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The Lone Greenhorn and the Magic Injun

The Lone Ranger. I had to see it. I’ve been reading a lot of critiques over the lame Native stereotyping and yes, there is validity to the complaint. But, I’ve also been talking with friends who went to see it and liked it — Native friends, as well as non-Natives. Some see it as a spoof of the way old Westerns always demeaned Natives. Some see it as the Native Django – “Tonto gets to kill evil white guys.”

When I was a kid watching the original TV show, Jimmy Johnson and I would always root for Tonto. We loved him. Then again, we always rooted for the “Indians.”

I went and saw it with a buddy – a Native guy from Wyoming – a Vietnam sniper. He liked it. He’s one who saw it as a spoof. “Funny, but way too long …mediocre plot…even the music was bad, other than they finally got William Tell in there near that long ending” was his final assessment. Well, it is a spoof. A bad one. A long leap from Blazing Saddles or Paint Your Wagon, though you could span the huge gap with the exploding mine shaft of Western cliches it contains. It’s more like Will Smith’s Wild, Wild West. You can’t watch it without getting in some laughs – many for the telegraphed jokes and sight gags sheer stupidity, than for their cleverness. It’s a lame story, but maybe a bit better than Wild, Wild West, however.

The original Tonto was an Amos & Andy caricature of a lone Potawatomi warrior. (Plausible only because many of his nation were force-relocated to the southwest (Oklahoma) from the Great Lakes region.) This Tonto is Comanche, driven crazy and is an outcast because of his childhood part in saving two evil white men who then massacre his people for silver.

Somehow Monument Valley, Promontory Point, Canyonlands and Sierra forests are all in Texas/Indian Country. Buffalo roam Monument Valley. And Tonto is a Wendigo hunter – a cannibalistic creature from Algonquin (read: Eastern seacoast) lore. Historical and Geographical accuracy never enter the picture.

It is racist — in the way that gives us sidekicks like Jar Jar Binks (or any number of Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy flicks); though it doesn’t rise to the awfulness of a Mr. Yunioshi…and there are tons of Magical Indian cliches and Tonto slips unaccountably from using words like “fatigued” to pidgin and stilted nonsense like “Greetings, noble spirit horse.” The “sacred fool” (Tonto means “idiot” in the Spanish spoken in the Southwest) and the “wendigo hunter” tropes are repeated throughout. And the dead raven  he wears on his head and keeps feeding just comes off as bizarre – though some say that Crazy Horse went to battle with a dead red tail hawk (or at least one’s feathers) on his head.

Would it be problematic stereotyping if Tonto was played by a Native, not Johnny Depp? Yes, for the same reasons…even though Tonto is the central character and at least interesting; while, Armie Hammer is just terrible as the Lone Ranger who is a bumbling tenderfoot in this remake. He makes Texas Rangers look bad. It plays out like Dudley Do-Right, Texas Ranger.

Then again, the Comanche are presented heroically and there are Native actors employed – the great Native actor Saginaw Grant is superb as the erudite Chief Big Bear, though even he begins his tale of Tonto’s history with the chestnut, “Many moons ago…” It’s no Django, either. Tonto never shoots anyone, but the bad guys do end up dead…in the looong run.

I went over to Indian Country right after seeing it. I visited my buddies Quilt, Gayle and Blaine over at their long-time family compound at the Warm Springs Nation. Over a round of horseshoes (Blainey came back and won by hitting three ringers in a row), we discussed the movie. Gayle noted, “When I first heard that it was gonna be Johnny Depp, I thought it would be awful. I just knew they’d put that Pirates of the Caribbean goofiness in it.”

Quilt said, “We heard they were looking for Italian actors just like in the old days.”

I explained that they did have Natives playing Natives and brought up Grant’s role. Immediately, they were relieved as Grant (the famous “crying Indian” of the anti-pollution ad) is revered in Indian Country. I also noted that Depp has just announced that he is trying to buy a piece of important privately-owned land at Wounded Knee.” If Depp pulls that off, I can live with his Tonto,” Gayle responded.

Quiltman is a traditional singer and is part of Bad Dog, John Trudell’s band. Trudell, the first and only chairman of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an acclaimed actor and a spoken word artist has weighed in on the Wounded Knee purchase, writing: “re…Johnny Depp and Wounded Knee….personally I think he’s doing a good thing if he returns Wounded Knee to the tribe….what’s so hard to understand about this….both parcels of land are known to hold our ancestors bones so I think the spiritual value is important to the tribe…so this about more than just any piece of land….I mean there’s a certain irony to all this…a fictional Indian Tonto gets Wounded Knee and Crazy Horse’s burial place returned to the tribe….almost like trickster stuff….”

And to those who criticize Depp’s mission, John had this to say, “the ones complaining about what’s being done or it’s not enough should think about it…. I’m sure the descendants of the Wounded Knee massacred would rather have the place their relatives lay not owned by a white racist….I know money for the tribe is needed but that’s the governments treaty legal responsibility not some actors…even if the actor is Johnny Depp….and understanding certain realities it would be good to remember that the Lakota have refused to accept the theft of black hills and the money that was offered to accept that theft….this is kinda like that….the sacred is of more value than the money….”

Back to the movie: There are only two women characters: one plays – the plucky widow in distress; the other – the plucky brothel owner…they don’t even share a word of dialogue together. Dismal dialogue throughout. Somehow it got a PG-13 rating despite cannibalism, scalpings, big beams crushing skulls, and, of course, massacres – though all stylized like an old John Wayne flick; not a ketchup-on-the-walls Tarantino gore-fest. (Keep the kids at home, nevertheless!) It’s just a dreadful movie.

Best line: when the Lone Ranger tries to stop the Comanche from going to war after they were unjustly attacked. Chief Big Bear demurs and says, “We are already ghosts.”

When at the end, a smarmy railroad magnate tries to buy off the Lone Ranger with a gold watch, he tells him: “There’s plenty more where that came from. Always nice to have a lawman on the side of progress and industry.” (The LR refuses to take off the mask, gives back the watch box and walks away. You find out later that the watch wasn’t in the box, as Tonto had taken it and traded some birdseed for it.)

So, it had quite the obvious set up for a sequel at the end…but, with 5 people at a 500-seat matinee, I don’t think so. Thank Gaia! Heads are gonna roll at Disney.

MICHAEL DONNELLY is a long-time supporter of the American Indian Movement (AIM). He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com 

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MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

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