Considering the portrayal of Natives in the media, Douglas Miles no longer wonders why he has a chip on his shoulder.
I had to see it for myself. Wanted to see what the world’s largest media conglomerate would do as it resurrected a racist stereotype and let the most powerful hipster drive it forward for all the masses to swallow pseudo-history in some celebrity worshipping blockbuster summertime backwards anachronistic new age dream sequence. The Lone Ranger was making racial profiling cool again.
I knew it would be bad but nothing really prepares you for some things. Hearing about this film for over a year, I couldn’t believe they cast Johnny Depp, a non-Native, as a Native. My issue wasn’t even with Depp’s thin claims of nativity due to “some rape…” ( He actually said this). Didn’t even matter to me that the role could’ve went to a Native actor. What bothered me most was the cliché throwback to the demeaning role itself of “Tonto”. We (Natives) don’t care what American pop culture says about Tonto’s importance to America. We did not ask to be stereotyped in film. No one ever asked Natives what we thought. Now we are supposed to believe that this role is “okay” because someone says it’s honoring? The other problem is there are whole generations that don’t even know this type of role is racist. Disney banked on this fact heavily.
The Tonto of ye olde Western lore was nothing more than an archaic filmic stereotype of a silent, trusty, Native subservient to the White man. He was a “good Indian”. His role was meant to make white America feel comfortable about horrid history and make us less threatening at the same time.
Recent films had amazing Native actors playing heavy roles; There’s Gary Farmer opposite Forrest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: Way of The Samurai. Wes Studi alongside Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s slick L.A. noir crime caper Heat. Adam Beach’s unforgettable torment as (O’odham) Marine Ira Hayes in Clint Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers. Beach should’ve been nominated for a Golden Globe. Because of these recent performances, I could NOT figure out why “Lone Ranger” even existed with a white actor in ” redface” as Tonto? I still can’t fathom it, yet.
Will Sampson in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is probably the best example. Though not a recent one, he gave Cuckoos Nest its conscience, power and redemptive tone via his love for Nicholson’s “Randle Patrick McMurphy”. I hear it all the time though.” Hollywood is about the bottom line, Depp can bankroll a film, so bla bla bla”. Well I simply don’t care. Just because Hollywood’s bottom line is filled with cold hard cash, casting couches, back room deals, corporate mergers, and big homes, doesn’t give them permission to clown (our) culture. That’s what Depp does for about 2/3 rds of the Lone Ranger film as he plays a Buster Keatonesque, silly, soft clown as a Native. ( Spoiler alert). It’s stupefying. The more I thought about our Native history and contribution in American art, film, literature, photography , music and society, it began to anger me as a Father, a working artist and as a Native man in America.
As an artist I hold myself to high standards with each new project, goal and idea I would launch. We produced films with Apache Skateboards for almost 10 years. We didn’t work in a vacuum. We traveled to many communities. Short form, current , non-stereotypical and focused on youth culture films is the art we make. We were now creating a new way of looking at and being ourselves ( Indian) without the ” pristine lens of the past”, with our art. As a film maker from a Native community I felt an immense responsibility to critique what I knew was a bad idea coming from Disney. Hundreds of film and social critics around the world now agree. Over half of these critics also referred to the racist filmic paradigm in The Lone Ranger. This I’m sure worries Depp and Disney as their brand’s now saddled with this more than accusation, has handlers and publicity scrambling, losing sleep for a Wounded Knee buy- back, pay-forward to our Lakota brothers & sisters as absolution for the racist sins of their film flop. I hope the Lakotas get it back. However no heroism is needed. The real heroes lay beneath the sacred earth where they were murdered for territory, revenge and a real history no Disney movie could ever make into a franchise. Or didn’t they just try to? Real men get no gold stars for doing what you’re supposed to do anyways.
People might not know my background and I don’t usually share it. I spent formative years growing up in Phoenix. Later, I raised my family in San Carlos, AZ. My father was an Airborne paratrooper and was also friends with the infamous Ira Hayes. We learned early on to be proud of these things, these men and who we were, all twelve of us. I remember my older sister Joanne talked about hitch hiking to and from Pine Ridge, SD. We had underground newspapers like “Akwesasne Notes” laying around. I pored over these papers looking at photos of art and the peoples struggle. We had posters of Jimi, Janis and Morrison plastered on walls in the ” boys room”. We saw the Chicano activist ” Brown Berets” cruising South Central Avenue. My sister said, “they take care of their people.” I watched her come and go with nothing but a backpack and a knife in her boot. I credit her with teaching me a sense of pride in my own art talent at an early age. She did this in one afternoon by showing me a magazine (Arizona Highways) that featured the art of Allan Houser, Chiricahua Apache. He, a descendent of the Geronimo band raised in captivity basically as prisoners of war.
Photos of my older brother Duane as he marched against Orme Dam on the Fort McDowell Yavapai-Apache Reservaton lay in some junk drawer. At the time, the state of Arizona wanted to flood Fort McDowell with something called eminent domain, ( No Loop 202!) destroying their land base, again. Those people stood up back then. All my older brothers and sisters marched in the heat. I was too young to go, but I wanted to.
For years I was often the only “Indian kid” in the classroom. I remember everyone looking at me when the teacher told popular myths about how ” Indians traded 40.00 worth of trinkets for the island of Manhattan now known as New York City.” Kids had this look on their face ” wow it must suck to be you guys…” Or worse…”Wow, the Indians are just dumb”…it was like a constant reminder being thrown about inferiority and you were the token dumb Indian for all to stare at but never understood.
Once, I missed the bus in 5th grade. I waited after school for my Mom to come pick me up. The principal came out as I stood by the flag pole and asked me, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Many people wore there hair long then, (Afros too), but we Indians took that seriously. It was a renaissance of pride, dignity and power for people of color, not just fashion. He then said, “Tomorrow, I’m going to cut your hair boy.” I was young and I froze. Could he really do that? Humiliate me in front of the whole school when I returned the next day? My Mom couldn’t come soon enough. I told her what happened and she calmed me down saying, “It’s your right to wear your long hair, he can’t do that and we won’t let him, if he tells you again, tell him that.” I remember this. Not until years later did I realize these were racist acts. I faced this off and on as I went to different schools growing up in Arizona. If it wasn’t some random thug, it was some country bumpkin, if it wasn’t a teacher, it was a principal, or random citizen.
A close friend once told me, “Doug, you have a bad attitude.” I just smiled at her. My own parents told me, “You’ve always had a chip on your shoulder”. Well I don’t wonder why anymore, neither should you.
Originally appeared at Apaches and Angels.
All art courtesy of the author