• Steven Heller

Was Tonto A Role Model?

Come with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when non-white “Americans” were caricatured and stereotyped in ways alternately brazen and benign — where romantic and insipid representations sanitized or demonized the bugaboo of difference. This Dell comic book “Tonto: The Lone Ranger’s Companion” is an example of the token “good Indian” — the maverick who fought criminal whites and savage reds (red being a cold war code sometimes for, well, reds/commies). The depiction of the Lone Ranger’s “faithful” companion is ambiguously comforting. Here he looks chiseled, heroic and only a tad-bit ethnic, which made him more acceptable.

Tonto was fiction, either Comanche or Potawatomi (notes Wikipedia). Ironically, in Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, “tonto” translates as “a dumb person”, “moron”, “silly” or “fool”. Could be an intentional insult or practical joke or pure ignorance or bad research on the show-runner’s and scriptwriter’s part.

“Tonto: The Lone Ranger’s Companion” was published in 31 editions during the late 1950s. (The page about the Apache uses some interesting descriptive terminology too). Later depictions in the 1980s showed Tonto as an articulate and proud warrior whom the Ranger treats as an equal partner. True enough. Yet these early comics skewed my childhood perception of native people. While essentially, Tonto without the Lone Ranger is presented as a hero, there is that nagging after-taste that he is not one of us but of an outsider world – a latter day Last of the Mohicans, perhaps? Race and otherness has always been a sticky issue in America and its art and design.

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