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W&L Anthropologist Weighs Johnny Depp's Tonto (Audio)

As co-editor of an anthology reviewing movies that portray American Indians, Washington and Lee University anthropologist Harvey Markowitz had low expectations for Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in Disney’s just-released “The Lone Ranger.”

The steady stream of bad reviews that have greeted the film only added to his apprehension that Hollywood was surely going to get it wrong again.

On balance, however, and despite many critics’ views to the contrary, Markowitz thinks that Depp’s Tonto is a remarkably different and rather more accurate portrayal of the American Indian than past movies. It contained, he said, many more subtleties about Indian ways of thinking and believing than has often been the case.

“The portrayals of American Indians have run the gamut, but they are always white images of Indians,” said Markowitz, co-editor of “Seeing Red: Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins” (Michigan State University Press, 2013). “It always starts from white assumptions about the nature of American Indians. So even though you have a wide range of portrayals in the movies, the key is that they come from a pool of assumptions that have been created by non-Indians.”

Markowitz argues that it is fraudulent to say that these portrayals have improved over time. Even when it comes to images of “good” or “noble” Indians, he notes that the characterization inevitably includes paternalism.

“Until very recently, you didn’t see Indians as main characters in movies,” Markowitz said. “You see them as satellites to stories that basically involve non-Indians, usually white people. That’s even true of supposedly the most revisionist of movies, ‘Dances with Wolves.’ That story is all about a non-Indian who is helping this group of Indians see the greatness of their tradition. But it’s the non-Indian’s story.”

In contrast, Markowitz said, Depp’s Tonto and the movie’s general portrayal of Indians stand apart from past films in important ways. Although Tonto is stoic, which is, in Markowitz’s view, a typically “non-Indian way” of presenting Indians, he is also very funny — “a stealth bomber with his humor, which is very subtle and dry and quite in keeping.”

“You also get something in this movie that the original Lone Ranger series on television would never, ever have portrayed, and this is the spirituality,” Markowitz said. “You get Tonto’s life centered around spirituality. The way he thinks and his actions come out of spirituality rather than western assumptions about how one thinks and believes one ought to act, both toward the environment and toward other humans. Respect and reciprocity are shown over and over again in Tonto’s action, and this is a very important element.”

Markowitz also thinks that the way the movie is framed—having an elderly Tonto tell his story to a young boy—illustrates the importance of the Indian oral tradition, which places morality at its center. The point of such storytelling, he said, is to guide young people and to reaffirm values that are important to the group. “I don’t know whether or not this was intentional, but I thought it was an excellent device,” he said.

Though his review of the movie is basically positive, Markowitz readily concedes the movie is hardly flawless. For instance, some of the slapstick scenes come straight out of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series in which Depp starred. Then there was the matter of the Comanches discussing “wendigos” — cannibal spirits that entered human beings and caused them to crave human flesh.

“Wendigos are an Algonquian belief, which is way north of Comanches,” Markowitz said. The Comanches live in the West and Southwest; Algonquians live farther east and north, and up into Canada . “It’s hard to understand how Comanches would be talking about wendigos. That surprised me. By and large, I thought it was a pretty smart movie, but it did have its stupid moments.”

Markowitz, a member of the W&L faculty since 2003, studies interrelationships among American Indian religions, landscapes, cultures, histories and identities. In addition to “Seeing Red,” which he co-edited with Leanne Howe, of the University of Illinois, and Denise Cummings, of Rollins College, he has recently written about the ways in which Lakota Sioux adapted to elements of Catholicism based on their interactions with missionaries.