SPOT THE INDIAN! Clockwise from top left: Sonny Skyhawk, Sicangu Lakota; Rock Hudson in 'Winchester '73', Johnny Depp in 'The Lone Ranger', and Italian-American actor Iron Eyes Cody

Sonny Skyhawk on Johnny Depp, Disney, Indian Stereotypes and White Film Indians

Gale Courey Toensing
June 11, 2013

Sonny Skyhawk (Sicangu Lakota) is a veteran Hollywood actor, author of Indian Country Today Media Network’s “Ask N NDN," and founder of American Indians in Film and Television.  He talked to us in a free-wheeling conversation about Hollywood’s Indian stereotypes, white actors playing Indians, and the controversy surrounding Johnny Depp in the role of Tonto in Disney’s new film of The Lone Ranger.

I have an Arab nephew who’s a struggling young actor in Toronto and he’s always being offered terrorist roles, which he turns down because he doesn’t want to support the stereotype. Have you experienced anything like that as an Indian actor?

I think you have to have a certain amount of integrity as a person and as an actor and sometimes those two things in some people’s’ minds clash. In my mind they never clash. I’ve always been true to who I am as an individual way before taking on a role. I’ve always followed my own philosophy that I’m an Indian first and an actor second. My people have always come first before any role I’ve ever played. There are many roles in my 35-year history that I’ve turned down [including Blazing Saddles --Ed.] because they were demeaning, degrading or spoke badly about our people. And my frustration throughout my 35 year career has been that for every role I’ve turned down there were ten Indians waiting in line chomping at the bit to take the role and that included, for example, a role that depicted a decapitation of someone in a sweat lodge! When you think about the mind of Hollywood -- Hollywood has no mind. Its only interest has been and always will be all about money.

What is your take in general on non Indians playing Indians in the movies?

The actor’s mantra is you should be able to play any role and get yourself into it whether it’s an alien or human or whatever. But looking at it from an Indian perspective, Hollywood has a deep rooted history from the time the kinetoscope was invented by Thomas Edison to use our images, tell our stories, and reconfigure our history and it created the Indian villain in the whole scenario of filmmaking. So the Indian has really been the victim of Hollywood’s creation -- we had no choice about that. And back in the early days there weren’t many trained Indian actors so it was much easier for Hollywood to spray paint Rock Hudson -- like the tanning salons do now -- to make him look darker.  So many stars that were under contract to studios in those days actually made a living portraying Native peoples. Iron Eyes Cody built a career based on playing Indians and he was not an Indian. I can quote you 20-30 famous actors who played Indian roles at that time and probably only a handful of Indians. Hollywood created the image of the Indian and allowed anybody to play him.

What do you think about the controversy over Johnny Depp playing Tonto in Disney’s new Lone Ranger flick?

So, fast forward to today and Johnny Depp -- as I said, there’s nothing new about Hollywood painting up a white person to play an Indian. Johnny Depp is for sale as an actor and the essence of what he’s doing in this movie is trying to sell himself as an Indian and make It believable. Is it wrong for him to do that? Well, it’s wrong on different facets. What my organization, American Indians in Film and Television, has tried to do in 35 years of existence is provide jobs and open doors for Native people in this industry.  So when a Johnny Depp or anyone else who’s not Native takes a job as an Indian and gets painted like an Indian, we believe he’s depriving a real Indian of a job. The second thing is when it comes to the director or the producers saying, “We’re going to cut this guy’s head off in the sweat lodge,” the non Indian will say, “Yeah, I don’t see anything wrong with that, go for it!” While an Indian would say, “Wait a minute, guys, that’s not really cool or according to our beliefs and practices.”

So, you’re opposed to Johnny Depp playing Tonto?

