Hollywood’s Native sideshow

August 1, 2013

There are some stories that should be stuffed in the dustbin of history and forgotten. Ragina Johnson explains why The Lone Ranger is one of them.

IMAGINE YOU are a progressive person (this shouldn't be hard for the SocialistWorker.org audience), and you are sitting through a 149-minute "children's film" made in 2013 where white people toss out the n-word on a regular basis, without any protest or acknowledgement, so many times you lose count.

Hearing these racist slurs go unchecked would make you want to organize a walkout of the film, or at least storm out in disgust and cause a scene.

This is basically what happens in the new movie version of The Lone Ranger--but because a different group endures the abuse, the reaction is different. You look around, surrounded by families with children, and instead of people crying after immensely brutal scenes of slaughter, death and violence, the audience is goaded to laugh and feel entertained by Tonto, an iconic stereotypical Indian sidekick, with his broken English and "red-face."

One reason people don't walk out of the theater when they hear "Injun" and "Redskin" over and over again is because the obvious villains on the screen are greedy railroad magnates aligned with "Butch" Cavendish. Cavendish represents all the greedy mine-owning whites from this period, as the story reveals how he and his railroad owner brother slaughtered the young Tonto's Comanche village for silver. This also gives depth to Tonto's character, which is portrayed as having many signs of mental illness.

Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger
Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger

Even the U.S. Calvary is shown in a murderous light--as an evil force that, in the end, protected and facilitated railroad expansion, mass murder and theft of native lands.

But there is no reflection about what created the villains of the "Wild West," nor any honest criticism of the ideas that legitimized these conditions--like Manifest Destiny, which founded the U.S. nation state pushing it westward. Contemplation is thrown out the window with each gun battle, fiery explosion, train chase and silly antic with a white mystical horse that can climb trees and two-story barns.

THE GOOD news is that most people aren't going to see the film. The Lone Ranger is a truly horrible movie--just look up the rating on Rotten Tomatoes--but that isn't just because of its bad acting and monotonous storyline.

The making and production of the film was surrounded in controversy and debate because the new The Lone Ranger is glossed up in quasi-liberal racism. Why bring back a "cowboy and Indian" radio series from the 1930s, turned popular television series in the 1950s, which was based on racist stereotypes of Native Americans and the celebration of whites who conquered the Wild West?

Review: Movies

The Lone Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinski, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer.

It's 2013. Why aren't we at a point in U.S. society where the real story of conquest, genocide and resistance of First Nations can be told by Native peoples themselves?

We certainly aren't living in a post-racial society despite having a Black president, as the George Zimmerman verdict showed. Another example of this fact is how indigenous people are viewed in society as a result of their treatment by the U.S. government--and this is mirrored in mainstream culture, including the film industry. Racist stereotypes of Native peoples are still accepted and promoted, because both genocide and resistance continues today.

This is the context to the controversy over The Lone Ranger, starting with the casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto. Many journalists, bloggers and artists, especially those with indigenous heritage, asked if this was a case of another non-Native actor playing "red-face."

Depp's response--while explaining that he was possibly part Native American, in addition to becoming an honorary member of the Comanche Nation--in the end sounded beyond insensitive toward his supposed indigenous heritage. Here's Depp in his own words:

The interesting thing, if you find out you've got Native American blood, which a lot of people do, is you think about where it comes from, and go back and read the great books, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or [John Ehle's] Trail of Tears. You have to think, somewhere along the line, I'm the product of some horrific rape. You just have that little sliver in your chemical makeup.

I guess I have some Native American [in me] somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American; she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek.

Depp jammed his foot further into his mouth when he explained why he took the role of Tonto in an interview with Rolling Stone: "I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations. They're living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, 'Fuck that! You're still warriors, man.'"

MANY REVIEWS by Native American activists and bloggers have questioned whether Depp is Native American, but there's a real possibility he is. We shouldn't advocate measuring what percentage of blood a person needs to have to qualify as Native American. This has been used as a tool of depopulating tribes and nations to erase our history and cultures, and continued land theft for over a hundred years. In fact today, the question of blood percentage emerged in a major Supreme Court case this year revolving around the adoption of Native children by non-natives.

The question is the insensitively Depp showed in his ignorant remarks about "inspiring people on the reservation."

First, not all Native people live on reservations, and not all of them are alcoholics and drug addicts. And if he cared so much about conditions on reservations, Depp should start by talking about the resources that reservations need and deserve, which could have a positive impact and help pull people out of poverty. Vital social programs on reservations are in the process of being defunded by the U.S. government right now.

Secondly, Tonto's persona, which from all accounts Depp gave input in developing, is beyond insulting. Tonto's costume may have been inspired by a colonial fictional illustration of what a "savage" looked like hundreds of years ago, mixed in with a little bit of romance about Native people being "mystical" and "connected to nature."

Nope. I don't quite think this will do the trick of eliminating despair on reservations that is the result of hundreds of years of colonialism and racism.

The latest rumor is that Depp has offered to buy Wounded Knee, the site of the massacre of 1890 and land that is sacred for the Oglala Lakota tribe. Depp's purchase offer has created further controversy, and although some tribes and Native American's would gladly accept this support, many Native people question purchasing a parcel of land for millions of dollars when it is said to be worth around $10,000.

