History vs. Hollywood: Does 'The Lone Ranger' Accurately Represent Native Americans?
The Lone Ranger and his trusty Native American sidekick Tonto are racing across film screens this week. Starring Johnny Depp, the movie adaptation of the old TV and radio shows is a box office hit, but does the film accurately portray American Indians?
Actually, yes. Several details in the movie realistically captured Native American customs, traditions and dress, according to University of Cincinnati's Native American expert Kenneth Tankersley, a Piqua Shawnee and an anthropology professor for the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.
After watching the film during its opening week, he declared the movie to be a quantum leap over other many previous film and television depictions. They did a really good job.
Tankersley noted that, although not a card carrying member of a Native American tribe, Depp does have Native American ancestry. He is from Kentucky and Melungeon by ancestry.
Melungeons were Sephardic Jews and Muslims, escaping to religious freedom in the New World. When they arrived, they married into the Native American community.
To prepare for the role, Depp immersed himself in the Native American culture. He listened to stories from descendants of Quanah Parker, a dominant figure in the Comanche tribe, and was adopted into the tribe by LA Donna Harris, a Comanche social activist. The actors portrayal elevates Tonto from the sidekick role he had in the TV and radio versions of the story to the lead role in the movie.
With the exception of Tonto speaking pidgin English, the film employed authentic Native American details, many of which could be missed by the casual viewer, Tankersley said. Below are some he noticed. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)
- Tonto drops corn on the ground and appears to feed it to the dead raven he uses as a headdress. Tankersley said this is actually a blessing, because corn is sacred.
Tankersley hopes the films portrayal of Tonto will spur more accurate depictions of Native Americans in future movies and will help Native American children take pride in their heritage.