American Indians in Film and Television’s argument is not so much with Johnny Depp, a charlatan at his best, as it is with the machinations of Disney proper. The controversy that will haunt this endeavor and ultimately cause its demise at the box office is the behind-the-scenes concerted effort and forced manipulation by Disney to attempt to sell Johnny Depp as an American Indian. American Indians, as assimilated and mainstream as they may be today, remain adamantly resistant to anyone who falsely claims to be one of theirs. The question of Johnny Depp next playing Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King, as ridiculous as that may sound, is not farfetched as an example.

Disney has been marketing and re-writing the history of our people -- American Indians -- without their permission, ever since the company was born and to my knowledge has never paid a penny for it or even thanked us. Yet it has the gall and audacity to knowingly cast a non-Native person in the role of an established Native character. Tell me the extent of outrage they would encounter if they did that to an African-American character.

Johnny Depp "playing Indian" doesn't bother me as much as the efforts of a conglomerate force feeding the Indian community that he is "Indian.”

What’s your response to the argument that it’s “only” entertainment?

"Entertainment" is an important civil right. The ability to participate and be seen as a contributing member of mainstream America is no different than the right to eat, drink water or go to the bathroom like anyone else. To only show the stereotypical is to deprive the American Indian of due process and the pursuit of the America Dream.

I opine that the intentional effort to deprive American or international audiences from viewing the image and storylines of our people is a denial of a basic and human right -- the right to be acknowledged as an existing and contributing member of our society.

Have you ever played the role of a white man?

Not in the context of your question. In reality, I’ve been playing the role of a white man every time I put on a suit and tie, which has been most of my adult life, out of necessity. You won’t see it on my acting resume, but I’ve had to “play” the role for far too long. When you equate life to a three-act play, you’re born, you live life and then you spend the rest re-living it and waiting for the final curtain, then, yes, I have played a white man. Other than that, no -- and I resent the attempt of a white man playing an Indian. Not only is he inept, but he has to be painted up and put a dead bird on his head, adding to the farce. Above all else that makes it wrong, he deprives a real Indian actor of a job that’s rare in the first place. I’ve played Native Hawaiians, Mexicans and Native American people of this hemisphere proudly and with respect.

So, it’s a little blurry – Al Jolson in black face, white actors playing Asians, French actors playing Arabs (in The Siege) -- how do you reconcile your belief as an actor that actors should be able to play any role and your objection that white actors playing Indians deprive real Indians of jobs? 

Well, that’s the conundrum -- the fact that, as an actor you have to work but at the same time you’re weighing what you’re doing in a role with how much money you’re going to get paid and so on. The actor has to decide for him or herself whether you’re going to sell out your people or not get the job. It’s very difficult for somebody who’s trying to build a career as an actor to turn these things down because after all that’s what you’re trying to do -- build your career so you can get other, hopefully, better jobs. Most Indian actors I know have had to struggle with that dilemma with the exception of a handful of people.

Do you think it would occur to Disney to hire an Indian actor to play Tonto?

Oh, it would probably occur to them but that’s as far as it would go. What’s important is they have an individual -- Johnny Depp -- that they are beholden to because he has created a billion dollar franchise with Pirates of the Caribbean. When they ask Johnny Depp, “What would you like to do next?” and Johnny Depp says, “Oh, I’d like to play Tonto in The Lone Ranger,”  Disney says, “Oh, ok, we’ll put it together”  – and that’s how it works. It’s that simple: Johnny Depp is a cash cow for Disney; consequently, Disney is going to bring us anything that he wants to do. Whatever Johnny wants, Johnny is going to get.

How important has Tonto been in generating the image of the Indian?

Well, I think of Jay Silverheels  [the actor who played Tonto on the television series The Lone Ranger] -- and I knew Jay and his wife and kids -- wasn’t willing to sacrifice his Indianness for roles. At least, that’s my opinion. I think Tonto gained a lot of respect, integrity, and some dignity in how Jay Silverheels played the role.

What prompted you to become an actor?

