Crowing About Tonto
To Johnny Depp—Crow...Comanche, What’s the Difference?
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Four summers ago, a stirring image saturated the printable area of this publication’s July cover—Kirby Sattler’s I Am Crow. The artist’s depiction of a Crow Medicine Man (Sattler is less definitive in his description) struck a chord that reverberated from Missouri to Montana (and Mexico, where Sattler lives and paints), as people beheld the cropped version of the painting Sattler allowed us to publish, hard copy and online.
Most could hardly identify the reason for their fascination, only perhaps that I Am Crow is a haunting and penetrating work, the eyes of which lure one’s own, as if immersed in some primeval depth.
We wrote about I Am Crow in that issue, published anthropology on the painted face as a native cultural phenomenon, which the painting dramatically emphasizes, and interviewed the artist. It was a case of the tail wagging the dog—we found an image and were so sure it would resonate that our July publication had to be built around it, rather than the usual method where editorial copy determines the image.
Exchanges with Sattler were genuine, and out of respect we have run a full size display ad on mtpion eer.com, featuring I Am Crow, since 2009, linking to Sattler’s website.
I Am Crow has since gone viral in the mass consciousness, in a sense, as the visage upon which Johnny Depp’s Tonto is based in The Lone Ranger, recently released by Disney, starring Depp and Armie Hammer as the masked man. Depp revealed in Entertainment Weekly that Sattler’s painting provided the model for his Tonto, a far cry from that of Jay Silverheels in the TV series of yesteryear, but whose voice Depp occasionally imitates faithfully in the film.
We do not know exactly where Depp first saw the image but we know from his comments that he too was struck when he saw it. Having read those comments, this reviewer went to see the movie with a degree of anticipation, given our prior experience with I Am Crow and the artist, only to find that Depp and the filmmakers involved, Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinsk, had created a comedic farce.
Not that The Lone Ranger and Tonto should rise to the level of classical drama, but it was sad to see Depp convert Sattler’s haunting image into such a lesser depiction. That bargain might have been less grating were the film entertaining or authentic, but it is neither, compounded by the fact that it is too long and lacks basic dramatic elements (a clear and engaging plot, for one thing) that compel interest in and identification with the protagonists.
Depp disappoints in another way for having expropriated a stunning Crow icon (of sorts) then diminished it with gags and jokes. To make matters worse, in published comments he plays the PC card, telling us how his Tonto breaks Hollywood stereotypes of how Indians have been portrayed in the past, as if breaking new ground, when that has been happening for decades. Greater authenticity would have better served the culture he instead chose to exploit, having placed a Northern Plains Crow figure in Texas, calling him Comanche, even as the production’s digitized bison stampede across a monument studded desert too dry to sustain life.
Depp was obviously attracted to I Am Crow, as were we (and Sattler recently expressed to us his gratitude to Depp for having chosen I Am Crow as the model for Tonto’s cinematic countenance, though he was never contacted by Depp himself, and had not seen the film at his remote location). It seems though that Depp forced the image into the film, into Texas and the Comanche culture, like mashing a piece of a jigsaw puzzle into place where it does not fit. The filmmakers, again like us, developed a story to suit the image, of how Tonto came to place a crow on his head, when as a child his village was massacred and only he and the dead bird remained. The film then goes back to its one liners and sight gags.
One senses Depp had a superficial fascination (like many in his trade), thought it would be fun dressing up like Edward Scissorhands or Jack Sparrow again, then had the production’s Comanche adviser say, well, we never put birds on our heads, but we used feathers, so close enough (and you’re paying me nicely to provide political cover).
While I Am Crow is not describ-ed by the artist as specifically representing a Crow Indian, as formally Crow, the image obviously is. Depp surely in his research came upon Edward S. Curtis’ photographs of Crow Indians with birds on their heads and painted faces—Two Whistles and Medicine Crow in particular. Absaroka (Apsuh-luh-guh) the name for the Crow in their own language, means People of the Big Beaked Bird, not necessarily a Crow, as likely a hawk, eagle, or raven (the term for a group of the latter being an unkindness of ravens), and so we find Crow medicine men with carcasses of such birds affixed to their crowns as talismans.
When it comes to Depp’s Tonto, an unkindness of ravens may well be circling. Depp became an honorary member of the Comanche tribe prior to the film’s release, and we are sure certain native voices support him, but one wonders if spirits roaming the landscape for centuries, those living (at present-day Crow Agency), or among Comanches not enamored with movie stars, might prefer something more authentic, rather than a mishmash of cultural foofaraw thrown together for a confused and unsatisfying movie that, while rich in special effects, fails to capture the appeal of I Am Crow or even the original Lone Ranger series.