Native Americans worried about stereotypes in new "Lone Ranger" film

Release date: July 3 The masked Western hero heads back to the big screen in this Gore Verbinski-directed retelling starring Armie Hammer as John Reid/The Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as his sidekick, Tonto. Disney/Bruckheimer Films

Johnny Deep as Tonto and Armie Hammer as John Reid in Disney's "Lone Ranger."
Disney/Bruckheimer Films

(CBS/AP) The making of a new "Lone Ranger" Disney movie, and the announcement that Johnny Depp is playing sidekick Tonto, have reawakened feelings about a character that has drawn much criticism over the years as being a Hollywood creation guilty of spreading stereotypes.

The film is still in production, but the Native American community has been abuzz about it for months, with many sharing opinions online and a national Native publication running an occasional series on the topic.

Some Native Americans welcome the new movie, which is slated for release next summer. Parts were filmed on the Navajo Nation with the tribe's support, and an Oklahoma tribe recently made Depp an honorary member.

But for others, the "Lone Ranger" represents a lingering sore spot - one that goes back to the 1950s television version of Tonto, who spoke in broken English, wore buckskin and lacked any real cultural traits.

Depp's role attracted particular attention in April when producer Jerry Bruckheimer tweeted a picture of the actor in his Tonto costume. He had on black and white face paint, an intense gaze, a black bird attached to his head and plenty of decorative feathers.

"The moment it hit my Facebook newsfeed, the updates from my friends went nutso," wrote Natanya Ann Pulley, a doctorate student at University of Utah, in an essay for the online magazine McSweeney's.

For Pulley and her friends, the portrayal of Native Americans in Western movies is getting old.

"I'm worried about the Tonto figure becoming a parody or a commercialized figure that doesn't have any dimension or depth. Or consideration for contemporary context of Native Americans," she said.

But Native Americans are far from a monolithic group, and many are opening their arms to the new movie. Some are just excited to see Depp take the role.

In New Mexico, where some of the movie was filmed, the Navajo presented Depp, his co-star Armie Hammer, director Gore Verbinski and Bruckheimer with Pendleton blankets to welcome them to their land. Elsewhere, the Comanche people of Oklahoma made Depp, one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, an honorary member.

"In my niece's mind, I met Jack Sparrow," said Emerald Dahozy, spokeswoman for Navajo President Ben Shelly and a member of the Navajo group who met with Depp. "My personal view, I like him playing in a character which he can embody well."

Dahozy said the "Lone Ranger" production brought something more palpable to the reservation: money. The actors and the large crew lived on Navajo land, eating at local restaurants and staying in towns that rely heavily on tourism.

Disney representatives declined to comment, but Depp has said the film will be a "sort of rock `n' roll version of the Lone Ranger" with his Tonto offering a different take from the 1950s show.

Cheyenne and Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre is willing to give the actor a chance.

"Based on Johnny Depp as an artist, and him going all the way and making this film happen, in my book (he) deserves some credit," Eyre told Indian Country Today for its occasional "Tonto Files" series. "He wants to change the view of Tonto, and he put his reputation and his career on the line."

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