Real Indians Don’t Care About Tonto

Adrienne K., the blogger who writes Native Appropriations, has been having a series of increasingly heated discussions on, amongst other things, the idea of Johnny Depp portraying Tonto, and, well, the idea of portraying Tonto at all. The situation came to a head with what seems to have been an exceptionally unpleasant phone call with the actor Saginaw Grant:

His team had written down tweets and quotes from my blog, read them back to me, and forced me to defend myself. I was in a horrible position, because if I defended myself and stood by my words, I would have been perceived as being “disrespectful” towards a “respected elder,” so instead I avoided directly addressing their questions, to which I was called “evasive” and therefore, “disrespectful.” I was so polite and tried to show the utmost respect, though I was shown none in return. I sat there, for over two hours, and listened as my identity was questioned and my writing torn apart. I listened carefully, because I know I’m wrong all the time — and if I was wrong about this, I wanted to know. But instead, the only message I heard was that I was not Indian if I dared question this film. At one point, after about the twelfth time I was told I had “no right to call [my]self an Indian” — I broke down and said (in Cherokee), “I’m Cherokee, not a white person.” I didn’t know how else to defend myself.

Adrienne then posted positively about the portrayal of authentic Native American dancing in Nelly Furtado’s “Big Hoops” video as an example of a better way to include “Indian” themes in popular culture, reigniting the whole controversy. The entire situation is a fascinating look at what happens when different members of the same group disagree, respectfully or disrespectfully, about their own representations, who is “Indian enough” to have an opinion, and how cultural traditions can alter even the way we are expected to argue.