Posted: July 11, 2013
My Image is Not For Sale
By Taté Walker
I am a modern Lakota winyan.
I’m like no Indian you’ve ever seen.
Because I am not a mascot. Or a blockbuster archetype.
Someone dressed like a gothic taxidermist
Is trying to sell me my own culture.
“Your values and beliefs are for sale!” he proclaims in redface.
“So is your land. I’ll buy it for you [if you see my movie].”
Spending $5 million
On land worth $14,000
To sell a movie made for $250 million.
I’m no good at math.
But that seems
Excessive. Over the top. Not enough.
And I feel funny
The worst part?
Our people are so starved for attention,
That we’ll take it in whatever form it comes in.
When Racism knocks on your door,
It’ll be riding a pinto, wearing a bird, and wrapped in a Comanche flag.
But that’s OK.
Because Racism makes it RAIN.
Yes: $5 million is a lot of money the Oglalas need.
Yes: Johnny Depp is a great actor and it’s OK to be a fan.
Yes: Depp was adopted into the Comanche tribe.
Yes: Tonto is a fictional character.
If the goal was to show the world a
Positive image of Native Americans,
Why not choose a Native actor for a Native role?
Why use Sattler’s weirdly mystical [false] depiction for historical reference?
And why – WHY?!? – Tonto?
So a new generation can play Cowboys & Indians. Stereotypes sell.
Why put $5 million into the pockets of a
Why not give the $5 million directly to the tribe?
Why not consult with the people you’re hoping to impact
Before rushing out and doing what YOU think is best for them?
Who knows what’s best, anyway?
And that’s what this is really all about.
Natives don’t have control.
We’ve been on our backs for so long
That being on our knees and
Seems like an improvement.
Get over it, Taté. It’s just a movie.
Outsiders tell us what we need.
How much we need.
What we can have.
Where we can have it.
Our images are not our own. They belong to those with money.
And I want to scream, “THESE IMAGES YOU CREATE HURT ME!”
You may not know it, but they hurt you, too.
A Halloween heritage.
A logo legacy.
Slot machine sovereignty.
Ancestry for the price of admission.
Or Native AmeriCANT?
Marginalize me some more.
It’s Johnny Depp, for gootness sakes.
And the world goes on.
Here we are now. Entertain us.
I’ve been feeling very frustrated lately over this whole Tonto business, and during a time in my life I’m frustrated in general. (Final semester of grad school, people. No pressure, or anything.) Many folks – more than I’d like to admit – have told me my feelings on this issue are stupid (ironic, eh? Because, you know, Tonto means stupid, right?). There are real issues to concern myself with. It’s just a movie. Tonto is fiction. I liked that Twilight stuff, so why am I being such a hypocrite with Johnny Depp?! I LOVE Johnny! We share the same first name!
What’s more, he goes and tells someone he’s going to buy some land in South Dakota. And now I’m REALLY the bad guy. Because Depp’s not just buying land. He’s mother-effing GIVING IT BACK to the tribe. And I’m like, yeah, that’s super-awesome… He’s dropping millions on 80-omg-that-is-the-most-overpriced-land-EVER acres some crotchety old bigot is selling because 40 years ago a destructive protest made it famous.
A lot of media hype went up about this land being for sale. The land Depp is considering sits adjacent to the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) site. It’s not the massacre site itself. Aside from its history with the Wounded Knee Occupation (1973), there’s really nothing particularly worthwhile about this property. Before Dawes laws chopped up the reservation, these 80 acres were part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Don’t get me wrong. Land reclamation is HUGE and a very important factor in what makes us sovereign to begin with. South Dakota tribes have pushed to buy back significant properties (Pe’Sla in the Black Hills, for instance). If anything, the federal government should create anational memorial (tribally run, of course) out of Wounded Knee, as they did with Little Bighorn. But that’s another post for another day.
Depp is offering Indian Country, especially those of us in South Dakota – the poorest communities in the entire nation (cue violins) – a wonderful gift. Is it a peace offering for that terribly offensive movie? Maybe, but I’m willing to let that go. A gift is a gift. But it’s like the generic body wash set your Christmas visitors get you (“Oh, I love the smell of strawberry passion!”); if you know anything about me, you’d know NOT to get me body wash. And there’s the rub: Johnny knows nothing about Indian Country, so much so that he based his whole Tonto look off of a painting whose creator acknowledged was NOT historically accurate. Like, at all. If Depp got to know his newly adopted brothers and sisters of the Plains, he’d realize there’s a TON that could be done with $5 million. Scholarship endowments, capital-building projects, infrastructure development…
So, yes, thank you for this gesture, Mr. Depp. But, please, look into how you can really help us. Pump some funding into programs trying to dig us out of crippling poverty and unemployment; advertise and promote ventures trying to get traditional foods back into our diets; talk to the dozens of kids who contemplate suicide every day; visit our underfunded schools and hospitals. Don’t want to get too deep too fast? That’s OK. Produce a Native-led film project. Start an arts program. Protest Big Oil with us. Be #idlenomore
… [T]he motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.
– Marlon Brando, 1973
My closing thoughts are this: Everyone has their own opinion, and that’s fine. This is mine. Depp will do whatever he wants – obviously. This is NOT an issue worth dividing ourselves over. Debates and disagreements are fun, sometimes, but let’s keep what’s important – our children, families, and tribes – in the forefront. Pick something to be passionate about, and work hard to make things right. I may not support your cause, but I will support you. Let’s not tear each other down for having opinions.
For myself, I will always push for fair and accurate media representations of – and demand justice for – marginalized people. My feet vote, my wallet votes, and I use my voice when I have something to say.