bus since the day he became an executive producer and took the film off the "dead projects" shelf.

Some say "It's a new era, modern day movie, made to entertain -- get over it."

I say, "Yes, it is a new era, modern day movie, but when is our cultural group going to stop being the entertainment?" It’s a new era, yet we continue to be forced to deal with these old problems. When can we say that enough is enough?

It's time that we place ourselves into the American society equation as a contemporary force and as a people of interest that is nothing like the damaging stereotypical images and depictions that continue to define us. Just as we have regained control of our lands and resources, it is time we take charge of our image. If we don’t, negative depictions of us created by non-Natives will remain, as it has into this, the 21st century -- we have to come together, like we do for so many other causes, to send the message that we are not okay with these gross misrepresentations of who we are.

To sit complacent, to not say or do anything about what is wrong with the stereotypes being perpetuated in this film, is more or less saying it’s OK. We might as well just say, "Hey, this is great and we are happy to keep being the doormat on America’s doorstep for all to walk on -- especially if it is in the name of entertainment."

To quote Sonny Skyhawk: "Johnny Depp has 'played' the American Indian people, more than just physically while laughing all the way to the bank.”

Michelle Hall Shining Elk is an activist and consultant to the entertainment industry. She is a member of the Colville Tribes Arrow Lakes and Okanogan Bands. This essay originally appeared at