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 actor’s 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.

  • The raven is a symbolic messenger in both Native American culture and the film to signify impending events. Tonto’s raven headdress comes from a painting Depp saw that depicted a warrior. Johnny
  • A few Native American practices were borrowed from other tribes including the windigo, an evil cannibal spirit that is the villain in the movie. The windigo comes from Algonquian mythology, rather than the Comanche tribe. Tonto frequently calls the Lone Ranger "kemo sabe." The word is from the Potowatomi language and means “friend,” according to Tankersley.
  • The Spirit Horse (which the Lone Ranger rides) is white, symbolic of the Spirit of the North Wind, which provides guidance and wisdom of the ancestors.
  • Tonto remains in face paint through most of the film. Typically, Native Americans donned the paint only during ceremonies. Because Tonto felt threatened by the windigo through much of the movie, the paint served as a mask to protect him from the evil windigo spirits. The paint does not appear in scenes that took place after the threat was eliminated. 
  • Tonto’s costume includes a typical Comanche breastplate. Filmmakers took artistic license with its color and composition (they typically were white bone or shell, but Tonto’s is black water buffalo horn).
  • Tankersley also noted that the Comanche actors wore real eagle feathers, while the non-Native American characters donned painted turkey feathers, since only Native Americans are permitted to have eagle feathers. 
  • Tankersley hopes the film’s 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. 

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