When I was a young boy, as an Indian kid coming off the reservation, I was raised by my grandparents who were migrant workers. We were traveling from state to state and my grandparents always registered me in the local schools where I experienced a lot of racism in those days because of the fact that I more than likely volunteered the information that I was an American Indian -- I was always very proud of that. So when I said, “Yeah I’m a Sioux Indian from Rosebud, South Dakota,” I experienced a lot of racism from kids, a lot of taunting and war whooping and stuff like that.

In 7th grade there was a little girl I was interested in when I finally found out there was a difference. I was constantly trying to impress her, but she wouldn’t even look at me mostly. One day I found out that the seventh grade was putting on a play called Jack and the Beanstalk and she was  one of the stars, so I asked the drama coach if I could be in the play. He said he had already cast the whole play “and the only thing I have left is for you to play the beanstalk, which means you’ve got to go from stage left to stage right on cue. Can you do that?” So here I was this beanstalk trunk with netting over my face so I could see where I was going. And I finally managed to break the ice with this young girl. She allowed me to carry her books home and we became boyfriend-girlfriend and we continued on and did countless  plays in high school.

So love prompted you to become an actor?

Well, no, the gist of the story is that the other kids respected me for acting in the play more than they disrespected the color of my skin. I found that by being an actor people saw me in a different way so acting was my way of moving away from being taunted as an Indian. They respected me for being someone else rather than being an Indian. So I found acting to be a way to counter the racism I experienced as a young person.

What’s the most important issue raised by the controversy around Depp playing Tonto?

We have many issues that need to be aired -- the denial by media conglomerates of Native participation in the industry both in front of and behind the cameras of their studios, the presentation of our images and stories in non-stereotypical ways, including content that allows our children to see themselves on television as contributing participants in mainstream society.

We buy and use any and all products that are marketed to the mainstream, including the airwaves that deliver the television signals, traverse our lands and airspace, but yet the networks and Madison Avenue continue to perpetuate the exclusion of our existence by not showing -- which amounts to denying -- that we are consumers.

Stories transmit our existence and culture. If we’re not in the storytellers' minds, we cease to exist in the transformation from the stereotype to the real image in media platforms and the visual recognition of our people.

Will you go see Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger?

I don’t know that I’m going to make an effort to go and see Johnny Depp.  It’s a Disney film and they’ve thrown in every possible computer generated graphic and then Johnny Depp will bring them into the movie house.  It’s a Native version of Pirates of the Caribbean. Natives are very funny people, they joke all the time and make fun of each other. If Johnny Depp ends up making fun of the white man I think that would be a positive. He said he would turn the tables on Hollywood and make this a Native character that would do that. So I’m kind of wishy-washy about Johnny Depp playing an Indian but the reality is he has deprived a real Native person of playing that role.

Who would you cast as Tonto?

I would probably cast Adam Beach or Chaske Spencer from Twilight. And there’s another young guy who’s going to be a fantastic actor one of these days and his name is Moses Brings Plenty.

What do you think about Disney’s claim that the tribes have embraced the project?

Disney Chairman Alan Horn, says tribes have been "collaborating,” to which I respond: B.S. A few individuals do not constitute tribal collaboration.



jan 's picture
Submitted by jan on

My heritage is Cherokee. I Also believe Indians should play that role. Hollywood is all about the mighty dollar.

aiiahninchii ohoyo's picture
aiiahninchii ohoyo
Submitted by aiiahninchii ohoyo on

and....there's that horrid word 'collaboration' again...reminds me of the nazis and the french in wwii...other than that, this article is right on point written by a guy who KNOWS his stuff....been there and done for my 'personal ' choice...the ONLY way i would go see this travesty is to be literally dragged into the theatre, kicking and screaming bloody murder....what a travesty!!!

Rita Metoxen's picture
Rita Metoxen
Submitted by Rita Metoxen on

I totally agreed with having adam beach playing Tonto.I could not believe they acually put a white man in the movie playing a Native American. Another bone I have tp pick is no Natives being put in commericals. Every other race are but no us, it's like we don't exist. we were here before all of you people from other countries came over here and killed so many of our people.

