Tag Archives: Johnny Depp

With A White Gaze Upon Us

Camera zooms in on a white guy with shaggy hair and casual clothing talking seriously to an elderly Lakota woman. He smiles brightly, formerly braced and now straight teeth gleaming in the light of a setting sun.

Narrator: What we’re seeing here is a real treat! The grandmother may look weary of this man’s offer to take pictures of her takoja, but with our special mic, we can hear how he promises his photos will help the outside world see her struggles and want to help her. How exciting! The Great White Savior is in his natural element, stalking prey with his most potent weapon: Good intentions.

I put this together - I'm not selling it, not profiting from it. Just all in good fun. Please don't sue me.
I put this together – I’m not selling it, not profiting from it. Just all in good fun. Please don’t sue me.

A commenter on this blog wrote recently:

Hi, I know this is not directly related to your blog entry, but I’d be really interested to hear your perspective about Aaron Huey’s work with the Pine Ridge Community Story Telling Project and his TED talk stuff. Do you think this is a more representative approach, or is he just another white guy doing well off other people’s stories? – Sunshine

I thought I’d answer as a post, since this is (unfortunately) a consistently relevant topic of discussion. In fact, I was just having this conversation on Facebook with a friend the other day. Because his documentary, “Honor the Treaties,” was released to a worldwide audience a few days ago, Aaron Huey’s Native-inspired works (and his skills as a photographer aren’t being critiqued here, folks; he’s obviously a talented artist) are making the rounds on social media again. Good question/topic, Sunshine. 

Yes, in my opinion, Huey is another of those Great White Saviors [GWS] who (1) rides onto the reservation with privilege and a colonial lens, (2) takes some pictures or makes a movie showing surface culture and poverty, (3) receives praise and notoriety for his efforts, and (4) leaves. This isn’t to say GWS folks like Huey and Johnny Depp (yeah, let’s drag him into it, too), aren’t good people. They probably are (I’m nowhere near cool enough to warrant a meeting to judge for myself).

But being a “good person” with good intentions is one of the overarching characteristics of the typical GWS. Yet as many people smarter than this blogger have noted, intentions aren’t worth crap if your impact isn’t measurable and/or worthwhile to the communities you claim to be helping. It’s one thing to bring attention to reservation plights, quite another to profit from it in some way (movie tickets for Depp, a National Geographic/TED spot for Huey, or even TV ratings for Diane Sawyer) without doing much about the problems you’re “bringing light to” in the long run. Again, it’s about impact, not intentions. This is where Huey (and others) fall flat.

The other issue here is that these stories (positive or negative reservation issues) belong to Native Americans. Really, what I love most (not really) about people like Aaron Huey or Diane Sawyer or Johnny Depp is that they talk about Native issues like they’re experts, and people EAT THAT ISH UP!!! Like, “Whoa! Huey said the government hasn’t honored the treaties! Shit just got real.” Or “Diane Sawyer is a true journalist exposing the poverty of reservations. Glad people know about it now.” WTF?!? Why is this news?!

“Revelations” like these are super-frustrating for those of us on the ground, and when some stranger can walk in, point a finger, get some publicity, and walk away from our very real issues it’s like a kick to the gut, and a reminder of how little we rate. The United States has been encouraging and perpetuating third-world conditions on reservations (South Dakota and elsewhere) for more than a century! This isn’t news, folks! It’s everyday LIFE for people, and privileged talking heads just keep getting (taking? hemorrhaging?) more and more out of the daily struggle of people just trying to survive.

These are our stories to tell, and while getting attention from Hollywood or TED or ABC can be a nice boost, the end result isn’t usually all that beneficial or useful to Natives. And, of course, what we’re missing when non-Natives tell OUR stories is balance. Huey and others focus on selling the poverty porn of reservation life, how broken our homes and spirits are. But we are not broken; we struggle – no doubt – but we are strong, and the outside world would know that if we could share our stories on the same platforms available to the GWS.

Beyond this is the fact that some of these stories are not meant to be shared outside a certain sphere. Huey, in particular, took many photos of Lakota ceremony that should never be recorded; that his excuse is a tribal member allowed him to do so tells me he doesn’t care about our community, only his end product. Make no mistake: This is cultural rape in its most basic form. Filming or photographing ceremony is a violent and abusive way of stripping our culture of its spirituality and pureness. One indigenous cosigner does not consent make.

Back to the original issue of Huey doing good work in Pine Ridge. The short answer is: He’s not. Disagree? Please, tell me – using tangible examples – how Huey, Depp, Sawyer, or any other White Savior Industrial Complex sideshows (Teach For America, church mission trips, etc.) have created lasting impact on our reservations…? How have their pet projects changed anything for the better? Maybe one or two or a hundred people can say their lives are better for having their picture taken. Maybe. But I think it’s the people who work with and among Natives day in and day out their entire lives who will be the true, (often unwritten) warriors and heroes in all this. Everyone else is just a voyeur getting off (and getting popular or even rich) on the desolation of our communities. Natives must be their own sovereigns and saviors. Help (attention, money) is great – but it’s on us to make it better in an appropriate and respectful way.

End Note: I’ve linked to her in this story, but please check out Lauren Chief Elk‘s Tumblr, “Life Returned” (scroll down to April 14 to read her take on Huey, then follow her on Twitter via @ChiefElk and @SaveWiyabi). She is the epitome of indigenous (and feminist) activism and advocacy. I learn something new everyday just reading her Twitter feed and guarantee you will, too. 

My Image is Not For Sale

I am a modern Lakota winyan.

No accent.

No paint.

No feathers.

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].”

Good trade?

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

Greedy old white man?

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.

Of anything.

We’ve been on our backs for so long

That being on our knees and

Taking scraps from Hollywood, and Anheuser-Busch, and Congress

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.

Ours is

A Halloween heritage.

A logo legacy.

Slot machine sovereignty.

Tonto traditions.

Ancestry for the price of admission.

Native AmeriCAN?

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 a national 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.