We have to ask what sort of precedent this would set for unscrupulous private owners like James Czywczynski who want to profit off of selling sacred Native grounds?

"I think it's very generous of him, but there are quite a number of people who wish he wouldn't do this," said Chuck Trimble, a Native American rights advocate and member of the Oglala Lakota nation. "If he wants to give millions, he should give it to a cause, and not pay it to a man who is holding the Wounded Knee site for a price--and it's very questionable how he got it in the first place."

Many people think Depp should donate directly to a tribe so they can decide how to use the money.

A REAL conversation has begun, at least within the film industry, about how The Lone Ranger has regurgitated backward and racist portrayals of Native American's even while seeming to be progressive.

One of the best interviews was done through Moviefone with Jesse Wente, who is Ojibway and was featured in the documentary Reel Injun. In a two-part series "Tonto in The Lone Ranger: Racist? Progressive? You Decide," Wente puts the story of The Lone Ranger in context:

These stories were, with Manifest Destiny, fundamental nation-building [myths] for the U.S. If you think about the classic era of the Western, it came when the States still needed to tell itself the story of its own origins. Unfortunately, it was told at the expense of the first inhabitants of this land because it altered the history, the truth of what happened. To me, this film recalls a lot of those issues...

There are still, to this day, people on both sides of the border in North America that live in fundamentally dire circumstances that are less than standard. Whether it's this generation that inflicted that upon them is actually irrelevant...

You can't have a culture that reduces a people to mascots and allows bizarre portrayals in movies and think that at the same time you're going to solve that community's social crises. You've relegated them to the past or to the sideshow tent of history, not because you intended to do that when you made a movie, but it's a result of the history of this continent which means that we're just reinforcing all of that.

The narration of the Lone Ranger is done by Tonto, who as a very old man stands on display in a "curiosity tent" at a 1933 San Francisco fair. The old Tonto walks around in a scientific-looking display above an engraved title "The Nobel Savage" as he tells the story of the Lone Ranger to a young boy wearing a mask.

I couldn't help but remember how, in the late 1800s and onward, the federal government paraded around chiefs who had resisted U.S. expansion and forced removal. When these chiefs finally surrendered, they were shown as trophies that the U.S. had "won the West."

There are many cases of chiefs who were beheaded and their remains sent to Europe as "curiosity" displays. This was the brutality on display inside the tent where old Tonto does his storytelling--something most viewers might see as benign or even progressive because he was imparting history of Native people to this young child. But to those of us who know this history, it was like being punched in the gut at regular intervals throughout the movie.

As one example, this is the story of Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Sioux chief who alongside Crazy Horse had defeated Custer at the Little Big Horn in 1876:

These last years of Sitting Bull's life--following his surrender to the U.S. Army after cold and hunger forced him and his band to return from exile in Canada--saw this great leader of all the Sioux tribes detained for nearly two years as a prisoner of war, where he was denied the right to hunt, and even reduced to a "feature attraction" in Buffalo Bill's Wild West exhibition tour.

DESPITE THE stated intent of actor Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer to give more weight to Tonto and portray him as more than a sidekick, the film continues to portray native people as "savages," Tonto included.

In the film, Tonto saves the Lone Ranger's butt time and time again, only to be told, "I am no savage," when Tonto understandably wants to kill Cavendish in revenge. The Lone Ranger believes in the justice of the law.

And while Tonto is referred to as a "savage," the most "savage" act occurs when the Comanche tribe goes to war against the U.S. military in the film. The Comanches are slaughtered wholesale by the U.S. military. As Comanche bodies float down a river--and at this point, tears were streaming down my face--Tonto picks up his dead crow and stares at it longingly.

No mention is given to the complete wiping out of the Comanche band. Instead, you are prompted to laugh within minutes or less, because the Lone Ranger's white horse is now standing in the top of a tree. Throughout the film, viewers are prompted to show remorse and sadness for the Lone Ranger and his family alone.

Even the basic premise of the "Lone Rangers" is twisted. These "good guys" in the film were, in history, the Texas Rangers--a group of so-called law enforcement agents who hunted down Native peoples, Blacks (freeman and escaped slave alike) and Mexicans. They never would have given protection to indigenous tribes, especially the Comanche.

As Wente argues, the very heart of The Lone Ranger suffers from the same racist stereotyping of "old" Westerns. The foundational lies behind these stories attempt to erase the history of genocide--and in the process, they attempt to erase Native people today.

The Lone Ranger offers nothing compared to the history and current life experiences being told from the vantage point of indigenous people themselves--actors, actresses, writers, artists and filmmakers. Over the last 20 years, films like Smoke Signals (1998) and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) tell beautiful and honest stories that show indigenous and aboriginal people living and breathing today.

As the director of Smoke Signals, Chris Eyre, and author, poet and activist John Trudell so meaningfully described in Reel Injun:

You don't always have to make great representations of Native people. We're not asking for that. We're not asking to be noble or righteous or good all the time. We're asking to be human. Indians aren't dead. We're here, we're vital. We've got something to say. We got something to play."

Don't watch The Lone Ranger. Watch Reel Injun instead.

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