Dear Johnny Depp’s Tonto,
We are going to have a lot to talk about next year when your Disney movie about the Lone Ranger and Tonto hits. An in-production photo of you has emerged and it makes me nervous. You have a blackbird on your head. Johnny Depp Tonto Blackbird-head. Tsk. That bird might pluck your eyes out, man. The moment it hit my Facebook newsfeed the updates from my friends went nutso. What is this look? Is it genuine? Is Johnny Depp Native American or Native enough? Does he, like so too many others, have a distant Indian princess in his lineage? He’s said his great grandmother is Creek or Cherokee. Creek or Cherokee. He’s not sure which—this Creek-or-Cherokeeness of him amounts to one line on his Wikipedia page. Can casually embracing being part of this-or-that tribe somehow carry us forward? I get stuck somewhere between the first and second question: (shamefully) am I suppose to know, as a half-Navajo, if this look is genuine? Will my (half)blood tell me, or, can I google it?
I googled it. And there’s some history there. It took some work though—to worry and to google the Native American images and questions that come to me. I’m not sure if educating the public is your intention, Johnny Depp Tonto. And if so, I doubt non-Native folk will do the same. It’s exhausting. I’m not sure you know what it is like undoing stereotypes and ignorance from a laptop. Someone else dressed you. Fancied you up. You’ll be huge and flat on the big screen. A glossy fetish truth to someone.
But let’s not forget the Johnny Deppness of you, Tonto! Personally, I’m fine with a bit of Johnny Deppness in things. I grew up in a world that just had Johnny Depp in scissors, in dreary mansion, in drag, in grease, in the cutesy side of mentally unstable romance and with Sweeney blades (“These are my friends / see how they glisten…” ). Yeah, I’m a sucker for this and for a bit o’ Burton perfected gloss to my goth. I’d take a little Johnny Depp with my coffee, if asked. But this is different. The questions come, and not from just one friend or another, but they resonate—and not up and out of the tribal sands so ancient or from drumming ancestors speaking through time… but just in my bones. You know, like how regular folk wonder things. Why another non-Native playing a Native? It’s not as easy as, “There’s no Native American Johnny Depp.” If you tell me, Johnny Depp Tonto, that there aren’t enough of us, I’ll pluck your eyes out myself. We are here. We are out there. Artists, film writers/directors and actors, poets, authors and musicians. Cashiers. Engineers. Doctors. Etc. We are everywhere, just not on your screen or any screens near you. There could be someone even more sexy-slinky-bitingly-dark-but funny-kinda sweet-and-clever and less glossy-superstar than Johnny Depp. A Native American someone. There really could be. But we might never know.
I’ve also heard (a little birdie said) it’s possible that the movie’s Johnny Depp Tonto character might actually be a white man renegade pretending to be Native to hide from the law. Wouldn’t that be something? Couldn’t that explode the thing! What if the Tonto of a Johnny Deppness brought up so many of the right questions? What is it like to think one can dress and hide in a culture? What might it mean for a character to work his/her (I do like the Johnny Deppness swish) through the complexities of living out a life like a Native? Might this strip the fetish off you, Johnny Depp Tonto? Couldn’t it catch the attention of a particular student in a friend’s class that actually asked (just this year, mind you): “Why is there a car in this [Sherman Alexie] story. Native Americans didn’t have cars, but horses!” Can you imagine Johnny Depp Tonto? You—more than pixels, more than matter made shade—but you, an explosion of heritage wearing heritage among heritage mistaken as and hiding within heritage? Like what history is, before it is flattened.
But Johnny Depp Tonto, I imagine we won’t have these sorts of conversations by the time your (wait, the Lone Ranger’s) movie hits. And I won’t be able to say “Yeah, at least he gets it” when image after image of a “Native American” person comes across my screen and it’s some stoic-faced brave or nature-fairy or cartoon figure Indian. My Facebook newsfeed shows something different, by the way. You should get one. My NDN friends love to smile. Love to laugh. And swear. And ham it up. You might be surprised by how many birds (wolves and bears) aren’t in our profile pics. Johnny Depp Tonto, I hope you get to be one of ours. I hope there’s more to you than the starkness of your white and black striped face. I hope you get an itch to step off that big screen and take a space in the world that doesn’t knock us back into shirtless whooping half-animal extras. High hopes. So mostly I hope you don’t end up in a bag-made costume to sell at Halloween. They’ll just snip the Jack Sparrow braids a bit and move around a few trinkets and feathers and you’ll be ready to wear. On bodies, on backpacks, on bedsheets. I’m worried for you. You’ll be everywhere for anyone to try on and the DVD you will be out in time for holidays. Christmas will hit with your team-designed face on everything and shopping for and around you at that time of year—well, it’s probably going to be a slaughter.
Natanya Ann Pulley