Saturday, July 13, 2013

Tonto: A New Hope (?)

I know I just ranted about Johnny Depp's portrayal of Tonto in The Lone Ranger, but some  new info has come to my  attention, and I would like to speculate on what it could potentially mean for Indian Country and the future of indigenous people in the U.S. I'll put some "citations" at the bottom of the piece, but I'm going to mostly rant about this because it's pretty gorram personal for me.

So to backtrack a bit, I need to do my own overview of Depp in order to set the stage, here.

Over a year ago, the Comanche Nation made him an honorary member. Somewhere along the line, he started making vague references to having Native American ancestry in statements such as this: 

"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... 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."

This is kind of more than a little problematic for me- he's basing his assumption off of the fact that his family is from areas where the violence against Native American women occurred in the past. This becomes clearer through statements such as:
"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."

So yeah. His white ancestors are from an area with a lot of indigenous people, so obviously he's Native, too, right? If he can't even say what tribe he's affiliated with, it's pretty damn hard to take that seriously. Maybe I'm being indigenously elitist (which in itself sounds slightly ironic, eh?), but it sounds more like the "Cherokee" claim (and, actually, pretty much is, given Cherokee is one of the tribes he thinks he may  be decended  from)- "Oh, yeah, I have Cherokee!" Every other person claims to have Cherokee. Bullshit, it's not like Oprah is going around granting Cherokee heritage to everybody.

I had to; I'm already going to burn in the firey recesses of Hell, so I may
as well have some fun on the way, amirite? But I still have to be
grammatically correct, even when making memes... Sigh.
So okay, vague association with some tribe back in the day because of a rape. Awesome.

Move forward a bit to the character design of Tonto. Without delving into the details too much, he was blatantly honest about how a specific painting inspired him. But the painter is open about how he deliberately avoids historical and contextual accuracy- he literally just paints whatever stereotypes pop into his head at the time out of a fetishized notion of all indigenous people and peoples being "more connected with the earth" and all that hippie bullshit. And of course, dude's white. 
Not to say white people can't be respectful and portray indigenous culture in ways that aren't offensive, but all he does is paint stereotypes- and he admits it openly, so I'm not stretching this at all, here. 

Anyway, since the inspiration piece was built off of a hodgepodge of stereotypes, it's no surprise the end result of Tonto would be a hodgepodge, too. And it was. Ignoring the hideous paint and the riggoddamndiculous crow on his head, different parts of his outfit are either generic "Native-esque" things (like the random feathers hanging off of him), or they're from specific tribal cultures that have been forced onto the body of one man (the chest plate thing is Sioux, the headband thing southwestern, etc.).

Oh yeah, and there's the Tonto Talk, too.

So then it's no surprise he'd get a lot of poo-poos and fingerpointings. 

Well, I found out this morning that he's expressed interest in buying  the land on which the Wounded Knee massacre in of December 29, 1890, as well as the 1973 protest on and near the site took place. The current owner put it on the market for a few million dollars a while back, and it seems the deadline passed in May. But now Depp has said he wants to buy it and return it back to the Sioux Nation. Here's the main quote I've seen floating around about it:
"It's very sacred ground and many atrocities were committed against the Sioux there. And in the 1970s here was a stand-off between the Feds and the people who should own that land. This historical land is so important to the Sioux culture and all I want to do is buy it and give it back. Why doesn't the government do that?"
It's hard to tell exactly what's going on with Depp himself, since he's kind of vague and says that he's trying his best to make it happen or something, and also because he and his people aren't responding to anyone's inquiries. It's somewhat complicated by the fact that apparently there are some other donors elsewhere that have been talking to the owner about buying the land and doing the same thing with it, as in giving it back to the Sioux. 

There are mixed opinions, of course. The Sioux have been trying to get the land back via the courts, since it does come down to a legal, territorial thing, and they shouldn't have to buy back the lands they were forcibly relocated to in the first place. At the same time, the president of the Oglala Sioux has said he loves the idea. There are some tribal members that don't want the land bought back at all, though, because it's messed up for the white dude that owns it right now to  make a bunch of money off of its sale. There are others that don't really care, as long as the Sioux get the land back and can then erect the right monuments and museums to educate visitors about the history of what happened there and such.

So now, my position.

While I'd prefer that no white dude make a profit off of Wounded Knee going back to the control of my people, I realize that's probably a pipe dream. Since the history of the foundation of this country is the original exploitation of the tribes (and that this exploitation has never ceased), I find it highly unlikely that the Oglala will prevail in the courts. So acquiring it by any means necessary, given the fucked up system we're in, will just have to be the way to go. And since the Sioux Nation is so fucking poor, why not make a dude that sort of made a mockery of all Native American tribes in a summer blockbuster foot the bill?

As for Depp himself, I'm trying to see this as an earnest gesture in the face of what he did with Tonto. I agree entirely with people accusing him of making a PR move- but I like to see it as a public  move stemming from sincere regret and apology for the offensive nature of his version of Tonto. I don't know if he'll ever say, flat-out, "I'm sorry for Tonto," but if this is his way  of doing so, that's totally fine with me. Plus, if my tribe can get something out of his fuckup, then yay.

I also like to view this as the beginning of a genuine search for verification of the Native ancestry he says he has. And as it's highly unlikely he'll actually have all that much Native American blood in his body, if any, perhaps it will also lead to him realizing how fucked up the whole "blood quantum" thing is in the first place. It's entirely messed up that a person like me with relatives  living on the Rez in South Dakota can't legally claim to be Native American. And there's a saying, something like, "The government only  quantifies three things by blood: dogs, horses, and  Indians."


So maybe, and this is my highly optimistic, probably not-gonna-happen optimistic hope... Maybe in realizing he doesn't "count," and that probably multiple generations back, his line stopped "counting," Depp will get angry enough  about the whole concept of "blood quantum" and  become an advocate against it.

Now I realize there are logistical and pragmatic reasons for it in terms of who the tribes can and cannot afford to take care of, but  along with the optimistic hope that Depp will advocate, I also have this naive, self-righteous belief that the government should do a better job  of helping the tribes. Infrastructure, education, health care facilities, rehabilitative centers- tribes need assistance building themselves up. If the tribes had enough resources, they'd be able to embrace more people with legitimate ancestry connecting them. 

I guess my point is, I want things to get better for all indigenous people, and that my hope is this gesture on the part of Johnny Depp, if it actually leads to something real, could help start a trend in the gradual restoration of the dignity and autonomy of the tribes of the U.S. 

Comprehensive "sources"

Native Appropriations. This specific article deconstructs Tonto pretty rigorously, but it also has links to the rest of her coverage of Depp's little journey with the role. Her own sources are legit, it seems, so if you just skim over her stuff, you'll see I'm not pulling my summarizations of what's been going on with respect to Tonto or Depp's heritage out of my ass. 

This article is pretty comprehensive for all the necessary info about Depp buying Wounded Knee, but here, here, and here are some other sources. 

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