In a scene from the new “The Lone Ranger” movie, Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger turns to his Comanche sidekick, Johnny Depp’s Tonto, and asks a question that’s been bedeviling fans and linguists since the series first came on the radio in 1933: What does kemosabe, Tonto’s nickname for the masked man of justice, actually mean?
Theories on kemosabe’s origin have ranged from the name of a summer camp attended by Fran Striker, the writer of the series, to an Indian-ish term for “faithful friend,” to a corruption of the Spanish phrase “quien no sabe”—he who doesn’t understand. In this summer’s version, Tonto makes his own suggestion: “Wrong brother,” he says, referring to a running joke that the Ranger’s brother would have made a better hero.
Kemosabe is just part of the dubious linguistic freight involved in remaking “The Lone Ranger” for 2013. Tonto (who in the original story was Potawatomi, not Comanche) is a central figure in the Lone Ranger story; at the same time, with his pidgin dialect, he represents the lamest stereotype of Hollywood Indian. How the filmmakers handle this dilemma reveals much about Hollywood’s uneasy, evolving relationship to the languages spoken here for millennia before English.
The questionable Native vocabulary of the original “Lone Ranger” was typical for a period when Hollywood used indigenous languages like warpaint or feathers to vaguely signal “Indian” without regard for geography or ethnicity. Early silent films had passed the buck entirely: Title cards with grunts—“Ugh!”—stood in for Native dialogue, according to Washington and Lee anthropologist Harvey Markowitz co-
editor of a new anthology called “Seeing Red: Hollywood’s Pixelated Skins.”
In the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, cowboy westerns made the occasional half-hearted effort at realism. Actors playing Plains Indians in huge feather headdresses faked versions of Lakota or Sioux to varying degrees of accuracy, or, as the 2008 documentary “Reel Injun” recounts, spoke random off-script dialogue in their own languages. But plenty relied heavily on Peter Pan-style “Yip yip yip!” yodeling. Some films even dubbed English backward in the soundtrack and played it off as an “Indian” language.
“Dances With Wolves,” from 1990, is generally viewed as mainstream Hollywood’s first attempt to use Native languages in a sensitive way, even if the results are at times groan-inducing. Producers hired a Lakota-language instructor, and although Kevin Costner’s accent is apparently atrocious and there are a number of grammatical errors, it’s a big step beyond “How!” More recently, Terrence Malick’s “The New World” employed a linguist to resurrect a lost form of Virginian Algonquian spoken at the time of the Jamestown settlement. But we still get offerings like the 2008 TV movie “Comanche Moon,” in which actors alternate a few words of the Comanche language with nonsense syllables, according to Todd McDaniels, a linguist at the Comanche National College.
Meanwhile, actual Native languages are dying. One-third of the languages that existed before colonization have already been lost, due in part to a concentrated US governmental effort during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to enforce English on reservations and in boarding schools. In the “Twilight” movies, the werewolf played by Taylor Lautner is meant to be Quileute and speaks a few words in that language; in real life, there’s only one native Quileute speaker left. Several thousand native speakers of Lakota remain to mock Costner’s fumbling. But there are only 25 to 30 native Comanche speakers left.
Which takes us back to the strangeness of seeing a white actor in facepaint speak this dying language in the role of Tonto—a name that, after all, means “idiot” in Spanish. Depp has struggled gamely to make his portrayal of Tonto something other than just another white actor playing “redface.” In an early interview, he promised to “take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans, not only in ‘The Lone Ranger,’ but the way Indians were treated throughout history of cinema, and turn it on its head.” He’s got some credibility, as someone who donates to Native charities and starred in the 1990 Jim Jarmusch film “Dead Man,” a beloved art-house western that made use of Cree and Blackfoot not to mystify but to deepen characters. “Depp is a hero for many, many Native people because of his portrayal in ‘Dead Man’,” Catherine Bainbridge, one of the directors of “Reel Injun,” told me.
In fact, Depp spends most of the new film speaking broken English. But he does make a couple of forays into Comanche, which, according to McDaniels, are not terrible. “The words were there, the pronunciation was shaky but adequate,” he says. The film plays the old names kemosabe and Tonto for self-aware laughs—“You know what ‘Tonto’ means in Spanish?” the Lone Ranger asks Tonto at one point. Toward the end of the film, the Ranger meets Tonto’s tribesmen and they explain the vagaries of his character through a surprising backstory. Tonto’s awkward, stilted lines—“Greetings, noble spirit horse!”—are given some sympathetic rationale.
It’s a creative rewriting—but the new version repeats too many of the sins of history to break free of it. There are filmmakers out there doing interesting work with Native languages, including directors like Zacharias Kunuk (“Atanarjuat”) and Andrew Okpeaha Maclean (“On the Ice”). But Hollywood’s native-language baggage, it seems, may just be too heavy to unload in one popcorn flick.
Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Harvey Markowitz’s name.