By Paul Chaat Smith
NMAI Associate Curator Paul Chaat Smith was the guest of Washington Post features writer Dan Zak at a press screening for the new movie The Lone Ranger. For Paul's thoughts on the experience, see Dan's excellent essay on American Indians and movies today, "Depp’s Tonto: an upgrade on a stereotype or just an updated stereotype?"
Last year when the studio released the first publicity photos promoting the film, Paul mused at greater length on the portrayal of the fictional Indian character Tonto. The essay below originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Native Peoples.
On March 8, 2012, Johnny Depp passed the audition.
That's when producer Jerry Bruckheimer released the first still from his forthcoming movie The Lone Ranger. Android phones lit up across Turtle Island as we stared at the glowing screens and prepared to render judgment.
By lucky coincidence or shrewd planning, it was International Women's Day.
This is what we saw: Johnny Depp as Tonto, wearing angry face paint and a matching glare that said, "I am probably going to kill you." Also, on his head, a bird. Average size, black. A raven, most likely. Tonto wearing the bird like a hat.
And this is what we thought, in rapid succession: outrageous, shocking, wait, is that a bird?, and okay, pretty fabulous.
Now that Depp (Cherokee?) has the part, and the tentative approval of Indians of America, where does he go from here? The expectations, already sky high by virtue of its being Johnny Depp, are suddenly raised by this genius move of turning a bird into a hat and looking ferocious instead of friendly.
There is a lot at stake. For Hollywood, the usual fortunes to be made or lost, careers rejuvenated or derailed. For the Red Nation, any big movie that involves Indians in any way whatsoever, no matter how major or minor, is important. This one is very important, because an A-list movie star is playing a Native American, and also because last year we got scammed out of appearing in the title of Cowboys & Aliens. Which wasn't that good, and anyway it bombed; however the bombing had implications, namely, further proof that Westerns are dead, and since Westerns often involve Indians, even if they are not always featured in the title, fewer Westerns mean fewer Indians. In fact, The Lone Ranger has already been declared dead at least twice, and it was only because Depp really, really wanted to play Tonto that it came back to life.
As Entertainment Weekly reported, "When the idea came up to do a new movie, Depp saw a way to right what he considered a pop culture wrong. 'I started thinking about Tonto and what could be done in my own small way to . . . ' he hesitated. '"Eliminate" isn't possible—but reinvent the relationship, to attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans, not only inThe Lone Ranger, but the way Indians were treated throughout history of cinema, and turn it on its head.'"
So that's what Johnny Depp wants from Tonto. What do we want from Johnny Depp? And why do we care so much? Because it leads to questions like this: Is Johnny Depp Native American? How much, and what kind? Hey, and what tribe was Tonto anyway?
Nobody knows. Not really. After all, these are cartoon characters and movie stars, and facts are elastic and mostly irrelevant when it comes to movies and cartoons (although Depp has reportedly said that he has Cherokee heritage).
More importantly: Here's the thing about Tonto. We don't like him! Because he was a quisling and a sellout. Couldn't manage complete sentences. Yet here's the puzzle. Although I've never met an Indian who admired Tonto, I've also never met anyone who had an unkind word for the actor who played him on television. That was Jay Silverheels, the toughest and coolest movie Indian of them all.In the best Hollywood tradition, he was born somebody else and with another name. Harold J. Smith, from Six Nations, a geographically small but politically vast Indian reserve in Ontario. Everyone who knew Harold J. Smith always believed he was destined for stardom. He was smart, handsome, and the son of a Mohawk chief. He worked hard in school, earned money at every odd job he could find, and excelled in sports. He toured professionally with a lacrosse team and won championships in ice hockey and wrestling. (That's how you got ahead back in the 20th century.) His boxing landed him at New York's Madison Square Garden, where he placed second in the Golden Gloves Tournament.
In 1938 the lacrosse team visited California, and Smith stayed and discovered a new sport. The bit roles where he played characters without names came first, and those turned into bigger roles with names and lines and credits. He was Jay Silverheels now, or sometimes Jay Silversmith. Ten years later he was in Arizona, shooting Broken Arrow with James Stewart, Jeff Chandler, and Debra Paget, when his agent phoned.
Of course he said yes. He said he would be honored to play opposite Clayton Moore in the new television series. The Lone Ranger had been huge on radio and in the comics for years, and if there were any sure things in this new medium called television, this was. It was the best part out there, and Jay Silverheels had figured out the camera the same way he figured out the lacrosse stick and the hockey puck. Talent and commitment and dedication to craft had won Jay Silverheels the role of a lifetime. With that answer Harold J. Smith began a new life as the first Indian superstar of the modern age.
Tonto was a joke, a famous punch line. But Silverheels became a Red Nation hero. What a thing to pull off! He managed this impossible kabuki dance with extraordinary grace and intelligence. Asked to speak some of the most demeaning lines ever committed to script, he somehow managed through superior acting skills, the use of his powerful voice, and sheer star power and presence to achieve equality with the Lone Ranger.
Yet as impressive as this achievement is, didn't it at the same time simply validate the manifest-destiny sensibility of that series and other Westerns of the time? Was Jay Silverheels a double agent who slyly raised questions that undermined those values? Or did his abilities advance the destructive policies of the day? Was he a secret hero or a charming, handsome sellout? What was the emotional cost of achieving the ultimate goal of your profession knowing that your work must cause embarrassment to those you love? Did any of it matter, or was it just show business? Was he a symbol of racial pride, demonstrating that Indians were still here and able to hold their own on the biggest show on the planet's newest technology? Stooge or patriot?
I think Jay Silverheels, dead since 1980, wants us to be asking these questions.
Silverheels is still on the air today, on DVDs, and all the Interwebs, and will probably be around after we're gone and those things have new names. A century has passed since his birth. We're still watching him, and I'm pretty sure he's still watching us watch Johnny Depp.
Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) is a writer and curator interested in the contemporary landscape of American Indian politics and culture. His work at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian includes the museum’s history gallery, Our Peoples; performance artist James Luna’s Emendatio (2005 Venice Biennial); Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian (2008–2009); and Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort (2009). With Robert Warrior, Paul is the author of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New Press, 1996), a standard text in Native studies and American history. His latest book is Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong (University of Minnesota, 2009). Photo by Cynthia Frankenburg, NMAI.