Disney’s conception of the Lone Ranger story appeared in theaters a little over two weeks ago and was met with accusations of racism from many fronts. It’s pretty obvious why: the story, originally conceived in the 1930s, has about every marker of racism in the book. A white guy is the only survivor of a massacre by outlaws. He is discovered by a Native American he saved when they were children. The white guy becomes a crime-fighting vigilante and the Native becomes his sidekick. Oh, and let’s not forget that the Native’s name is Tonto, a Spanish word meaning “stupid” or “idiot.”
This version purports to be different, though. Disney is working hard to ensure that it’s got its ass covered, and even liberal media outlets seem at least somewhat swayed. Mother Jones writes, “The film does do an adequate job of portraying the spirit-warrior character as an actual hero (instead of merely a silly sketch of an ethnic sidekick), and pays special attention to injustice toward and mass-murder of Native American populations.” Disney itself seems to be addressing accusations of racism by making two claims: 1) that this is a white problem – Natives themselves don’t have any problem with this, see guise? And 2) Johnny Depp is part Native!
First off, not all Natives are okay with this film. Mother Jones reports the following quote, with their own commentary:
"It's like, the white people are the one[s] who have the problem," Hammer said in an interview in April. "But the Indians...are like, 'This is great. We love it.'" (This is of course not entirely true; Michelle Shining Elk, a member of the Colville tribe who also works in the movie business, blasted the film for in her view reinforcing the perception that "we are uneducated, irrelevant non-contributors to society living in teepees out on the Plains.")
But that’s not even the real problem with this film. The real problem is that it is a perfect example of silencing. Whitesplaining. Marginalizing the voices of those who have actually suffered. Johnny Depp and Disney claim that the depiction of Tonto is sensitive, relatable – but it was still written and performed by white people. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is white. Director Gore Verbinski is white. And Johnny Depp, whatever he may say to the contrary, is white. This is his claim to Native American ethnicity: "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."
Which means he grew up white.
My friend from high school and present roommate is full-blood Navajo. She grew up on a reservation and didn’t learn English until late elementary school. She has created her own clothing and danced in powwows. She is Native American. She speaks with understanding of what that means. She knows her culture. She has lived the experience of tradition, language, community, stories. She has experienced racism and gang violence on the reservation and people assuming she’s Mexican and trying to speak to her in Spanish.
I have some Native blood. My grandfather and mother are members of a small tribe. But I grew up white. I look white; no one assumes I’m Native. I don’t know my tribe’s language. I’ve never been to the reservation. I attended one powwow when I was a kid, and went to one family reunion where there were people present who still spoke our language, but I don’t have any idea what it is really like to be Native. So when my friend talks about what it was like for her, I keep my mouth shut. She talks about how the usual response when people find out she is Native is to say, “Oh really? I’m part Native too! My great great grandmother was a Cherokee princess!” And she laughs, “How many Cherokee princesses were there?”
This is what Johnny Depp is doing to the Native community by saying that he is Native. He doesn’t even know what tribe he might be part of.
If Disney, or any film studio in Hollywood, wants to avoid racism, they need to ask Natives to tell their own stories. They need to hire a Native director, a Native producer, a Native scriptwriter, and Native actors. They have a lot of beautiful stories to tell, if we would only just shut up and listen.