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Let's Talk about Johnny

Recently, I was in Grand Ronde for a Veterans Summit hosted by the Native Wellness Institute. The positivity was radiating, and I felt rejuvenated by the strength and honor permeating the air. Highlights included hearing the Navajo Code Talkers tell their story, meeting Jim Warne from the Warrior Society Development Inc. and sleeping in a tee-pee.


But that is not the real purpose of this blog post. While I was at the Summit, I got to spend a few moments with my friends, Martin Sensmier and John Trudell. We had a spicy conversation about The Lone Ranger, Tonto specifically. I want you to know that I have been following this debate for some time now, and I didn’t want to jump on the “lets–hate-Johnny” bandwagon, mostly because I think Johnny is adorable and I love him.  However, after I read Adrienne K.’s blogpost “Why Tonto Matters,  I made a personal decision to boycott Disney’s film. And then I met John Trudell (my hero), and he changed my mind (a little). He said a few things that really stuck out to me. (please keep in mind that these quotes aren’t verbatim, I didn’t have my handy recording device):

1. Who cares about a fictional character in a fictional film? We have much bigger issues to tackle, and if the Indian community would put as much energy into challenging the U.S. government for our treaty rights, as they do for Tonto, maybe we could see some real change. We have real issues [like getting drugs off of our reservations] to deal with.”

2. It is still our responsibility to behave honorably, even in times of battle. I don’t see that happening. I see a lot of hateful angry criticism for Hollywood and Johnny Depp coming from the Indian Community. How can they preach about being traditional, honoring our ancestors and cultural heritage, then turn around to behave like their colonizers? The people of Hollywood and Johnny Depp are still human beings, and should be treated that way.

3. You know, in my day, we were upset about the existence of Tonto. Your generation is upset that a non-Indian is playing Tonto.

So, here’s my Indian confession of the day: I went to see The Lone Ranger (a matinee, which is somehow better, because it’s cheaper). I don’t have any real loud complaints- Yes, Johnny Depp wore a bird oh his head; Yes, there were several comments eluding to the disappearance of Indians; And Yes, there was a scene where all of the Indians died. The stereotypical depiction of the leathered and feathered dying Indian, noble savage, and spiritual warrior were all there. Indian confession #2, I thought it was pretty entertaining (as a fictional film, which by definition is imagined and theatrical). But it did make me hurt a little inside…

Because representation matters!

Each time that we are represented in a false form, we move a step further from honoring each other’s authenticity. Tonto is a character developed by a non-indian. The costume is based off of a painting of what the non-indian artist thought a Crow Indian should look like. Tonto’s mystical mythological character reinforces stereotypes and if ever there was a “red-face”, Johnny is playing him. And, side note, Tonto means "stupid/mindless/idiot" in Spanish; and Wictionary defines Tonto as “a Native American person who is subservient to a white person”; but how does that affect our lives, our communities and our psyche? Let me share one of my favorite quotes by Gerald Wilkinson: 

“As media consumers, Indian people are in a particularly harmful position. We consume the thoughts of others about ourselves and the world.  The media has, for its own purposes, created a false image of the Native American. Too many of us have patterned ourselves after that image. It is time now that we project our own image and stop being what we never really were.” 

On a personal level, here is how I know that our society is unable to differentiate the true from the false because of the ever-revolving door of stereotypical images: 

Last night, my lovely non-Indian friend wanted to know about all of the different Tee-pee’s I lived in, and was shocked when I told her that we live in houses now. Another friend wanted to know if cars were allowed on the reservation (wtf?). And another asked if I would need to put my “leather dress” on before meeting Chiefs? And that, my friends, is why representation matters. 

I am now equipped to answer those questions (because I’ve received so many ignorant questions like this before). But my younger self wasn’t prepared- just like our young Native people may not know how to navigate through this sort of racism. So let’s agree that it is not okay for a red face to grace the big screen.

Let’s evolve and seek authenticity.