UI professor says Depp was adept at playing Tonto

UI professor says Depp was adept at playing Tonto

URBANA — A scholar on how Native Americans are portrayed in the media says the new "Lone Ranger" is better than some movies that have bolstered stereotypes in our society.

University of Illinois Professor LeAnne Howe is a co-editor of "Seeing Red, Hollywood's Pixeled Skins: American Indians and Film." The book was published in March by Michigan State University Press.

"The Lone Ranger" has neither pleased critics nor made much back from its huge budget.

"The movie is not as bad as I expected," Howe said. "I think the character Johnny Depp plays is very interesting."

She said Depp's portrayal of Tonto is a "trickster character" — a staple of many American Indian folk stales.

"He makes us believe in Tonto — and really is the protagonist of the film," she said.

She said "The Lone Ranger" is full of stereotypes: the saloon girl, a zombie, a greedy executive.

"All the threads don't make a nice tapestry," Howe said. "But I was surprised how much I liked Johnny Depp."

She said there are "jarring cross-cultural" errors, including Tonto alluding to a windigo, a monster from the cultures of tribes in the northern United States and Canada, most notably the Ojibwe.

Tonto is supposed to be a Comanche.

"The Comanche have plenty of scary creatures of their own," she said. "The film is often out of place and out of time."

She paraphrased Indian activist Vine Deloria, saying "Americans love to love Indians that never existed."

Tonto was the only on-screen hero American Indians had growing up in the 1950s, says Howe, a Choctaw and a professor of American Indian Studies, English and theater, in an online resource, http://illinois.edu/lb/article/72/75308.

She notes that Depp was given honorary membership in the Comanche Nation in 2012.

The character of Tonto first was heard on radio in 1936 and then appeared on television in the 1950s, when "The Lone Ranger" became a TV series. Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels played the icon on TV.

"For American Indians my age, Silverheels was the only Native actor we would ever see on television. Imagine growing up in America and never seeing a white actor on television — except one. So of course Tonto was a heroic character for us," Howe wrote in the UI article.

Howe's book rips older films "A Man Called Horse" and "Tell Them Willie Boy is Here," but praises "The Unforgiven" starring Audrey Hepburn as a Kiowa Indian.

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