Johnny Depp’s Tonto is Based on a White Man’s Painting of an Imaginary Native American

When producer Jerry Bruckheimer released the first official image of Johnny Depp in costume as Tonto for this summer's upcoming blockbuster The Lone Ranger on Twitter a few days ago, people were like, "Oh wuuuut?"

He looked pretty much exactly like Captain Jack Sparrow, but with a bird on his head, and a whole lot of Kiss-style face paint.

Then Depp revealed to Entertainment Weekly the inspiration behind the character's new look: a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, called I Am Crow. You can buy a print here. There's currently a two-for-one special going on for all regular priced prints, so maybe pick up one for your mom too — Mother's Day is May 13.

If you're wondering how accurate a depiction of a Crow man this painting is intended to be, the answer is: Not Very.

On his website, Sattler states "I am not a historian, nor an ethnologist," and notes that he hopes his paintings "satisfy my audience's sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy."

He also explains that he purposely eschews denoting tribal affiliations for the subjects of most of his works, though the title "I Am Crow," suggests the mythical figure depicted in the painting might, perhaps, be a member of the Crow Nation of Native Americans.

In the new film, Tonto is described as "full-blooded Comanche."

In the original 1950s Lone Ranger television series, the character was portrayed by Jay Silverheels, born Harold J. Smith, a Canadian Mohawk actor.

Depp has sort of described himself, he guesses, as Native American…ish:

"I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian."

As a half-black person, who, like all black, or even partially black, people, is partly, or maybe even mostly, Native American, I would counsel Depp that, when throwing out the "I'm a Native American" wildcard, it's best to self-identify with just one tribe and then defend that statement to the death, against any and all reason.

My family goes with Seminole, which means we are absolutely, one hundred percent, partly Seminole.

Most likely descended from chiefs.

Depp has explained that the reason he wanted to portray Tonto was to counteract stereotypical images of Native Americans that have pervaded history.

"The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history or the history of cinema at the very least."

One could argue that it is counter-productive to combat whitewashed stereotypes of Native Americans by dressing a white man up as another white man's fictional representation of a Native American—a Native American who, incidentally, appears literally whitewashed—but that is to miss the point which is this:

Johnny Depp is very enigmatic and charming.

Here are the very Johnny Depp things he said about that striking face paint:

"The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean…There's this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, an angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side."

A Native American who is wise, angry, and understanding.

You combat those sterotypes, kemo sabe.

[Entertainment Weekly // Image of Depp via Jerry Bruckheimer via Twitter // Painting by Kirby Sattler]