Rita Metoxen's picture
Rita Metoxen
Submitted by Rita Metoxen on

I totally agreed with having adam beach playing Tonto.I could not believe they acually put a white man in the movie playing a Native American. Another bone I have tp pick is no Natives being put in commericals. Every other race are but no us, it's like we don't exist. we were here before all of you people from other countries came over here and killed so many of our people.

Sandi Bowers's picture
Sandi Bowers
Submitted by Sandi Bowers on

I am in agreement w/everything in this article. I respect Native Americans.
Adam Beach is a fine actor & would have liked to see him portray Tonto, but, the movie industry is all about the almighty buck & Johnny Depp brings in the money.

Adam's picture
Submitted by Adam on

here is an example. If you're okay with the Gathering of Nations Powwow Harlem Shake then you have to be okay with and stop complaining about people appropriating our culture - it's the same thing. annoying

Kickingwoman's picture
Submitted by Kickingwoman on

Johnny Depp "playing Indian" doesn't bother me as much as the efforts of a conglomerate force feeding the Indian community that he is "Indian.” that quote bothered me. So johnny depp has always said to be a Native American Descendant and who is to say its not true. is it because he is not a full blood is that what makes him non indian?

Karen Smith's picture
Karen Smith
Submitted by Karen Smith on

Hopefully, Johnny has read Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven.

Valerie Stark Newsome's picture
Valerie Stark N...
Submitted by Valerie Stark N... on

I understand what Mr. SKYHAWK is saying, but Johnny Depp is one-quarter Cherokee. Sadly, there are very few full-blooded Native Americans left.

Amanda O's picture
Amanda O
Submitted by Amanda O on

Johnny Depp is part Native American and also has helped several Native American charities so I don't see what the big deal is. I think the movie in itself is making fun of the whole idea of Tonto and the way Hollywood has portrayed Native Peoples. It's making fun of Hollywood's racism.

metis2's picture
Submitted by metis2 on

The history is not so ancient to bring up that Hollywood had Vitto Mortensen play a half-Lakota character in "Hildago" - a controversial movie for many reasons (such as not being true.) Supposedly, Mr. Depp is metis. How do 1st Nations start producing their own films and history?

Sandra LaFleur's picture
Sandra LaFleur
Submitted by Sandra LaFleur on

I agree with the majority of points made by Sonny Skyhawk regarding Disney & 'Indians' & entertainment industry, Mr. Skyhawk's beliefs mirror some of my philosophies and observations regarding 'indians', 'indianness' and the acting profession. Ultimately, from what I know, mainstream society learns about 'some' history via; movies, television, internet etc. and if we are not on the screen, big or small, we are not real, relevant or to be respected. I remember the days of the Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson and Tom Laughlin's 'indian' roles which included Apache, Walking Tall and Hondo and others...the myriad of character roles all given to non-Indigenous actors. So sad...instead of Adam Beach or the Twilight guy for the Tonto role, I would choose an unknown Indigenous male actor for the role and make him a superstar. Disney would recoup money lost on Pochahontas and also what they're going to lose on this depp...Chaplin...esque role. Good article. Thanks.

patricia naugle's picture
patricia naugle
Submitted by patricia naugle on

i think johnny depp was cast as tonto because he is marketable at this time. my personal opinion is, that i would have cast adam beach as tonto because he would have played the role with dignity. jay silverheels was one of my heros and role models growing up because he did the role with respectabilityand made the role more believible. adam beach and wes studi were excellent in the two tony hillerman mysteries on tv and id like to see more of them as i have read all his books.

