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“Do You Know What Tonto Means in Spanish?”: On Identity & Whitewashing in Disney’s The Lone Ranger

Content warning: discussion of cultural appropriation, genocide, imperialism, racism, redface, whitewashing

When I last spoke to my grandmother, I was unsurprised to find out that she and my great aunt, her sister, had seen Disney’s The Lone Ranger in the theater. I was unsurprised because grandmother’s favorite movies are Westerns. She loves Westerns, and she especially loves Westerns that feature Indigenous characters (real or in redface). She loves them because, when she was a kid, westerns were the only place she saw Indigenous people onscreen. Those Indigenous people where often stereotyped, whitewashed, not actually of the tribe they were purported to be from and needed to be tamed or killed by white, male cowboys to pave the path for the expansion of Western civilization.

Tonto differed little from these stereotypes. His story is that of a boy saved by the Mighty Whitey Lone Ranger and thus beholden to him as an adult and with little agency or motivation of his own. The difference? Jay Silverheels, an Indigenous actor, portrayed TV!Tonto. Moreover, Silverheels was from kanyʌ́•ke, i.e. flint country. He was a Mohawk actor from a tribe in my own and my Grandmother’s own Haudenosaunee confederation of tribes, and thus my grandmother could identify with him even if the character and the characterization were deeply racist.

Jay Silverheels as Tonto
Jay Silverheels as Tonto

My uncle also adored The Lone Ranger (reruns) as a child. My mom and Grandma like to tell the story about how, one day, he ran to my Grandmother and begged to be dressed like Tonto because he wanted to be a “real Indian” and “more Indian.” My grandmother declared to him, “I can’t make you any more Indian than you are!”

My mom told the story again when I spoke with her about the latest Lone Ranger film. I asked her if she watched the show or would watch the film. She shook her head and said, “It wouldn’t be my kind of movie… I didn’t like the story either. I didn’t like that an Indian follows a white man. I never liked to watch it.”

You might say my family has a long history with Tonto and the Lone Ranger, and I had long ago decided that it wouldn’t be my kind of movie either. I had a viscerally negative reaction to the posters, the trailers, to Johnny Depp’s comments about wanting to remind us poor Indians that we’re “still warriors, man.”

Johnny Depp as Tonto
Johnny Depp as Tonto

Still, a few nights ago (after a rather bizarre dream featuring the Lone Ranger and Tonto) I decided to view the film, and I was somewhat surprised. In some ways this was Tonto’s movie as much as it was the Lone Ranger’s. Tonto’s backstory was compelling and explained a lot about his breaches of tribal rules of conduct and manner of dress. Tonto was a man driven by revenge for the massacre of his village by greedy white men. Tonto, essentially, saved the day.

Still, besides yelling, “Stop talking like that, oh my fucking GOD!” at my screen several times over two hours, I also kept thinking, “Wow, this movie would have been really great IF…”

If we learned Tonto’s actual name, why he’s called “Tonto,” and delved into both his own psychological state given the tragedies he’d suffered as well as the imperialism tied up with such a moniker given that his “eccentric” behavior is a result of genocidal actions against his people.

If the film had given more time to Tonto, his backstory, and his designation as a “man apart.” It was disconcerting to see another example of people of color onscreen being cut off from their own communities and thus forming their closest relationships with white characters. Moreover, cutting down of a Comanche war party resisting an unscrupulous railroad executive is treated as a backdrop to Tonto and the Lone Ranger’s adventure rather than the main plot thread itself.

If the film had more explicitly addressed that the genocide and marginalization of Indigenous peoples was U.S. government policy. While we do see a conniving Calvary officer collude with the aforementioned greedy railroad executive to kill exterminate Comanche people, this is largely treated as the evil doings of these villainous individuals rather than a structural and systemic policy of extermination perpetrated by the state and colluding corporations, e.g. the U.S. government and railroad corporations in this case.

If Tonto had actually been portrayed by a Comanche actor or even an Indigenous actor instead of a white man still trying to get mileage out of his tired Captain Jack Sparrow routine.

I see now why Johnny Depp thought he was honoring us. Because Tonto isn’t just a sidekick. He has agency; he has his own motivations; he is competent (more so than our star, in fact). But, he’s still a white man in redface playing second fiddle to a white, Texas Ranger with a movie named for him. He’s still appropriating the narratives of Indigenous peoples and commodifying it for a summer blockbuster that ultimately fails to challenge this sort of imperialism. He and Gore Verbinski and the Disney powers that be are still trying to define Indigenous identities for us and often in ways that are harmful.

My grandmother having to settle for Tonto in the Lone Ranger television series was harmful. My uncle begging to dress like Tonto because that’s what he thought a “real Indian” looked and sounded like is harmful. Perpetuating the notion that the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. was at the hands of a few evil individuals rather than a concentrated effort to rid the land of them is harmful.

And, I’m having a really difficult time forgiving Disney, the mainstream Hollywood film and television industry, for the harm they’ve done and continue to do to me and mine. In the meantime, I hope to pass along to the young children in my family what it means to be Oneida, and I will continue to support Indigenous filmmakers and storytellers telling our stories.

Adapted and reposted from Marena’s tumblr blog

By Marena

Marena recently earned her Master of Arts degree in Social Justice & Human Rights & primarily explores social justice issues in the production & consumption of popular mass media. You may find her creating fanworks, testing her hand-eye coordination with beadweaving, flailing over her fictional faves, reading everything from fanfic to theory texts, or watching low budget sci-fi. You can find her writing on Marena ni yukyats.

10 replies on ““Do You Know What Tonto Means in Spanish?”: On Identity & Whitewashing in Disney’s The Lone Ranger”

Ah yeah, I actually own the movie. I picked up a copy when my undergrad Intertribal Student Council screened it for a club meeting. I enjoyed it and also strongly recommended it to anyone who wants to learn more about issues of Indigenous representation on film.

This article hits so close to home in my family’s dealing with anything featuring people of South Asian descent in Hollywood. So often people of color are just so excited by any form of representation that problematic aspects of the character or of the narrative is overshadowed by “BUT IT’S LIKE US ON TV!” It’s a constant struggle to want to support actors of color or even characters of color and the fear of what type of representation you may be supporting. Great article!

Truth. I am always dismayed at how little choice we have when it comes to mainstream film and television when it comes to supporting actors of color. My brother and I often joke about how my dad would buy ANY movie with a Black person on the cover no matter how awful the movie was or the character was portrayed because he was THAT thirsty for onscreen representations of fellow Black folk. I mean, we recognize that as legit on my dad’s end, but damn I wish we had more choices!

I haven’t seen this film because I suspect that my jaw will shatter when it hits the ground while watching it. I hope that in the age of Kickstarter, some projects from indigenous filmmakers will be able to get the kind of funding needed to undo some of the damage films like this do.

I think that is very likely, haha. I spent a LOT of time yelling, that’s for sure. And, I agree that alternate sources of funding for Indigenous storytellers may be very helpful. There are so many wonderful Indigenous filmmakers out there who have produced great stuff and, I’m sure, many more who just need an opportunity.

Oh, wow! I didn’t know what Tonto meant in Spanish, so I took myself over to Google Translate and, well, was surprised to say the least. This was a really eye-opening article and one of the best I’ve seen on this film. I feel like I understand a little more of what the issues are. Thank you so much for sharing!

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