POLL: Is Johnny Depp’s ‘Tonto’ a salute or slight to native people?

I like you, Johnny Depp, I really do. You were great in Donnie Brasco and amazing in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Johnny Depp as Tonto. (Disney/Bruckheimer Films)

But lately I’m having second thoughts. This past week a photo emerged of Depp as the classic Native American movie character Tonto in a remake of the famed Lone Ranger films.

Depp has told media that he intends to ‘salute Native Americans’ and push boundaries with this depiction of Tonto — but that really doesn’t change the fact that it’s a white dude dressed as an Indigenous person, and I really thought we were beyond that.

With all the Native American actors in Hollywood, we really couldn’t have cast one for this role?

What do you think? Is Depp as Tonto a salute to indigenous people — or is it just plain offensive?

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19 thoughts on “POLL: Is Johnny Depp’s ‘Tonto’ a salute or slight to native people?

  1. I think this is awful. The character is a caricature that
    speaks broken English, is the last of is tribe, and whose name is Spanish for
    stupid. I can believe there hasn’t been more of an outcry against this.

  2. Truth is, I’m going to sit on this fence for a while. Not many white actors other than Johnny Depp would cause me even pause before criticizing. But in this case I will sit on the fence and listen and think for while. Actually, I want to interview him myself before I form an opinion. Does Johnny really understand the issue/the question? I hope he speaks out more about this “salute.”

  3. Look how Johnny Depp is dressed.. I for one do not like that Johnny Depp thinks that dressing like a Spiritchel leader of a Plans Native American Indian tribe.. is how Tonto would look, This just does not look like Tonto’s tribe at all, as for Johnny Depp being white I can not say if he has Native American Indian blood or not. 

  4. Unfortunately Johnny Depp is simply an actor. The costume designer and design team of the film make those choices. And more unfortunately, costume designers are only as responsible as their director makes them, with regard to consulting various nations/cultural representatives about appropriating their cultural heritage. However, if Johnny Depp was concerned about the costume designer’s choices he would, ideally, have the right to refuse to wear the costume. I feel like your analysis proves to me that if Johnny Depp has hereditary roots in a particular nation, it doesn’t look like he’s taking any care in connecting to them or learning about them. That’s if this show isn’t a parody. If it’s a parody, comedy takes a big license. But still, I agree that if he’s wearing ceremonial make-up in any context outside of ceremony, that’s just not right. I once wrote in a complaint to Coco Rosie about the same issue. 

  5. I wish I was a rich, famous artist so I would be called bold and creative. Johnny depp is a weird s hm u c k

  6. Depp participated in the deeply racist remake of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. He is not to be relied on for any sensitivity on matters of ‘race’.

  7. Of course, I immediately thought of this discussion when I read “An Open Letter to Johnny Depp’s Tonto” on McSweeney’s today: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/an-open-letter-to-johnny-depps-tonto

  8.  As a major Johnny Depp fan and an NDN, as opposed to the inevitable and SO easily spotted “I have native ancestry” WANNABE posers who SURPRISE SURPRISE have shown up in the comments like they do at every powwow telling me all about their fullblood Cherokee/Blackfoot/Lakota great great grandma, yet who never have any clue about the pulse and real spirit of the natives and our perceptions today, I am glad someone is telling it like it is. It’s always the Vanilla Twnkies who love to claim their Pretendian tribe “blood” who have the typical Euro attitude of pooh-poohing and chiding any REAL rez skin who is sick of the stereotypes and racism and points it out. That’s because they have no real connection to our cultures, but only appropriate the title they give themselves for the convenience of making a supposed point supporting their agenda of trivializing our concerns. Every native who lives the culture will understand why putting a bird on it is not gonna make it fly.Especially a bird on top of a costume they stole off a make-believe portrait by Kirby Sattler, a WHITE man who admits he just kind of throws together random “spiritual” and “shamanic” items like a little girl playing dress-up in Mom’s closet, to  — you guessed it — “HONOR” natives. PUHLEASE.I would LOVE for JD to be as “Cherokee or Creek” as his family myth “guesses” he is, because he’s so cool and “savvy” and brilliant. But the reality is that, unless he wants to get a DNA test, he has no geneology to support that, is the word in NDN circles who’ve researched it. I hope JD can prove that wrong, but it doesn’t look that way. 1 percent of white people in this country have NDN DNA, and those that do have a TINY bit, so those family myths are just that. And if you have no background of your family being really a part of the culture today, yes, it is racist for someone to play an already stereotypical role who is not native, for obvious reasons. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t get why Washington Redskins is insulting, either. I had hoped JD would play this in a cool way that turned the jokes on the white man and gave some dignity back to “Tonto,” but unless they have a damn good explanation scriptwise, I cannot see this as being anything other than another slap in the face invitation for rednecks to haul out their racial slurs they hung up finally after John Wayne died. White people and all you wannabes with “native” ancestry (right) who say it doesn’t matter if a native plays a native role do NOT get why it’s an insult that the most famous “native” was Iron Eyes Cody in a litter commerical. An Italian. You don’t get it because of what we’re talking about here. There are TONS of fantastic native actors. But Hollywood WANTS them to be invisible because they have an agnda to present an altered reality that suits the Eurocentric arrogant view that keeps people able to go on blogs and actually criticize us on our own land as mere annoyances when we object to being yet another mascot in a white game. It is as important that it stop this demeaning treatment as they get rid of L’il Black Sambo and blackface. And though Johnny means well, to say he wants to “fix” it by taking the role that a rez NDN actor enculturated could have made better than just a drag show is missing the point. Why do we need a guy with maybe some undefined blood and no embedding into his long-lost “heritage” to represent natives? Get it? Because Hollywood considers natives as fictional of characters still as Tonto. You’re brilliant, Johnny, but give me Denzel as Malcom X.

