No One’s Sidekick

Aug 1st, 2013 | By | Category: Opinion, The Inquisitive Academic, Web Exclusive
By Ryan Winn

the-Lone-RangerThe Lone Ranger deserves criticism. The film is a lengthy jumble of genres, tones, and images that often underwhelm and rarely flow together. I’m not alone in my disapproval. Seventy percent of critics have written unfavorably about it and The Hollywood Reporter estimates that Disney stands to lose close to $150 million due to lackluster ticket sales. Many media outlets have dismissed the film as a flop on all fronts, and most have shifted their focus to the next would-be summer blockbuster. But I propose we take a closer look at the film because, like it or not, it will be a milestone in American Indian cinema. Good, bad, and ugly, The Lone Ranger offers us Tribal College and University (TCU) educators much to talk about with our students, and we can employ Disney’s triumphs and failures to educate the next generation of Native filmmakers.

Let’s start with what we all can celebrate about the film. When The Lone Ranger strives for authenticity it succeeds where many westerns stumble. NPRnoted that director Gore Verbinski “laid six miles of track in New Mexico and built two locomotives…reportedly for authenticity’s sake.” And those train scenes are some of the most compelling segments in the film. More important was the Native community involvement. Local elders of the Navajo tribe performed a blessing at Monument Valley during the filming and actor Johnny Depp participated in the Comanche Nation Fair, where he spoke inspiring words to the youth in attendance and was even adopted by the tribe. The film also provided numerous paying jobs for Indian actors. More Natives need to be working in the film industry, and this movie gave a lot of Indigenous actors experience and a high-profile résumé boost. Throughout the film these actors drum, sing, dance, and even speak their Native language, albeit briefly. But perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of the film’s production is the generosity of Walt Disney Studios Chairman, Alan Horn, who donated the proceeds from the film’s world premiere to the American Indian College Fund. His kindness to the numerous beneficiaries of this donation must not be overlooked.

To be fair though, there’s a lot about The Lone Ranger that is simply bad filmmaking. It seems that Verbinski can’t decide who the film’s audience is. The indecision makes for cringe-worthy plot development and conflicting messages. The film contrasts a light-hearted horse galloping on buildings, with sinister cannibal rabbits; a noble Texas Ranger who stands up for Comanche treaty rights, with an Indian killer who cuts out and then eats that Ranger’s heart; a cat-and-mouse kidnapping, with homophobic cross-dressing jokes; and, finally, Depp’s complex Tonto character, with interchangeable versions of one-dimensional Indians. Minority educators should not overlook how both the film’s African American and Chinese characters have been cast in their stereotypical roles from westerns past. These minority characters speak few words, communicate mostly in quick gestures, are subservient to their white counterparts, and can’t defend themselves from violence.

But what’s so ugly—and aggravating for American Indian epistemology—is that The Lone Ranger perpetuates colonialism through its disregard of tribally specific culture and history. In the film, Tonto is an exiled member of the Comanche Nation, but the Tonto from the 1950s TV series was Potawatomi. In fact, Depp’s Tonto still calls the Lone Ranger kemosabe, which means “friend” in Potawatomi. And so the film’s central Comanche character does not speak his own language, but rather a single word from the language of a geographically different tribe. The film also borrows the windigo legend from Algonquian culture and makes it a part of Comanche lore. Indian nations are not interchangeable, but the makers of The Lone Ranger seem to believe that a film’s artistic license supersedes any of its attempts for Indigenous authenticity.

The Lone Ranger also holds fast to old stereotypes with Tonto’s inability to master the English language. And then there is Depp wearing the dead crow on his head. The image served essentially as the film’s entire advertising campaign and was inspired by non-Native artist Kirby Sattler’s painting, “I Am Crow.” Depp mistook Sattler’s image of a crow flying past an American Indian as a painting of a man with a crow on top of his head. Depp stated, “I thought, Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive.” In the film, Depp reveals his artistic vision to the audience as Tonto periodically drops food in front of the bird’s beak. The Comanches in the film dismiss Tonto as mentally unsound, but the character’s actions gain credence when later Depp seems to vanish and a live crow emerges in his wake. The problem with all of this—besides being ridiculous—is that it reinforces the cinematic belief that Native people can and often do commune with animals. Disney is no stranger to this plot point: its film Pocahontas perpetuated the notion of inherited Indigenous animal kinsmenship to a previous generation. This latest Disney film has no misgivings about encouraging the same problematic Indigenous depictions that were commonplace more than half a century ago, when John Ford was shooting footage in Monument Valley.

Looking beyond Hollywood, there’s hope for American Indian cinema—and that hope can be found in TCU classrooms. TCU faculty have a responsibility to help the next generation of filmmakers evaluate popular culture critically and appreciate the contributions of Native artists, such as filmmakers Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), Randy Redroad (Cherokee), Neil Diamond (Cree), and Zacharias Kunuk (Inuit). Our efforts may even lead to a future TCU graduate making a blockbuster American Indian film that is culturally accurate and that features a prominent Native character who is no one’s sidekick. I think we all can agree that such a film will be worth the cost of admission.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation (CMN), where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair. In the past seven years he has presented several papers, chaired a few panels, and directed and/or acted in stage readings at both national and regional conferences on the topic of American Indian theater. Similarly, he has directed 12 plays for CMN, coached their AIHEC speech team, and has been recognized as an American Indian College Fund Faculty Member of the Year.


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Joseph, D. (2013, July). Tonto’s new inspiration: artist Kirby Sattler. Cowboys & Indians.

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Mondello, B. (2013, July 2). A familiar Wild West, but the guy in the mask? Who’s he?

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Stigler, A. (2013, July 8). History vs. Hollywood: Does ‘The Lone Ranger’ accurately represent Native Americans? Retrieved July 2013, from

Thompson, A. (2013, July 15). Johnny Depp’s hard times continue as ‘Lone Ranger’ bombs. USA Today. Retrieved July 2013, from

Verbinski, G. (Director). 2013. The Lone Ranger. [Film].Walt Disney Pictures.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion column published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not reflect the opinions ofTCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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