Scrunchee's picture
Submitted by Scrunchee on

Valerie, who is NOT Cherokee, lol. Rita, I agree, when can Native Americans be seen in any commerical as a family unit.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

I wanted to see it tell I realized who plays Tonto now I will not pay to see this movie at all Disney is just wrong and not the first time they have made money off the native americans this is wrong like them telling about pocahontan

vern   's picture
Submitted by vern on

I do believe Adam Beach would have turn it down.... but as this goes no one knows about native people ... it is just to painful... so the romantic image continues... LET US GET REAL... and do something about it,,

GroverSage's picture
Submitted by GroverSage on

I think people haven't realized that the white guy playing the Lone Ranger is weak, and should be Depp's role instead.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

Thank you for remembering my childhood hero Mr. Jay Silverheel, what became of him ? Did he play other roles?

DeAnna Rice's picture
DeAnna Rice
Submitted by DeAnna Rice on

you complain about who plays tonto...yet you don't complain about the name tonto, which means stupid in spanish? As a N. American, i find that more demeaning....

mark duane boggs's picture
mark duane boggs
Submitted by mark duane boggs on

Being Positive and sending and supporting Your Children In The Acting Occupation is The Best Way To Conquer Negative Prejudices! John Wayne Made Himself!,Quinton Tarrentino Made Himself!

mark duane boggs's picture
mark duane boggs
Submitted by mark duane boggs on

Being Positive and sending and supporting Your Children In The Acting Occupation is The Best Way To Conquer Negative Prejudices! John Wayne Made Himself!,Quinton Tarrentino Made Himself!

Kari Nerness's picture
Kari Nerness
Submitted by Kari Nerness on

Thank you for being honest. I have felt the same way about this subject. I was so outraged and shocked that in the 21st century of this nation's history when I found out that a non Native American was going to play this roll. Would we have a white person play Marin Luther King, or any other black Amercian? Why is that the Native American is so disrespected in this country still? I like noticed that there will be a new addition to the Smithsonian on African American's role in the history of the US. I think it's great! But the Smithsonian is way overdue for a whole building dedicated to the history of the Native Americans and our role in American history. I like Sonny, and torn about this movie too, and so incredibly weary of this ridiculous fight to preserve the real Native American and who we are.

cristina's picture
Submitted by cristina on

im a half korean/half german/czech mix and i always found it funny how Hollywood would usually NEVER use the literal race for the proposed race in the movie... not that its bad if its done with respect, but it is usually an artifice to the undertone of realness that comes with being a certain race (and knowig the things from being raised that way)

Mary Ann's picture
Mary Ann
Submitted by Mary Ann on

I agree with article. A native man should of played Tonto. Johnny Depp could of been advisor if you will. Moses is a good choice and yeah, when is Hollywood going to wake up? Hey we should protest...make ourselves known that we want native actors for native roles and then some. We are also due for a good native movie...hey you aspiring writers, get on the ball...not to mention there are fabulous native musicians that actually play native music. Two time grammy winner Mary Youngblood for one...she plays the native american flute. Great for a movie...don't you think?

jack23011's picture
Submitted by jack23011 on

I am a White male with no claim to Native/First Nation heritage. I consider myself fortunate enough to have grown up and lived not only all over this country but around the world as well. Above all, I value the education I continue to receive from Indigenous people about their cultures and histories. I agree with all of your points. One criticism I would offer is the perception that Johnny Depp single-handedly orchestrated this remake as some diabolical plot to deprive a role that by all rights ought to be acted by a Native American. Depp’s popularity notwithstanding, it was explained to me by a Disney insider (subsequent to a paper I am researching) that the part was subject to open audition. Unarguably there is a successful fiduciary liaison between Depp and Disney but I believe Disney bares the sole responsibility for yet another ethically shameful distortion whether of race, ethnicity, or gender stereotyping. As long as society continues to buy tickets to mindless and distorted quasi-historical ‘entertainment’ Disney and the other big movie studios will continue to produce it. You would know better than I what motivates actors to choose the roles they do—financial, passion, etc. I would point out that in Depp’s case, most not all of the roles, he chooses, even from early in his career (according to his own words) are driven more from personal interest and passion for the subject. The PIC series and this unfortunate beginning of a Nativist version seem to be more contractually motivated on his part while clearly financial on Disney’s part. All that said, the argument over who is playing a specific part is a distraction, to me, from the real issue of conscious attempts revisionist history whether, in this case, about Indigenous peoples, or race, ethnicity, culture, and so forth. If we, collectively, stop feeding the coffers these portrayals will either stop or become fair and accurate. The irony is that real history is often more interesting without the insertion of cookie-cutter action heroes.

