As The Lone Ranger heads for the big screen this summer, many Native Americans are questioning Disney’s campaign to court their approval. They believe that the studio’s public relations gestures mask the real issues of the marketing and identity of indigenous people.
The movie, which stars Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger, will hit theaters July 3. Depp has enjoyed a long relationship with the film’s director Gore Verbinski and its producer Jerry Bruckheimer through Disney’s record-breaking Pirates of the Caribbean series. The megastar is also one of The Lone Ranger’s executive producers, and his production company Infinitum Nihil (Latin for “Infinite Nothing”) was involved with the picture.
But Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage (put forth in 2002 on Inside the Actors' Studio, although in 2011 speaking to Entertainment Weekly he added "or maybe Creek") along with his streaked black-and-white painted face and a stuffed crow perched atop his head have caused many to cry foul. Still, others say that Disney—which has a long history of working with Native Americans—is not adequately addressing their issues.
For his part, Depp told MTV.com that the film is “an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.” The actor has said he hopes to fix years of Indian misrepresentations in Hollywood and has repeatedly stated that his great grandmother had mostly Cherokee blood.
But Native American leaders and educators are not buying it. They question Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage, particularly the studio’s attempt to keep it ambiguous.
“Disney relies upon the ignorance of the public to allow that ambiguity to exist,” says Hanay Geiogamah, Professor of Theater at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware) was a consultant for Disney’s Pocahontas and served as producer and co-producer for TBS’ The Native Americans: Behind the Legends, Beyond the Myths aired in the 1990s.
“If Depp had any legitimate blood of any tribe, Disney would definitely have all the substantial proof of that already. It’s not that hard to establish tribal connections,” Geiogamah says.
Richard Allen, Policy Analyst for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, agrees. He says that many celebrities have claimed Cherokee heritage—often based upon family stories they’ve heard—but like Depp they never try to verify it. “They all tell me they have high cheekbones,” Allen says.
Geiogomah believes that because so few roles in Hollywood go to Native American actors, Disney’s big-budget movie is a “missed opportunity.” Depp could have played the Lone Ranger and instead promoted a younger Indian actor to play Tonto, he points out. After all, Canadian Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels portrayed the character in the 1950s TV series.
“Now they re-introduce Tonto with a non-Indian. So can you call that progress?” Geiogamah asks.
Instead, he worries that Disney’s Tonto feeds into non-Native expectations of Indians frozen in a historic time frame. “That costume ends up making us look like a bunch of oddballs with dead birds on our heads,” Geiogamah says.
But William “Two Raven” Voelker, the movie’s Comanche consultant, says that the costume—including the Crow headdress—is authentic to Comanche culture. “Everyone’s got an opinion who has no knowledge of our culture,” Voelker says. “That’s the part that wears me down.”
Voelker is co-founder of the tribe’s Sia Essential Species Repository, an organization devoted to the rehabilitation and breeding of bald eagles. Comanche activist LaDonna Harris, who adopted Depp into her family, is also a member of Sia’s Board of Directors. Voelker says that Disney has agreed that The Lone Ranger will bring “open-ended” contributions to Sia.
But Gary Brouse, Program Director of Policy and Governance at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), questions claims of cultural authenticity. He had contacted Disney and met with the company’s Corporate Citizenship and Global Publicity divisions prior to The Lone Ranger’s production.
“That’s one thing that concerns us is a company’s lack of cooperation with indigenous leaders in this particular field, leaders that we recognize as leaders rather than someone they hire as a consultant,” he says.
The New York City-based ICCR encourages member institutions to integrate social values into investor actions and has fought against offensive portrayals of Native Americans in corporate commercials and sponsorships. The organization has successfully campaigned against Denny’s “Chief Wahoo” images on company uniforms and Liz Claiborne’s “Crazy Horse” fashions.
Brouse says that there is no indigenous person at Disney responsible for the company’s policy toward Native American people.
Disney responded that Christine Cadena, Senior Vice President of Multicultural Initiatives, instead played a key role in liaising with the Native American community for The Lone Ranger.
“I think Disney should hire more indigenous people in all kinds of roles,” Brouse says, adding that the company should also have a publicly disclosed statement on record of their policy when dealing with indigenous issues.
But Disney points out that its Human Rights Policy applies across all populations and regions. “Our collaboration with a broad range of interested constituencies, including indigenous people, keeps us sensitive to the potential impacts of our products and services and the interests of our employees, customers and communities around the world,” a Disney representative replied through email.
Still, Brouse explains that part of the problem was that Depp had “a lot of say so” in the film yet did not fully grasp the project’s impact on Native American communities. When Brouse tried to invite Depp to conference calls with Indian leaders, nothing ever happened. “Disney conveyed that Depp was very concerned about this and just passed the message along. We never really knew the reason why he didn’t do it,” Brouse says.