- While promoting the 2013 film The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp claimed to have Native American blood, an unfounded claim not recognized by any American Indian tribe.
- Johnny Depp portrayed Tonto, a Native American character, preventing an actual Indigenous person from taking on the important role.
- Depp promised to purchase land formerly owned by the Lakota people and return it to them. A decade later, he has still not made good on that promise.
- Depp used the racially insensitive term “Injun” in a drunken rage while lending credence to the native myth of firewater and substance intolerance.
- Depp was accused of cultural appropriation and racial stereotyping for defending an ad he appeared in for Dior’s Sauvage cologne. The company quickly removed the ad.
During the summer of 2013, many Native Americans questioned Disney’s efforts to gain their approval for The Lone Ranger, a Johnny Depp film in which the actor played, not the masked white hero of the west, but his Native American sidekick Tonto. In their view, the studio’s public relations strategy obscured the real issues of marketing to, and the identity of, indigenous people.
There was a latent concern among many that Depp was trying to pass himself off as something he wasn’t in an attempt to legitimize his role as a Native American and to offset criticisms that a white actor playing Tonto robbed an indigenous American actor of a marquee role.
“I was told at a very young age that I have some Indian blood – God knows how much, but it’s there. It’s part of me,” the former Pirates of the Caribbean star told the Daily Mail. “We were told that we were of Cherokee descent, but it’s possible it could have been Creek Indian. I remember one story vividly, dating back to the late 1700s or early 1800s. It was a story about an Indian woman who had an affair and then married a white man and within no time at all she was murdered, and beheaded.”
The only problem with this is none of it is true.
“Depp is of primarily English descent, with some French, German, Irish, and West African ancestry,” wrote Brian Robb in his 2006 book Johnny Depp: A Modern Rebel.
After Indian Country Today reported Depp had never inquired about his heritage or been recognized as a Cherokee, Depp’s claims came under scrutiny. Native American leaders and educators simply didn’t buy Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage and were particularly concerned about Disney’s attempt to keep it ambiguous.
“Disney relies upon the ignorance of the public to allow that ambiguity to exist,” says Hanay Geiogamah, Professor of Theater at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware) was a consultant for Disney’s Pocahontas and served as producer and co-producer for TBS’ The Native Americans: Behind the Legends, Beyond the Myths aired in the 1990s.
“If Depp had any legitimate blood of any tribe, Disney would definitely have all the substantial proof of that already. It’s not that hard to establish tribal connections,” Geiogamah said.
Geiogomah believed Disney’s The Lone Ranger was a “missed opportunity” because so few Native American actors are signed on for Hollywood roles. Instead of Depp, Disney could have promoted a young Indian actor to play Tonto.
“Now they re-introduce Tonto with a non-Indian. So can you call that progress?” Geiogamah asked.
A PROMISE UNKEPT
In what can now be seen as the ultimate PR stunt to legitimize his role as an iconic Native American character and to alleviate the concerns of tribal leaders, Depp promised to spend millions from his pocket to buy Wounded Knee, a piece of land in South Dakota, and return it to local Native Americans who could not afford to buy it. Depp pretended to be outraged the Federal government had not already done so.
“It’s very sacred ground, and many atrocities were committed against the Sioux there. And in the 1970s, there was a stand-off between the Feds (Federal government) and the people who should own that land. This historical land is so important to the Sioux culture, and all I want to do is buy it and give it back.”
By Depp’s standards, the price tag was a relatively modest $3.9 million, a pittance for the actor paid $55 million for his role in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strange Tides just one year earlier. He was already worth an estimated $40-50 million so it isn’t like he suddenly became saddled with multi-million-dollar lawsuits and needed a 10-year payment plan to fulfill that commitment. But as the Lone Ranger’s PR campaign wound down and the film tanked at the box office, Depp’s promise was soon forgotten by all except those it mattered to. A now-closed Change.org petition serves as a reminder, though:
“Keep your word. Promises to indigenous people are frequently made and broken. You promised to buy Wounded Knee and give it to the Sioux Nation. The owners want to sell. Keep your word. Buy Wounded Knee and gift it freely to the Sioux Nation.”
As of 2022, Depp still hasn’t purchased the land, nor has he addressed why he broke his promise, but he’s continued his Native American facade, resulting in several PR nightmares for the actor.
A HISTORY OF RACISM, STEREOTYPING, AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION
In a now-infamous text sent to actor Paul Bettany, Johnny Depp propagated a myth about Native Americans and used a racially insensitive term for indigenous peoples all in one sentence:
“I’m gonna properly stop the booze thing, darling … Drank all night before I picked Amber up to fly to LA, this past Sunday … Ugly, mate …. No food for days … powders … half a bottle of whiskey, a thousand red bull and vodkas, pills, 2 bottles of Champers on plane and what do you get??? … An angry, aggro Injun in a f–kin’ blackout, screaming obscenities and insulting any f–k who got near.”
The term “Injun” is a mispronunciation of “Indian,” first used in the 17th century to mock or imitate Native Americans’ supposed heavily accented English. Indigenous peoples consider the term derogatory and racially insensitive, so it isn’t widely used. But used by Depp in conjunction with his intoxication raises it to another level of offensiveness: The stereotype of Native Americans becoming savages after drinking the alcohol introduced to them by white settlers.
“The firewater myth is the notion that American Indians are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol and more vulnerable to alcohol problems due to biological or genetic differences,” writes Vivian M. Gonzalez and Monica C. Skewes in their psychological study on Pubmed Association of the Firewater Myth with Drinking Behavior Among American Indian and Alaska Native College Students. “Although genetics clearly play a role in the risk for an alcohol use disorder, there is little evidence to support the notion that biological differences or genetics play a greater role in alcohol use disorders among American Indians compared to other racial groups.”
“‘Firewater’ myths come from the racist ideology that fueled colonialism…the apogee of victim-blaming, the idea that genetic “inferiority” causes native peoples to be particularly susceptible to addiction was not falsifiable when it was initially spread [and] even now that it has been disproven, the myth obscures the real causes of addiction,” says Maia Szalavitz in her piece on the topic.
Raising the level of racial insensitivity and cultural appropriation, Depp’s next Native American controversy arose in 2019 when he was heavily criticized for his controversial Dior film “Sauvage.” Originally intended to advertise the Dior fragrance of the same name, the ad was pulled after people complained that it featured stereotypes of Native Americans. In the ad, Depp wanders through the desert while Native Americans perform a war dance in traditional dress. The company received complaints that it was offensive, and it was subsequently taken down.
According to The Conversation, the ad ticked off a whole list of triggers:
- Native Americans apparently portrayed stereotypically? Check.
- A rich Hollywood movie star in the lead role, whose Native American ethnicity is debated and who therefore could be accused of cultural appropriation? Check.
- A much younger Native American woman in the background as Depp’s potential love interest, with all the gendered power relations that suggests? Check. (note: The actress said in an interview she was hesitant to take on the role and felt conflicted during filming, “witnessing as a company blatantly disrespected indigenous culture.”
- A brand name suggestive of a racial slur with connotations that are long and ugly? Check.
- An American minority who have experienced dispossession and systemic historic disadvantage juxtaposed with a luxury good that disproportionately few of them are in a position to afford? Check.
NOTE: While promoting The Lone Ranger, Depp was made an honorary son by LaDonna Harris, a member of the Comanche Nation. Though now an honorary member of her family, he is not a member of any tribe.