From the Postcolonial Peanut Gallery: Disney’s The Lone Ranger and the Disappearing Indian by Daniel Fan

A second pillar of white supremacy is the logic of genocide. This logic holds that indigenous peoples must disappear. In fact, they must always be disappearing, in order to allow non-indigenous peoples rightful claim over this land. Through this logic of genocide, non-Native peoples then become the rightful inheritors of all that was indigenous-land, resources, indigenous spirituality, or culture.
–Andrea Smith (“Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” from The Color of Violence)

The Lone Ranger MovieI had seen enough from the previews to think I wasn’t going to like Disney’s The Lone Ranger, but I wanted to actually view the film before judging it. 

The Lone Ranger opens with a young turn-of-the-century white boy, dressed in a Lone Ranger costume, attending a carnival in San Francisco that includes a quasi-historical display of what can only be described as the conquered west.  The boy passes displays of a buffalo, a grizzly bear, and finally “The Noble Savage,” a wax-like figurine who turns out to be none other than Tonto, or “THE Tonto!?!” as the amazed white boy exclaims.

Tonto expresses himself in the classic incorrect-personal pronoun Indian speak.  There is no way that a Lone Ranger film could have been made without a shout-out to the 1930s radio series that first introduced/fabricated Tonto’s distinct style of speech.  But unlike other iconic and even idiosyncratic speaking styles, e.g. Star War’s Yoda, Tonto actually represents a real ethnicity.  As Randy Woodley, Keetoowah Cherokee (legal descendant) observed, Tonto’s speech demonstrates a paternalistic white view of Native Americans in the same way that “me love you long time” stands in for Asians/Asian Americans.  Disney could have easily dealt with the nostalgic aspects of the series and legitimate native concerns by having the Tonto character address the Lone Ranger directly “You think all Indian talk like this? We don’t and we never have” and continue with normal dialogue (a confrontation that actually happened in the 1980s Lone Ranger comics). 

Johnny Depp as TontoThe story attempts to attribute Tonto’s speech to his stunted socialization and childhood trauma, as none of the other Comanches in the film speak in broken English.  One scene in particular is very reminiscent of the 1999 Pierce Brosnan film Grey Owl, where the Lone Ranger sits in a Comanche tipi waving his hands and speaking in a ridiculously exaggerated tone only to have his assumptions about Indians not being able to speak English overturned by an articulate native chief (Big Bear, played by Saginaw Grant, Sac-n-Fox, Iowa and Otoe-Missouria Nations).  With that being said, Tonto with his grammatically challenged English is still the most represented and apparently, long-lived native character the audience is exposed to.  Apparently, being able to speak English normally is detrimental to Comanche health as every Comanche who speaks normally dies.  In other words, Tonto is the “native” that audiences will remember1.

It’s also in the scene between Chief Big Bear and the Lone Ranger that we see confirmation of the screenwriters’ disturbing assumptions about native culture and history.  The film is set in 1863, during the height of the Civil War.  Historically speaking, the wars of settler aggression against the Comanche are still 3-5 years away.  Yet Big Bear already says of his own tribe “our time has passed,” in a monologue strongly reminiscent of Lord Elrond’s “The time of the Elves is over” speech from Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring (homage or rip-off of the sad nobility/fading presence trope?).  The message the first articulate native delivers is “our extinction is inevitable.” 

Towards the end of the movie, the Comanche ride down a steep hill into a wall of bullets fired from US Cavalry rifles and Gatling guns.  Every last warrior is killed, including Chief Big Bear.  Think: Gandalf and Theoden’s charge into Helm’s Deep (“Two Towers”) combined with Katsumoto’s final battle in The Last Samurai.  Despite the historical anachronism of the inclusion of the Gatling gun in 1863 (the “gat” was not accepted into US service until 1866), the point made by the screenwriters stands: natives are noble, but futile.  They and their culture are inevitable casualties of progress.

