Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tonto Shops at J. Crow

Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer
I don't know what to think about Johnny Depp's Tonto.  Jerry Bruckheimer apparently tweeted an image from the set of the film The Lone Ranger, and picture has been flying around the Internet this week.

The image and the discussions surrounding it raise the issue of authenticity.

Depp's headpiece has gathered the most attention.  (For the moment, I will set aside the issue of casting Depp as an American Indian.)  Some friends were pointing out that the headpiece seems inspired by a painting (I am Crow by Kirby Sattler).  This accessorized bird raises the question of why would Tonto be wearing a headpiece from the Crow?  Tonto was apparently Apache or Potowatomi (I have seen different references from histories of The Lone Ranger series).  After the 1830s the Potowatomi would have lived primarily in Kansas and Nebraska, having ceded their lands in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois.  At the same time, the Apache lived pretty much where they always had: New Mexico, Arizona, West Texas, and Northern Mexico.  At that time, the Crow were living in Montana and Wyoming.

So some might ask how Tonto would have come upon such a headpiece.  Perhaps he saw it in a J. Crow catalog.

Texas Rangers
But is it worthwhile asking about the historical accuracy of Tonto's headgear?  No one asks if a Texas Ranger would have worn the clothes Armie Hammer is pictured in.  (Instead, people should be asking about his name.  Really?)  No one asks about the historical accuracy of the Lone Ranger's clothes or that hat.  As you can see from this image of Texas Rangers from the late 1800s, many of them did wear suits and vests, but the lapels are very different from Hammer's.  And their hats are shaped differently.  The Lone Ranger in the latest movie seems to have stopped by the Men's Wearhouse before hitting the trail.

No one ever wonders about the Lone Ranger's mask -- is that really going to keep anyone from recognizing him?  We understand the mask to be functioning as the sign of "disguise" and we do not question its ability to truly hide an identity.

No one asks about the historical accuracy of a Texas Ranger being friends with an American Indian.  One of the main reasons for the creation of the Texas Rangers was to kill Indians.  The Comanches on the western edge of Texas were giving the Texans fits, and so the Rangers were sent out to deal with them.

The Lone Ranger is a historical fantasy, not history.  A historical fantasy tries to rewrite the past to make it more consistent with the present.  People re-imagine their past to reinforce their beliefs about themselves today.  America wants to think of itself as racially tolerant, as completely comfortable in its multicultural self, so it imagines a Texas Ranger and an American Indian being great friends to help it forget the ugly facts of frontier history.

Clayton Moore & Jay Silverheels
So, since it is fantasy, why should we care about authenticity?  Tonto and the Lone Ranger are iconic functions, not real people.  The white cowboy hat identifies Hammer as a justice-seeking white American, as an ideal rather than a person.  Depp may be giving up the head band and buckskin that Jay Silverheels wore in the television series, but his dead bird headpiece and face paint are still  functioning iconically.  Look!  A Good Guy!  Look!  An Indian! 

Is it silly to ask for authenticity in depictions of Tonto?  The character of Tonto never had any authenticity.  Like many American Indians in American film and literature, he was the figment of white America's imagination.

I do not want dismiss the real-world implications of such stereotypical depictions.  I wrote about this in "Symbolic Indians vs. Smiling Indians."  But the whole Lone Ranger franchise is a kind of drag show, so perhaps no one should take it too seriously.  Perhaps we should lean back and laugh at its latest version, even laughing at the parts it may be trying to get right. Or at least wait until the movie is released and see how it all plays out.


  1. You're an idoiot... "why would Tonto be wearing a headpiece from the Crow?"
    Kirby Sattler's painting "I Am Crow" has nothing to do with the Crow Indian Tribe. The Crow is a spiritual messenger and Native American Totem. You have taken the title of this painting too literal. A title chosen for a work of art is only offered to help describe the painting, nothing more.

  2. Delicious irony of misspelling idiot, no?.... Whoever you are, you raise a potentially good point: Is it safe for me to assume that "I am Crow" does not merely refer to the man embodying the spirit of a bird? I assume the man is intended to represent a member of the Crow Nation because of an Edward Curtis image of a Crow man named Two Whistles wearing a similar headpiece.

  3. Touche...whoever I am...I clearly can't spell. I agree, the Edward Curtis photo does appear similar to the "I Am Crow" painting. And, I would have been convinced had the headdress carried a crow as opposed to a hawk. Guess we'lll never know exactly what Sattler's vision was when he created "I Am Crow" Never assume anything, right?

  4. :) It's all good. Thanks for coming back... Nearly all of Sattler's work consists of Northern Plains imagery, so that reinforced my conviction. Some folks on the Northern Plains attached dead birds to their hair. Black Elk describes a friend doing this before he rushed off to fight Custer's soldiers. I have not seen Apache adornment that does the same.... Also, the syntax of the painting's title makes me think of "Crow" as the people rather than the bird. "I am Crow" would be similar to saying "I am American." I guess someone could also say "I am crow" and mean the spirit or essence of the bird, but I would expect that to be stated as "I am the crow."... Finally, a friend of mine is acquainted with Sattler's brother, and she has several autographed prints from Sattler. She reassures me that his images are inspired by Crow, Blackfeet, and Sioux cultures.

    1. Your students are fortunate to have you as their professor. After discovering your blog, I would imagine your class to be very engaging and thought provoking.
      Not quite sure who your friend is referring to.
      Kirby Sattler does not have a "brother"
      I'm sticking to what the artist has to say for himself.
      His art interpretations give a feeling of authenticity without being specific to a particular tribe.
      "I purposely do not denote a tribal affiliation to the majority of my subjects, rather, I attempt to give the paintings an authentic appearance, provoke interest, satisfy my audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy."

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  6. Thanks! I will ask my friend about the nature of her relationship to Sattler.

  7. Whatever...I am ready to move on. It will be interesting to see if in fact, the movie even makes it to production. No matter, I have your next blog to look forward to.
    My bad~ I promise to refrain from any further name calling.

  8. See the movie, understand the crow