Today I found a new good place on the www – NATIVE APPROPRIATIONS – and having enjoyed a good amount of readings there I decided to bring it here. What follows is a brief preview of a series of posts by Adrienne K. about the latest Hollywood extravaganza featuring Johnny Depp as Tonto. Yes, I’m obviously going to follow Adrienne’s advice and am not going to watch it (not that it had ever crossed my mind to do otherwise).
We need to demand more. We can’t be complacent with just going to that “excited-happy-place” every time we see any representation of an Indian on screen. We can’t be thankful that 50 Native actors are able to ride around bareback in the background of a film, or be psyched that a big name Hollywood actor put a crow on his head to “honor” us–talk about ongoing colonization of the mind. Our community is so much better than that. We are worth so much more than background roles and misrepresentations.
Ryan [McMahon]also said something that resonated with me beyond this issue alone, quoting his grandmother:
Everything you do, grandson, is going to be political because you’re Anishinabe.
The way we represent ourselves is, therefore, inherently political. These “trivial” issues are representative of deeper, darker, larger issues within Indian Country. For those who live in predominantly Native communities, fighting against cultural appropriation and misrepresentation may seem like the cause of a privileged few who can sit in their ivory towers and point fingers all day, ignoring the “real” issues in Indian Country. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it as many times as I can until it sticks:
Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior–that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp’s Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.
The very first scene we are presented with an image of a Native person, in a museum–which presumably we’re supposed to critique, but there’s no questioning of Tonto’s position there. To me it reinforces the idea that all the Indians are dead, relics of the past, which is actually a theme throughout. […]
Finally we come to the end of the story. Tonto finishes telling it all to the little boy in the museum, and we see that he has put on a suit, holds a suitcase, and places a bowler hat over his crow (which he has continued to “feed” throughout the film). The boy gets momentarily distracted, turns back, and OMG again, Tonto’s gone! In return, a (live) crow flies out of the exhibit and at the screen. Then we cut to credits. Then, a few minutes later, we see Tonto wandering off into the vastness of Monument Valley, hobbling along, carrying his suitcase. He continues to walk, back to the camera, for the next 10 minutes as the credits go on, and on, and on. I guess we’re to assume his time as a “Noble Savage” has passed, and he’s returning to his unbridled wilderness, alone–but dressed as a white guy this time? This, like most of the movie, didn’t make any sense.
The Tonto costume is a mish-mash of stereotypical Indian garb, a Plains-style breastplate with a southwest-style headband (minus the effing bird), random feathers and beads–but the face paint that makes him look evil, forlorn, and angry all at once is a nice touch. Then, the fact that the publicity photo shows the “wild” and “unruly” (ok, I’ll say it, “savage”) Tonto behind the clean, polished, (and white) Lone Ranger is a great “honoring” to Native people too, and shows how much agency Tonto has, right? (/sarcasm)”
Johnny Depp decided to “honor” Native peoples and “reinvent” our role in hollywood by relying on the most tired and stereotypical tropes imaginable. On his “inspiration” for Tonto’s makeup:
«I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it. The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.»
Though that quote makes absolutely no sense (“separate sections of the individual?), the picture in reference is below. The connection between the Sattler painting and Depp’s costuming was actually caught quickly in March by some fans of the Native Appropriations facebook page, one of whom even took the time to call Sattler’s studio. The PR rep on the phone assured her to wait until the movie came out and that she was certain “everything would be done in an appropriate manner.” I guess “appropriate” is relative?
Do I wish we lived in a society where Natives were more visible and it wasn’t such a freaking novelty that someone wants to make a movie with us? Do I wish we the resources and publicity to get the same amount of attention on our own media? Do I wish that we had other economic ventures on our reservations that could provide jobs without having to become a Hollywood stereotype? yes, yes, and yes. I think we deserve much more.