There was one potential moment of shining clarity during the film:  Tonto finally confronts one of the men who exterminated his village: “I used to think you were wendigo – now I know you are just another white man.” [the fact that the wendigo2 is an Algonquin legend, not a Comanche legend notwithstanding…].  This is yet another line that potentially betrays the screenwriters’ perspective.  There are two ways to interpret this line.  One: you are just a white man, an individual without special powers.  Two: you are just another white man – exhibiting all the greed, racial arrogance, and violence that is characteristic of white men of your time.  Each audience member gets to decide what he or she believes the screenwriters were trying to say.

Regardless of his epiphany or even victory, there is no hope for Tonto.  While in the tipi, Chief Big Bear tells the Lone Ranger that Tonto’s brokenness is due to his inability to return to his band since they were all massacred.  This, in part, excuses the end of the movie where Tonto is decrepit and old, bereft of horse or masked friend. In one of the final scenes the Lone Ranger asks his love interest why she chooses to stay in Texas and she replies that it is her home.  Ironically, the surviving indigenous character has no home and finishes the film alone in a San Francisco freak show.  By tale’s end, Tonto’s band is massacred, his tribe are all dead, his land and his destiny belong to the white man.  The Lone Ranger rides for justice, but where is Tonto’s justice? 

At certain points in the film it is clear that the screenwriters and director’s research included older films on interactions with indigenous peoples.  What is unclear is why scenes from these films were homaged or why previous films were considered valid research or examples at all.  It almost seems as though in their attempt to “pay respect” to indigenous peoples, the film makers ended up referencing and recreating false images and stereotypes of Native Americans found in older films. In effect, they allegedly set out to honor the truth, but somehow wound up honoring the lie instead.

The last sequence is perhaps, the most telling of all.  Having entrusted the young boy with the story of the Lone Ranger and the extinction of his people, Tonto changes out of his native regalia into a black western suit and bowler’s hat, and walks off seemingly into the mural backdrop of the “Noble Savage” display.  The moral of the story as acknowledged by the boy is “never take off the mask.”3 As the credits roll, a lone figure dressed in a black suit and hat shuffles off into Monument Valley, getting smaller and smaller until he is nothing more than a tiny black speck on what otherwise is an uninhabited desert expanse. 

Despite his triumph over a greedy railway baron and the baron’s cannibalistic henchman, despite his friendship with the icon of White Justice, Tonto ends the film alone: nothing more than a dusty prop in a two-bit sideshow.  Having no worthy heirs he bequeaths his story, and the story of his people, to a boy who completely misses the point. Tonto’s final act is to serve as a sad metaphor for the conquest of America and a popular perception of Native America.  Even though he dons the clothing of the white man, covering up his own indigeneity, there is no place for him in the white man’s city or future.  Like the rest of Native America he is irreversibly going, going, going, but not quite gone.

Depressing isn’t it?  Well cheer up, because it’s not true: it’s only showbiz.  Native peoples are not disappearing.  Their extinction is not inevitable.  The narrative of Tonto in Lone Ranger is a lie – one that is often believed, but is false nonetheless. This is where we have our own battle to fight. Disney’s tale and others like it, seek to close the book on Native Americans, crushing them into the pages of history.  In contrast, and in truth, another narrative told in family gatherings, powwows, and native studies programs demands that new chapters be written and reminds us that the story of native peoples continues, as does their struggle against colonialism.  Each story has its consequences.  There comes a time when good men and women must proclaim the truth.  Wearing a mask is optional.


1 Disney’s caricature will subject the rest of us to decades more Me-Tonto-Talk.  Now the perpetrators will say they are just making fun of Tonto as an individual, instead of Natives in general…if someone uses this dodge, please point out to them that making fun of an individual with deep psychological problems, regardless of ethnicity, is equally problematic.

2 I would also add here that the inclusion of the wendigo bunnies was simultaneously an unnecessary trivialization of Native American/First Nations spirituality and a blatant rip-off of Monty Python’s Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog (Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

3 If I just spent three hours telling you how your people exterminated mine for a few shiny rocks and all you thought about was a strip of leather with two holes in it, I’d walk the  away too, probably while shaking my head and cursing.

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