In 1969, Jay Silverheels, the Mohawk Indian actor who played Tonto in the hit 1950s TV show “The Lone Ranger,” appeared in character on “The Tonight Show,” where Johnny Carson conducted a mock job interview.
“Worked 30 years as faithful sidekick for kemo sabe,” Tonto said, explaining his employment history. “Hunt, fish, make food, sew clothes, sweep up, stay awake all night to listen for enemies for kemo sabe. Risk life for kemo sabe. Thirty lousy years.”
The joke — considering, for once, how the Lone Ranger’s Wild West adventures might have felt from his subservient partner’s point of view — drew some laughs from Carson’s Civil Rights-era, in-studio audience.
More than 40 years later, Tonto’s side of the story is being told in a longer and more ambitious form — a saucy, big-budget Disney movie starring Johnny Depp, which opened last week to cool reviews and poor box office. Though this revisionist western has Tonto holding the reins, some prominent Native Americans aren’t smiling at Depp’s flamboyant portrayal of the most famous and divisive character in their pop culture history.
Tonto has been a complex lightning rod for shifting sympathies over four generations. As a submissive sidekick, his very name came to stand for a pathetic, backward stereotype, even though some Native Americans decades ago were pleased to at least see him portrayed by one of their own.
For the new movie, the studio went to great lengths to hire a cast that included Native Americans and to consult them while the film was being made. The director points out that the film incorporates the perspective of the original North Americans, but as is clear from some of the commentary since the film opened, not all are impressed.
“This represents a major setback in our efforts to combat stereotyping of our image,” said Hanay Geiogamah, a Native American playwright and professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. “This pushes us further back into exotica, into otherness, strangeness, a kind of a mystical, spooky past.”
To contemporize Tonto for a broad audience required discarding a century of cultural tropes about Native Americans — the blatantly racist ones and the more subtly so, according to “Lone Ranger” screenwriter Justin Haythe, who shares credit with Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.
In “The Lone Ranger,” from “Pirates of the Caribbean” director Gore Verbinski, Depp’s Tonto first appears as part of a diorama in a Wild West show. Wearing dramatic white and black-striped face paint and a dead crow atop his head, he comes to life to tell a young boy the story of how he met the masked man.
This Tonto rolls his eyes at the Lone Ranger’s priggishness and complains about their partnership, which seems spiritually ordained after the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) survives an ambush.
An outcast from his Comanche tribe, Depp’s Tonto is comic and strange, with a hint of sadness under his eyeliner — a first cousin to the actor’s other memorable oddballs such as Capt. Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands.
It was Tonto’s point of view that interested Depp and his director. “The only version of this movie I wanted to do was from Tonto’s perspective,” Verbinski said. “It would have been weird to do a movie and make Johnny the sidekick. The task was to make Tonto relevant.”
Haythe adds that the movie “was never gonna be a piece of social realism.”
“This is a Disney movie,” he said. “Being irreverent with a culture is a greater quality than holding a culture in precious terms. We went through a period where every Native American in Hollywood was a bad guy. Then they were all a spiritual good guy. I made a conscious decision not to be precious or overly cautious with Tonto.”
Tonto first appeared in 1933, in the 11th episode of “The Lone Ranger” radio show, when creators George Trendle and Fran Striker realized that a solitary ranger with a radio show needed someone to talk to. The character, identified as being from the Potawatomi Indian nation, was primarily voiced by Caucasian actor John Todd.
The program, which went off the air in 1954, spawned Tonto’s term of endearment for the Lone Ranger, “kemo sabe” — “trusty scout” in Potawatomi.
“Tonto is arguably the most important and longest continually used Native American character there is,” said Jeffrey Richardson, a curator at the Autry National Center. “You really do not have any other Native American characters who have the history, the impact or the controversy that Tonto does.”
Between 1938 and 1940, there were a series of Lone Ranger film serials, in which Tonto was played by Victor Daniel, an actor of Cherokee, Yaqui and Mexican ancestry who worked under the stage name Chief Thundercloud.
But it is Silverheels’ TV Tonto who is best known today. Airing from 1949 to 1957 and starring Clayton Moore, the “Lone Ranger” became the first big hit for ABC and the highest-profile role to date for a Native American actor.
“They actually were very progressive in their decision to bring a Native actor in,” Richardson said. “Native characters were never played by Native actors. They played background characters who had a stereotypical grunt or two.”
Geiogamah recalls watching Silverheels while growing up on the Kiowa Indian reservation in Oklahoma. “I was happy to see Tonto because at least we were seeing a real Indian,” he said.
Despite his ethnic authenticity, Silverheels’ Tonto had a few cringe-worthy traits — his pidgin English, which spawned the word “Tontoism,” his servile position and even his name, which the creators didn’t realize means “stupid” in Spanish.
The long-swirling debate around the Tonto character was reignited when Depp’s casting was announced — the actor has said he has Cherokee or possibly Creek ancestry, but is identified by most audiences as Anglo. When the first image of Depp as Tonto was released, some found the look, which the actor has said was inspired by a painting by Kirby Sattler, shocking in its theatricality.
“It’s hard to invest positive thoughts in a character that looks like a Halloween gothic creation. It’s hard to get into a cooperative adventure with someone with darkened eyes and a taxidermic bird on his head. It’s hard to ride along with something like that,” said Geiogamah.
A blogger at the website Native Appropriations referred to the character as “rodeo clown Tonto,” while Michelle Shining Elkof the Colville Tribes of the Pacific Northwest, writing on the Huffington Post, likened it to a 1920s cartoon.
For their part, the filmmakers said they included Native American perspectives in the film, casting Native American actors in significant roles and in background parts. In the course of making the movie, the Comanche nation adopted Depp as an honorary member, and Comanches offered input on such details as tepee construction.
A Native American idea of land influenced the way the movie was shot, according to Verbinski. The Lone Ranger and Tonto, who slowly come to a kind of mutual respect, are up against a clear-cut villain named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and an implied one — the greed propelling much of the development of the West.
“Things like the landscape become characters in the movie,” Verbinski said. “Trains. Drawing lines through the landscape. Tonto served the function of asking, ‘At what cost?’”
Disney is donating proceeds from the movie’s premiere, more than $200,000, to the American Indian College Fund. ""We saw it as an opportunity to bring attention and resources to the fund, to use this to have people look at the work of real, modern-day Indians,” said the fund’s president, Cheryl Crazy Bull.