Why Do We Rely On 2-Dimensional Stereotypes For Native American Characters?

ByDanielle Paradis

Ever since the initial announcement that Johnny Depp would play Tonto in the new Lone Ranger, the casting choice has been the subject of much debate. In the original Lone Ranger series, white actor John Todd played Tonto. Even later in the early 1950s, when Tonto was played by a Native American, the character remained one-dimensional and subordinate to the white hero.

I emailed Vincent Schilling, the co-host of radio show Native Trailblazers and writer for Indian County, to have him tell us in his own words what he thought about the Depp/Tonto controversy.

Vincent's humorous video, which addresses Johnny Depp’s attempt at portraying a Native American, is definitely worth a watch.

Danielle Paradis (DP): What is problematic about the depiction of Johnny Depp as Tonto?

Vincent Schilling (VS): The first thing I want to say is that I don’t think Johnny Depp is being intentionally disrespectful, nor is he wanting to offend Native Americans. But the Raven on Johnny Depp’s head was fashioned from a depiction drawn by a French artist in which the bird was flying behind the Native person in the picture. Depp himself admits he knows the bird was flying behind the Native person’s head, but grasped the bird as more of a spirit animal. Truth be told, many Native regalia does include animals worn on a person’s head.

I fear the entirety of this issue just borders on a comical stereotype and a plastic portrayal of Native culture, rather than the deserved respect and reverence that is given to any animal that is part of native regalia.

DP: Have you seen cultural appropriation like this before?

VS: Yes, it’s called Halloween. Of course, there is also any Washington Redskins game or any past University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign celebration of the Chief Illiniwek mascot. The students thought the chief was great, but the mascot was banned by the NCAA for being racially derogatory.

DP: What inspired you to make the video, and what is the takeaway message?

VS: All in all, there is a difference between the true honor of Native regalia and the farce of what Native regalia is and isn’t. So many times people do things meant to be respectful but it is not perceived by Native people that way.

More than anything else though, I think that humor is the best teacher of just about anything. Yes, I am an award-winning SERIOUS book author and journalist, but I have to have a humorous release or I’ll go crazy. As much as I am serious, my life’s perspective is more about humor and sarcasm than anything else.

Just ask my wife Delores. She’ll agree that I am insane. Although she is the truly insane person for marrying me.

DP: Anything you would like to add that I haven't asked? 

VS: The video itself — This video idea was in my mind for a long time and I wanted to do it just right. After months of thought, me and my best friend Dann Boyko shot it in just a few hours, then editing it and playing around took the next 18 hours. I really wanted to teach with humor. Perhaps people see that though I am being funny, there is a bit of truth to be extracted, and maybe people recognize there really is a stereotype that exists in Tonto’s headdress. But when they realize it, they might be laughing. As a Native person portraying the anchor and the characters, people will also see Native people have a sense of humor.

Native Americans have power in social media — so much is going on in the virtual world and Native people in the U.S., Canada and everywhere else are finding some serious unification of thoughts. Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms are just incredibly rich with diversity and because of this, people all over the world are finding common ground. For example, I started a Native American Community on Google Plus  and in just a few months have over 2,300 members that share thoughts on Native culture form all over the world.  

As a collective voice, we are being heard. This goes for everyone. I am still shocked that thousands of people have watched this video of me being a geek with a bird on my head fastened with duct tape. But it is truly awesome.

You can follow Vincent on Twitter at @VinceSchilling