The character in the upcoming "The Lone Ranger" still speaks broken English and chants prayers. But Depp has said he's less subservient, honors the proud American Indian warrior and displays a dry sense of humor seen throughout Indian Country. The production even hired a Comanche adviser, making it decidedly a Comanche story, and received the blessing of other tribes through ceremonies during filming.
Yet Disney has caught flak for what some say is the perpetuation of stereotypes through a character that lacks any real cultural traits. Moviegoers will have to wait until July 3 to see how all this plays out on screen. For now, they're getting a glimpse through movie trailers that have left them both optimistic and angry, and wondering to what extent the new Tonto portrays actual American Indians.
What has most people scratching their heads is the black crow that appears to hover over Depp's head, and the black stripes that run vertically down his painted face. The inspiration came from a painting by artist Kirby Sattler, who said his work isn't specific to one tribe but is modeled after nomadic Plains tribes of the 19th century.
Depp took the image to the film's Comanche adviser, William "Two-Raven" Voelker, to ask if it was far-fetched. His answer: It's not.
"There are a lot of people out there screaming who are not Comanche, as in this story Tonto is supposed to be," Voelker said. "They know nothing of bird culture. When we wear or use those feathers, we're calling on the energy of the entire bird."
Depp's elaborate costumes—as seen in "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Edward Scissorhands"—are nothing new. Voelker said he never would have agreed to be a consultant on the movie had he not been assured the production team would be sensitive to American Indian culture and committed to at least some historical accuracy.
The teepees used in the movies, for example, have four poles to reflect the way the Comanche built them, not three more commonly seen in movies and that trace back to Cheyenne and Sioux tribes. The production also visited Oklahoma to hear the Comanche language being spoken and worked with Voelker and others to give Depp Comanche lines in the movie.
The story of westward expansion as told from Tonto's perspective isn't entirely accurate historically. Some of the scenes are filmed in Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation, with trains curving around the spires that Navajos believe are petrified deities, and Depp and co-star Armie Hammer looking out beyond the cliffs. Voelker had sought out the sweeping expanses of the southern Plains, home to the Comanche Nation.
Hanay Geiogamah, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma who advised Disney on "Pocahontas," said Depp's Tonto comes off as a mystical, radical modernization of the character played by Jay Silverheels in the 1950s, which is by far the most recognizable.
"You can say, 'well, American Indians are going to like this one more,'" Geiogamah said. "Are they going to respond more positively to the Johnny Depp Tonto? You're still responding to a non-Indian, stereotypical image."
Eileen Maxwell, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, said Depp has a tall order to fill if he wants to turn Tonto into a more positive image.
"All of its past iterations have not been good for Native Americans," she said. "They've been stereotypical, one-dimension and not true depictions of the westward expansion, which was devastating to Native America."
Ernest Tsosie of the Navajo comedy duo, James and Ernie, is looking forward to seeing the movie.
One scene has Tonto and the Lone Ranger atop a train, being held at gunpoint by an outlaw who asked if they're going somewhere. The Lone Ranger says no; Tonto insists they are. His straight-face turns to a smirk as the two are picked off the train by a hook that catches the chains that tie them together.
"It's a real quick moment where I caught it and I kind of chuckled," Tsosie said. "From what I saw, there's some moments in there that are meant to be funny but not outwardly funny. I think most Natives will pick up on it."
Tsosie said other tribes have teased the Comanche for making Depp an honorary member but doesn't believe Depp is ignorant of American Indian culture. Depp was inquisitive about the Navajo language during filming, and the tribal president gave him a Pendleton blanket. T-shirts that Depp has worn have pictures of American Indian warriors in the 1492 version of homeland security and with the letters "AIM" for American Indian Movement, Tsosie said. "I think he knows what's up."
Disney's remake of the "Lone Ranger" has Tonto in the role of coach to John Reid, the idealistic law school graduate played by Hammer, who finds himself out of his depth when he returns to his hometown and eventually becomes the Lone Ranger.
Michelle Shining Elk, a member of the Colville Tribes of the Pacific Northwest who works in the film industry, said the latest depiction will give the wrong perception of American Indians, "that we are uneducated, irrelevant, non-contributors to society living in teepees out on the Plains." She expected Depp to deliver his lines in a more realistic and modern manner, "not like a caricature from a John Wayne movie, or 1920s cartoon," she said.
But as John Wayne was a Hollywood creation, so is Tonto largely.
"I just hope that the other rabble-rousers out there can just sit back and take this in as a piece of entertainment," Voelker said. "It's not ever supposed to be an end-all to our Comanche culture. If they have problems, they can come to us, and I take that responsibility."