Alex Yarde discusses the blatant racism in the new Disney film, “The Lone Ranger”.
In 1890, at Wounded Knee, on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, U.S. soldiers opened fire on unarmed Native Americans being held captive. At least 150 Lakota were killed including many women and children. Another 51 were wounded. Some say that close to 300 were actually killed. This area has been in the news recently because a South Dakota man put two forty acre tracts of land near the burial ground of this massacre up for sale. One of the two tracts actually contains the last known burial place of Chief Crazy Horse. The seller originally offered to sell the parcel, along with another piece of land, to the Oglala Lakota Nation for $4.9 million. The offer was open until May 1, but the Tribe refused, saying the price was excessive and the action amounted to extortion. Since the deadline, the seller claims to have been talking to three private buyers but no sale has been entered into.
I don’t claim to be an expert on the Native American experience in America. I also realize there is a danger in speaking on the plight of a people, since a group is never monolithic in thought or opinion. As a fellow human being, however, I can sympathize with the pain of knowing that sacred ground where ancestors lay is in danger of being sold to the highest bidder. As an American, I can be outraged by the squander, in my opinion, of an important American Heritage site that should be preserved and used to teach future generations about what happened there. As a citizen of black Caribbean descent, I can relate to a history where a group is marginalized and how this negatively impacts the group’s standing within our society.
What is amazing to me is that pop culture, in my opinion, continues to marginalize Native Americans in way that harkens back to another era. The latest Lone Ranger incarnation and the characterization of Tonto is one example. Johnny Depp, whom I generally respect, is the latest actor to take on the role. For some reason, he dons a black bird on his head, does not wear a shirt and speaks in the halting pidgin English that the Tonto character has used since his inception on radio in the 30s. Somehow, I guess I had hoped Disney would have taken this opportunity to break out of that mold—perhaps this was misplaced hope.
An actor of Irish descent actually played the character of Tonto on the radio version in 1930. This radio program was a huge success and eventually garnered a successful run as a Television Serial on ABC from 1949 to 1957. The 1950s portrayal of Tonto by Jay Silverheels, a Canadian Mohawk First Nations member, is the one that someone my age and older remembers. He spoke in pidgin English and was loyal to a fault. He bailed out his “Kemosabe” time and time again. As a child watching the exciting reruns, this was not lost on me. Two things bothered me about The Lone Ranger show. The first was the title. I understand he was the sole survivor of a group of Texas Rangers. But, how could the main character be rescued by, be trained in and use Native American tactics and still be in charge? It was clear to me that Tonto should be in charge. It struck me as being a bit like Batman rescuing Robin, training Robin, and then Robin getting top billing. In my humble opinion it should have been called “Tonto & the Lone Ranger.”
The second issue I had was with the name: “Tonto.” The word, in Spanish, means “dumb.” If you respected someone, why would you call them that? Naming the him “Tonto” is practically making him subhuman. So much so that Spanish language portrayals and dubbing call Depp’s character “Toro.” Toro has a much more positive cultural connotation. Now I’m not naive about where this comes from. I understand the pathology. Historically, white males, being both the main audience these shows were written for and produced by, were not all that concerned how other groups were portrayed. Programs like Amos & Andy and Charlie Chan were just as culturally insensitive. I hope that these would not be tolerated today. Would they? If not, then why, in 2013, is it still okay to portray Native Americans in this demeaning way?
In the 21st Century (the era of the reboot) we have the opportunity to do better and the responsibility to become more representative of a broader audience. We can do better. We need not lose the spirit of what made these stories a part of American Culture, but we can breathe in new life with a more accurate portrayal, can’t we?
At the risk of prejudging Mr. Depp and the filmmaker’s portrayal, I can’t fathom why Disney would chose to go with what appears to be the full “F Troop”. Johnny Depp is an A-List star. His box office is huge regardless of the role. He’d chew the scenery as Butch Cavendish, the Lone Ranger’s nemesis. However, already this summer I’ve seen some quizzical choices for actors. So it’s not entirely shocking, just disappointing. My fear is that the Disney executives, as well as a large part of the American public, feel “PC fatigue” — that as a society we have somehow done enough. This position, however, is easy to take when you posses the biggest bullhorn and have the dominant cultural voice. Which in America today, is still very white and very male.
As a nation, we have conveniently short memories and our popular culture acts as a mirror we hold up to reflect what’s important to us. Is this really the best we can do after all this time? Is this how we want our children to remember the proud descendants of the First Americans on this continent in IMAX & 3D?
It seems to me that the marginalization of Native Americans in popular culture does influence the lack of compassion in the broader American community about the failure of our government to purchase the tracts of land at Wounded Knee and create a protected historic site. Something has to explain this. Something has to explain why we can believe that ground can become consecrated by blood shed there (see battleground of Getttysburg), but the preservation of Wounded Knee is not a priority. Something has to explain how a nation can commission the carving of a 100 foot likeness of Crazy Horse in the Black Hills but not do anything when his final resting place is sold to a mall developer.
Something has to explain that bird on his head.
Image Credit: The_JIFF/Flickr