A Minute With...

LeAnne Howe, expert on American Indian studies and theater

7/3/2013  8:00 am

With the opening of “The Lone Ranger” in theaters July 3, most of the buzz is not about the title character but about Tonto, his Comanche sidekick, played by Johnny Depp in extravagant face paint and with a bird for a headdress. Tonto is not just any American Indian character, says LeAnne Howe, a co-editor of a recently published collection of 36 reviews on nearly a century of films that have portrayed Native Americans. Tonto was the only on-screen hero American Indians had growing up in the 1950s, says Howe, a Choctaw and a professor of American Indian Studies, of English and of theater at Illinois. Howe spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about Tonto and the history of Indians on screen.

It’s easy to think that many American Indians have taken one look at Johnny Depp as Tonto in trailers for this movie and dismissed the portrayal as the worst kind of stereotype. But the actor has been adopted by the Comanche Nation, which you note is no small thing. What’s going on here?

image of professor leanne howeOne word: Hollywood.

Seriously, American Indians have a long and complicated relationship with Hollywood films. Over the last 100 years, images of American Indians have populated Hollywood films so much so that when viewers see an Indian in a headdress they recognize the story as American. And as early as 1908, real American Indians worked as consultants and advisers to filmmakers – supposedly to make the storyline more authentic. For example, Lillian St. Cyr and James Youngdeer, enrolled members of the Nebraska Ho-Chunk Tribe, embraced moviemaking and worked as technical advisers for D.W. Griffith’s “Indian Runner’s Romance” (1909) and other films. A former chief of the Abenaki Tribe, actor Elijah Tahamont, stage name Dark Cloud, was another early technical adviser for such films as “The Song of the Wildwood Flute” (1910).

The latest updating of “The Lone Ranger” has cultural advisers as well, from the Comanche Nation. The film’s portrayal of Tonto is a continuation of a Hollywood tradition, complete with the stereotypical bare-chested warrior in a feathered headdress. What makes this film unique for moviegoers is that Johnny Depp was officially adopted into the Comanche Nation in May 2012, in a ceremony in Lawton, Okla. It is a case where art becomes life. Depp plays Comanche and is then adopted by respected Comanche elder LaDonna Harris, founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity.

As Harris’ adopted son, Depp is an honorary member of the tribe, but not an enrolled citizen. The adoption ceremony that honored Depp is more than just recognition, it’s a reciprocal relationship between obligated parties. Depp gave gifts to those in attendance as a sign of respect. In return, he’ll be received as a family member within the Comanche Nation. Over the centuries Native Americans have adopted many non-Indians into their tribes, including President Obama, adopted into the Crow Nation in 2008.

What’s different about the Tonto character in past radio, TV and film compared to many other Indian portrayals? Why was he such a hero?

Perhaps Tonto’s longevity is part of what sets him above other Native American characters in film or television. Tonto emerged in 1936 on the radio and evolved through many script transformations until the television series “The Lone Ranger” solidified the character. Tonto was played by Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels, who had his own fan club and newsletter, titled “The Tom Tom.” For American Indians my age, Silverheels was the only Native actor we would ever see on television. Imagine growing up in America and never seeing a white actor on television – except one. So of course Tonto was a heroic character for us.

You encouraged those writing the film reviews for your book to be funny and play with stereotypes. To reinforce that, your rating system for the 36 films employs tomahawks (“thumbs down”) and feathers (“thumbs up”). Why this approach? And how might this be key for Depp and the new movie, if done right?

Co-editors Harvey Markowitz and Denise Cummings and I wanted a general audience to find humor in the way American Indians are represented in film. Our rating system and the reviews in “Seeing Red: Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins” poke fun at the genre and make the discussion of ugly stereotypes livelier. Humor is a way to get at painful aspects of racism depicted in films such as “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) or “Broken Arrow” (1950). I suspect “The Lone Ranger” has to be humorous for some of the same reasons. Besides, the same team of Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer created the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.

Why have Indians been such a key part of American movies – even, you say, when they’re not actually in them?

Conquest is an American master narrative; it permeates our culture. In a film like “Independence Day” (1996) the storyline is about aliens landing on Earth and attempting to wipe out all indigenous life. Sound familiar? Aliens want to harvest all the planet’s resources.  Ditto. The film references Europeans’ hunger for other lands and resources, only this time the indigenous people are not going to lose it, as Native Americans did, to aliens. When President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) gives that rousing speech about not going quietly into that good night, American audiences cheered in theaters around the country. The film simultaneously twins the history of Native Americans with American exceptionalism, and the “Indians,” or rather human beings, win.

Do you have one or two movies, from among those in the book, which you’d suggest as the worst in their portrayals of Indians? And one or two that are must-sees?

So glad you asked. “A Man Called Horse” (1970) is a four-tomahawks-down film. Along with “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” (1969).  Ugh!  But “The Unforgiven” (1960), starring Audrey Hepburn as a Kiowa Indian, is a must see. 


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