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Johnny Depp as Tonto without Health Care?: Re/presentation, Re/appropriation, and Re/action

June 19, 2012

Recently, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian tweeted a link to an article from the Alaska Dispatch titled “Johnny Depp plays Tonto in ‘Lone Ranger,’ but he’ll have hard time saving American Indians from Paul Ryan’s budget.” I admit, the title immediately drew me in and I clicked the link. In addition to being confused (and concerned) by the complex racial positioning of Tonto and Johnny-Depp-as-Tonto, I couldn’t help but wonder both how much money “Paul Ryan” was devoting to the movie and how that would affect American Indians. Of course, once you read the article, you’ll likely understand the various layers referenced in this post’s title.

The article only talks about Johnny Depp (whose ancestry has been discussed by him and others as being alternately English, Cherokee, Navajo, Creek, etc.) and the film for about two paragraphs, after which it discusses the problematic budget proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan (R) and the dire state of health and related services in many American Indian communities. In addition to more oft-highlighted challenges, the author of the article, Dave Baldridge (Cherokee), points to issues like alarmingly high rates of tuberculosis and infant mortality. One of the effects I experienced in reading this article was a fascinating moment of perspectival shift from critical film-goer to critical academic and concerned citizen and while I do not inhabit the mind of the author, it is not difficult to imagine that this shift was a product of authorial intent. In fact, the article succeeds as an informative op-ed on multiple counts. It not only raises awareness about proposed budget cuts at the national level and extreme health disparities (possibly especially among those who would have been less likely to click on an article about “health” or “budgets”). It also engages in and with multiple levels of what might broadly be categorized as re/presentation and re/appropriation.

  1. Johnny Depp as Tonto, American Indian sidekick of the Lone Ranger
  2. Johnny Depp as newly adopted Comanche (which occurred during filming)
  3. Lone Ranger (redux) filmed in Navajo Nation territory
  4. Johnny Depp reinventing Tonto by working to “take the way Indians were treated throughout the history of cinema (as second class citizens), and turn it on its head”
  5. Depp-as-Tonto and the Lone Ranger not supporting Republican budget cuts and the perpetuation of economic disparities between American Indians and other Americans

The classic television role of Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels, a Mohawk actor from Ontario, Canada, and a more recent incarnation was played by Nathaniel Arcand, a Cree actor from Alberta. What does it mean, then, for Johnny Depp to take on this prominent role – even if he intends to challenge cinematic stereotypes through his portrayal – if he is, himself, potentially participating in the reinscription of economic and social disparities? Does it matter? There is something deeply ironic and profoundly challenging about re/appropriating, even momentarily, Tonto-related interest in Johnny Depp and issues of representation in film when 60% more American Indian infants die than their White counterparts every year and the Indian Health Service says it’s already working with less than 60% of the funds it needs to provide basic healthcare to its federally-designated constituents.

Are these issues linked? Representation in film/media and representation in government policy/funding? It’s easy to say no, but there’s something to be said for the ways in which American Indians are often historicized and stereotyped (whether negatively or in a more romanticized way), not just in popular media but also in more “educational” venues, like museums and curricular materials in many schools (think: what did your HS textbook teach you about American Indians?). These processes of representation contribute to a discursive field in which Americans of every age are undereducated and miseducated, not only about American Indian history, but also about the existence and the content of many contemporary challenges (and successes!) in Native North America. Some of those individuals end up in situations where that knowledge is crucial to both interactions with and decision-making that affects American Indians.

Will new Comanche Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Tonto be able to contribute to both entertainment and education? Will the economic or social gains of Mr. Depp and the film producers/studios contribute to progress on issues of import among American Indians? The Alaska Dispatch article suggests no, likely not, but the article itself serves as a clever instance of using re/presentation and re/appropriation to create effective critical journalism that does educate. Perhaps it will turn out that this new film and other works of popular media (as well as in American schools) will challenge the way Americans think about both past and present American Indian lives. That’s a research study that I would very much like to see, particularly alongside analyses of relevant policy discourse so that we can better understand how policymakers, in particular, develop their stance on issues like healthcare and other governmental budget allocations with respect to American Indians and other struggling sectors of the American population.

Additional Resources:
One Perspective + Link Round-up

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2012 1:34 pm

    Very interesting post! That gave me a lot to think about.

    • June 26, 2012 5:06 pm

      Thanks! I certainly got more than I was expecting with the article, so I thought that I’d share some of my pondering and maybe raise awareness/critical consciousness a bit myself. 🙂

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