  9. As far back as I can remember our ancestors were portrayed by non-Aboriginal actors on film (especially, starring roles). 


    i)    Burt Lancaster, (Caucasian) in the movie “Apache”, 1954;
    ii)  Tom Laughlin, (Caucasian) in the movie “Billy Jack” 1971; 
    iii) the ‘late Charles Bronson, (Caucasian) who seemed to be the template by which all
           other non-Aboriginal actors were cast from, for the television Aboriginal roles…
            fast forward to Johnny Depp (Caucasian) and Tonto, 2012;…hmmm

    As an aboriginal woman (who’s had some experience in marketing) I’m trying to figure out how they (movie/production companies…etc) sold it to the Aboriginal entertainment populace; at large.  Let me guess; perhaps it went something like this;

    i)    the world isn’t ready for a ‘mainstream’ Aboriginal actor; just yet,
    ii)   you’ll be the first actor on the list when we re-do ‘Apache’..
    iii)  you’re the ONLY actor we’ve penciled in for the remake of ‘Billy Jack’…
    iv)   we’ve got you on speed dial as soon as we’re given the go ahead for “The Lone

    …or maybe we could just sign a petition for a woman like perhaps, Ms. Michelle Thrush, to take on the role and play a “Yentyl” like Barbra Streisand-y, character for Tonto…just saying…

    An old woman’s thoughts, Hi, hi…

  10. I went to the last performance of “King Lear” at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The cast was all-Indgenous; Métis actor August Schellenberg in the lead role with First Nations and Inuit in supporting roles and extras. The grumbling about an Indigenous adaptation of “King Lear,” in either Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) or Huron-Wendat like garb, was along the lines of “but can native people really act?” and “what’s Shakespeare got to do with Indians?” or “are there enough experienced Aboriginal actors to fill the roles?”

    Most of the negative stuff was about the possible butchering of an English classic, a mangling of the near gospel words of the bard by people with Ojibway or Cree accents.  Horrors!

    Was the play fantastic? No. It was good, very good in places but not fantastic. But it was inspirational to me, and I believe to so many in the audiences. Not because of the great production or performances even with the flashes of brilliance here and there. Nope, it was the fact that more than a few people, avid fans of Indigenous theatre for decades, people who have followed with interest the careers of so many actors from this reserve or that community, commented thus: 

    “They could have had two full companies of experienced Aboriginal actors touring this play across the country if they wanted. Maybe three companies.”

    It’s no longer a limited list of actors like Farmer, Greene, Cardinal, Mojica, and Schellenberg. It’s a growing list of actors who are no longer willing to allow producers to get away with tokenism and worse.

    Depp is a star. He’s money in the bank. To tell the truth, I can’t remember the name of the actor playing The Lone Ranger. It’s a business decision by Disney to get “a name” with star power to fill the seats. It isn’t about accuracy, or a lack of Indigenous actors, or the unfairness of it all. It’s about money and power and a studio’s ability to mangle what it wants in pursuit of more money and power in that myth factory called Hollywood.

    Who knows. The movie might even be entertaining and fun. And anyone who believes that the pirate life portrayed in Pirates of the Caribbean was accurate is also missing the point.

  11. Actually Johnny Depp is at least 50% Native American not white- Cherokee. He has made several references to his heritiage including the tattoo on his right arm. This may not be is best role . The original Tonto was about 99% racist so either way this is a vast improvement. Do your research before blanketly stating that someone is white. You might be surprised.

  12. In a 2002 interview, Depp stated that he believed he has Native American ancestry; in 2011, he specified, “I guess I have some Native American [in me] somewhere down the line. My great-grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek.”

    Just one more claiming to have a Cherokee Princess for a grandmother. How come no one ever has a Cherokee Prince for a grandfather?

  13. Used to wonder that myself. The answer must be that, as subordinates, it was considered more ‘fitting’ to take Indigenous women (Metis or quarter-‘bloods’ or less) into the dominant society than it was to incorporate men. Notice the same with African-Americans.

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