susan carter's picture
susan carter
Submitted by susan carter on

I live in Santa Fe where Lone Ranger and many other Western or "cowboy" movies are filmed. New Mexico is in the worst drought in history. Just a few miles from where Ranger was filmed are Wild and Free-roaming horse herds. They are on the San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Cochiti and Santa Ana Pueblo Lands. These horses are dying of thirst and hunger. There is no forage. They walk miles to drink at the Rio Grande River.
Hollywood rides into town uses our scenery as a back-drop, rides our horses and then rides right on out of town, having made millions. Do you think one of these Cowboys or 'Indians' would notice that there is no grass, as they ride in their limos between Santa Fe and Albuquerque ? Not one.
I have made calls, posted, emailed; begging Hollywood to throw a few bales of hay to San Felipe. Nothing. It is all an illusion to them. Probably half the wild horses are now dead. Thanks alot Tonto.

Alice Bowron's picture
Alice Bowron
Submitted by Alice Bowron on

Give me Powwow Highway over the 'new' Lone Ranger any day. On the other hand, hasn't Johnny Depp been interviewed not long ago claiming that he in fact does have some Native American ancestry? Not sure.

lillie's picture
Submitted by lillie on

wait... so first he's saying Hollywood shouldnt play into a stereotype(ie an Arab shouldnt be expected to play a terrorist)but then he turns around and says that an Indian should be cast as an Indian, pretty much playing into the stereotypical role?
You're all just whining about how hard it is as an actor, EVEN THOUGH ITS A HARD LIFE FOR AN ACTOR NO MATTER WHAT GENDER OR ETHNICITY OR NATIONALITY OR WHATEVER ELSE. yeah a chiseled white guy or a hot bodied chick gets more roles than others but that's because its what's IN DEMAND. otherwise they wont make money or even people watching their stuff which keeps them in business.
yeah it sucks but not a lot of aspiring actors no matter what type they are, get work or even see a camera other than a god damn commercial. im sorry to say that's just how the world works and everyone has to work just as hard or even harder then others to get a piece. get over it. stop complaining and GO OUT THERE AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. going around and blaming the business or other races isnt going to solve anything. it just makes you feel better.
also they probably cast white men as indians because you all think you're too "good" for the role. you know how many black or asian people play those stereotypical roles? and dont really give a crap? yeah a lot. because its work and also AN IN TO THE ACTING BUSINESS. you all portray yourself as "so much better" for indian roles when it shouldnt matter as an actor. its WORK. if you let your emotions come before your job its going to get messy, you wont find a lot of jobs. when you become some big time actor with a shit ton of offers and roles then sure you can pick and choose as you like but dont go around turning your nose up at roles that are even offered to you in the first place when people would KILL for a chance, any chance, at their dream.
also johnny depp is super rich and popular and more than likely has stiffed a bunch of other good upcoming actors in other movies he's played. so its kind of stupid of you to suddenly pick up arms when he's chosen(a popular actor that will more than likely bring in depp fans if anything)for a role YOU DONT EVEN WANT YET ARGUE CAN ONLY BE YOURS. what the fuck can of sense is that?

maisie's picture
Submitted by maisie on

I loved the lone ranger and tonto tv series and thought tonto was the best. could never quite get the movies idea that the indians were the bad guys even as young as 6 or 7 i wasnt shouting for the cavalry. It was obvious that the indians were white people with tan on always felt it was ridiculous and that the real people should be playing them. money however makes the world go round unfortunately.