As The Lone Ranger heads for the big screen this summer, many Native Americans are questioning Disney’s campaign to court their approval. They believe that the studio’s public relations gestures mask the real issues of the marketing and identity of indigenous people.
The movie, which stars Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger, will hit theaters July 3. Depp has enjoyed a long relationship with the film’s director Gore Verbinski and its producer Jerry Bruckheimer through Disney’s record-breaking Pirates of the Caribbean series. The megastar is also one of The Lone Ranger’s executive producers, and his production company Infinitum Nihil (Latin for “Infinite Nothing”) was involved with the picture.
But Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage (put forth in 2002 on Inside the Actors’ Studio, although in 2011 speaking to Entertainment Weekly he added “or maybe Creek”) along with his streaked black-and-white painted face and a stuffed crow perched atop his head have caused many to cry foul. Still, others say that Disney—which has a long history of working with Native Americans—is not adequately addressing their issues.
For his part, Depp told MTV.com that the film is “an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.” The actor has said he hopes to fix years of Indian misrepresentations in Hollywood and has repeatedly stated that his great grandmother had mostly Cherokee blood.
But Native American leaders and educators are not buying it. They question Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage, particularly the studio’s attempt to keep it ambiguous.
“Disney relies upon the ignorance of the public to allow that ambiguity to exist,” says Hanay Geiogamah, Professor of Theater at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware) was a consultant for Disney’s Pocahontas and served as producer and co-producer for TBS’ The Native Americans: Behind the Legends, Beyond the Myths aired in the 1990s.
“If Depp had any legitimate blood of any tribe, Disney would definitely have all the substantial proof of that already. It’s not that hard to establish tribal connections,” Geiogamah says.
Richard Allen, Policy Analyst for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, agrees. He says that many celebrities have claimed Cherokee heritage—often based upon family stories they’ve heard—but like Depp they never try to verify it. “They all tell me they have high cheekbones,” Allen says.
Geiogomah believes that because so few roles in Hollywood go to Native American actors, Disney’s big-budget movie is a “missed opportunity.” Depp could have played the Lone Ranger and instead promoted a younger Indian actor to play Tonto, he points out. After all, Canadian Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels portrayed the character in the 1950s TV series.
“Now they re-introduce Tonto with a non-Indian. So can you call that progress?” Geiogamah asks.
Instead, he worries that Disney’s Tonto feeds into non-Native expectations of Indians frozen in a historic time frame. “That costume ends up making us look like a bunch of oddballs with dead birds on our heads,” Geiogamah says.