SEATTLE — Gyasi Ross grew up decades after the “Lone Ranger” aired on TV, but his friends would still call him “Tonto” when they teased him.
“Everybody understands who Tonto is, even if we hadn’t seen the show, and we understood it wasn’t a good thing,” said Ross, a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana who lives and has family in the Suquamish Tribe, outside Seattle. “Why else would you tease someone with that?”
The making of a new “Lone Ranger” Disney movie, and the announcement that Johnny Depp is playing sidekick Tonto, have reawakened feelings about a character that has drawn much criticism over the years as being a Hollywood creation guilty of spreading stereotypes.
The film is still in production, but Native American groups have been abuzz about it for months, with many sharing opinions online and in a national Native publication running an occasional series on the topic.
Some Native Americans welcome the new movie, slated for release next summer. Parts were filmed on the Navajo Nation with the tribe’s support, and an Oklahoma tribe recently made Depp an honorary member.
But for others, the “Lone Ranger” represents a lingering sore spot — one that goes back to the 1950s television version of Tonto, who spoke in broken English, wore buckskin and lacked any real cultural traits.
Depp’s role attracted particular attention in April when producer Jerry Bruckheimer tweeted a picture of the actor in his Tonto costume. He had on black and white face paint, an intense gaze, a black bird attached to his head and plenty of decorative feathers.
“The moment it hit my Facebook newsfeed, the updates from my friends went nutso,” wrote Natanya Ann Pulley, a doctorate student at University of Utah, in an essay for the online magazine McSweeney’s.
For Pulley and her friends, the portrayal of Native Americans in Western movies is getting old.
“I’m worried about the Tonto figure becoming a parody or a commercialized figure that doesn’t have any dimension or depth, or consideration for contemporary context of Native Americans,” she said.
But Native Americans are far from a monolithic group, and many are opening their arms to the new movie. Some are just excited to see Depp take the role.
In New Mexico, where some of the movie was filmed, the Navajo presented Depp, his co-star Armie Hammer, director Gore Verbinski and Bruckheimer with Pendleton blankets to welcome them to their land. Elsewhere, the Comanche people of Oklahoma made Depp, one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, an honorary member.
“In my niece’s mind, I met Jack Sparrow,” said Emerald Dahozy, spokeswoman for Navajo President Ben Shelly and a member of the Navajo group who met with Depp. “My personal view, I like him playing in a character which he can embody well.”
Dahozy said the “Lone Ranger” production brought something more palpable to the reservation: money. The actors and the large crew lived on Navajo land, eating at local restaurants and staying in towns that rely heavily on tourism.
American Indians aren’t the only ones conflicted about the character of Tonto, which means “dumb” in Spanish. For Mexican Americans who grew up in the Southwest, the character draws up memories of one of the first dark-skinned heroes in popular culture and anger over a white man calling a brown-skinned person “dumb,” said Rosa-Linda Fregoso, author of “Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture” and a Latino Studies professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“I remember rooting for him as a kid, but even I was a little bit offended as a child,” said Fregoso. “For a grown white man to call someone ‘Tonto’ meant that you were less than human, not fully human or childlike.”
In fact, Tonto’s character has historically been called “Toro,” which means “bull,” in Spanish-language versions of early films, and Spanish language stories about Depp’s role in the new film refers to his character as “Toro.”
Disney representatives declined to comment, but Depp has said the film will be a “sort of rock ‘n’ roll version of the Lone Ranger” with his Tonto offering a different take from the 1950s show.
Cheyenne and Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre is willing to give the actor a chance.
“Based on Johnny Depp as an artist, and him going all the way and making this film happen, in my book (he) deserves some credit,” Eyre told Indian Country Today for its occasional “Tonto Files” series. “He wants to change the view of Tonto, and he put his reputation and his career on the line.”
The “Lone Ranger” began on the radio in the 1930s. Tonto was played by an actor of Irish descent, according to the Lone Ranger Fan Club.
The show rocketed in popularity and made a seamless transition to television, running on ABC from 1949 to 1957. In 2003, a TV reboot flopped. That version featured a First Peoples actor from Canada playing Tonto.
But the 1950s portrayal of Tonto by Jay Silverheels, a Canadian Mohawk First Nations member, is by far the most recognized.
He spoke in pidgin and was the loyal partner of the crime-fighting ranger, often bailing out the masked avenger from treacherous situations.
“Here hat. Me wash in stream. Dry in sun. Make whiter,” Tonto says in an early episode setting up his relationship with the Lone Ranger. “Here gun to kill bad men.”
That Tonto has been criticized as being generic and subordinate — a character with no individuality and no life beyond helping the Lone Ranger.
Tex Holland, executive director of the 600-member Lone Ranger Fan Club, defended the portrayal.
“I felt the Indians had their own language and in doing so, anyone learning the language is going to speak it broken, whether the person is from Japan or Mexico,” Holland said. “I did not look down on him. All of us thought that’s the way the Indians at that time communicated with us. Did we speak Indian fluently? We’d speak it broken it too.”
Holland and his fellow fans, however, were taken aback by Depp’s new look.
“Yuck. I can’t believe that he’s wearing a crow on his head. And he’s looking like some type of medicine man,” Holland said. “Disney chose (Depp) for one thing: box office draw.”
Reportedly costing more than $200 million, plus yet-to-be-added marketing costs, Disney’s “Lone Ranger” is the type of film that can make or break a studio’s summer. It’s already been plagued with budget woes. The movie’s release date in 2013 was recently pushed back a month.
Having Depp in the cast assures more eyeballs will be on the screen. Depp led the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and anchored “Alice in Wonderland.” Three of those movies surpassed the rare billion-dollar mark at the worldwide box office.
Back on Suquamish land, Ross doesn’t mind having Depp as Tonto. In fact, the 36-year-old said he would have been more troubled had a Native American taken the role, knowing its history.
But he’s worried the movie, which certainly will attract a large audience, will cement a stereotype for years to come because Hollywood doesn’t make many movies with Native American protagonists. The popular ones stick in people’s minds.
The first “Lone Ranger” did that, as did “Dances with Wolves” decades later, said Ross, an attorney who also writes a column for Indian Country Today.
“I’m not sure how much redefining I’m going to expect, not sure how much of the movie will be something I can show my son,” he said.
Manuel Valdes can be reached https://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.