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Tonto and the Washington Redskins

What 'The Lone Ranger' can teach us about football.

By 6.24.14

UPI
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Those of you who follow my writing will know that my taste in music is decidedly retro. The same can be said of my taste in TV programs. Give me The Bionic Woman over Mad Men any day of the week.

A few months ago, I began spending late Saturday and Sunday nights watching episodes of The Lone Ranger. I had not seen The Lone Ranger since the early 1980s when I lived in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I would watch it as part of the Matinee Money Movie that aired weekdays after school on the ABC affiliate based in Duluth, Minnesota.

I must confess that when I was younger I preferred John Hart’s portrayal of The Masked Man over that of Clayton Moore. But looking on it now, Moore’s interpretation resonates far more with me. Meanwhile, no matter which man led, Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto, stayed true.

In an age where the line between good and evil has been nearly erased, it is refreshing to see a TV program without any such ambiguity, even if our protagonist does wear a mask. Of course, The Lone Ranger could not triumph over evil without the help of Tonto. Indeed, it seems like Tonto did a lot of the heavy lifting and often found himself on the wrong end of a fight. The Lone Ranger might as well have told his faithful sidekick, “Tonto, you go into town and get your ass kicked while I’ll stay here at camp and roast marshmallows on the fire.”

Although The Lone Ranger is set in the American West of the nineteenth century and went off the air in 1957, many of its themes remain relevant today. In an episode titled “Journey to San Carlos” a white man named Mr. Walker expresses astonishment that Tonto would put his life on the line for him, and Tonto replies, “All men are brothers, Mr. Walker. Some have red skin, some have black skin, some have white skin, but we all brothers.”

Of course, the term "redskin" is very much in the news these days with the efforts of the liberal intelligentsia to get the NFL’s Washington Redskins to change their name.

Over the past year, several major media outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Seattle Times, as well as more overtly liberal publications such as Slate, Mother Jones,and The New Republichave announced they will no longer use the word when discussing the team. President Obama has said the team should consider changing its name, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this past week he won’t be attending any more Redskins games until they do so. Not that Redskins owner Dan Snyder needs any further incentive to keep the team’s name, but the thought of Harry Reid never setting foot in Fedex Field is reason enough to stand his ground. Of course, if it is so evident that "redskin" is a racist term, then why has Reid, who has been in D.C. for nearly thirty years, only now begun his boycott?

Matters truly escalated last week when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office refused to renew the Redskins' trademark. Although this is not the first time that the U.S. PTO handed down such a ruling (a similar edict was issued during the Clinton administration and later overturned), given the Alinskyite obsession with expunging the Redskins name, this ruling is bound to strengthen their resolve.

The Redskins and Tonto have a great deal in common in that both have fallen out of favor in an era of political correctness. As with the Redskins, left-wingers take a dim view of Tonto because he is seen as subservient to The Lone Ranger. But I suspect that those who dislike Tonto are about as familiar with The Lone Ranger as they are with the Redskins’ offensive line.

Shortly before last year’s release of the disastrous Lone Ranger movie starring Armie Hammer as the Masked Man and Johnny Depp as Tonto, Depp claimed he would do justice to the role of Tonto. “No disrespect to any at all, certainly not Jay Silverheels, but I just thought (making this movie) was potentially an opportunity to right the wrong.”

Right the wrong? And what exactly was wrong with Silverheels’ portrayal of Tonto? At the height of the popularity of Westerns in the 1950s, Native Americans were typically portrayed by Italians. Although not a Native American, Silverheels was an Aboriginal Canadian from the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation near Brantford, Ontario (about an hour southwest of Toronto).

One might complain about Tonto’s broken English, that was he cast as The Lone Ranger’s sidekick, and that Tonto translated into Spanish means moron. But anyone who actually watches more than a handful of episodes of The Lone Ranger comes to the conclusion that Tonto was no fool. The Lone Ranger might have called the shots, but he knew he could trust Tonto to help deliver justice. Tonto almost always went along with the The Lone Ranger’s plans, but did not hesitate to question them when logic behind them wasn’t readily apparent. In rare instances, Tonto would reject The Lone Ranger’s instructions and put forth his own plan of action, and The Masked Man would stand by it. The Lone Ranger clearly respected Tonto’s honesty, integrity, and judgment. These qualities were evident to the American viewing public in the 1950s and made Silverheels as beloved and iconic a public figure as Clayton Moore.

All of which brings me back to the use of the word "redskin." It is true that when this term is applied to Tonto it is often used in a demeaning way, but at other times the term is applied in a more matter-of-fact, descriptive manner, no different than the word "Indian." When Tonto is called an Indian it is often meant derisively. Yet the word "Indian" in of itself is not a slur. Likewise the word "redskin" is a neutral term that can be utilized in either a positive or negative manner.

As my American Spectator colleague Ross Kaminsky noted in his column about the PTO ruling last week, the petitioners made the argument that the word "redskin" was the equivalent of the N-word. But it simply does not have the same emotional connotation. As I argued last October, “If Redskin was so insidious and insulting wouldn’t we have long ago referred to it as the R-word?” That hasn't stopped Rachel Maddow from trying.

If redskin was the equivalent of the N-word then why wouldn’t Tonto punch the jaw of the person who uttered it? Even during the 1950s when racism was arguably socially acceptable, no one would dare utter the N-word on national television. Or let’s put it another way. If "redskin" is the equivalent of the N-word then why would Tonto call himself a redskin?

What Tonto teaches us about the word "redskin" is that the same word can be used with both good and ill will. Anyone who watches The Lone Ranger with an open mind will know that Tonto is an example of the former. Those who wish to force the Washington Redskins change their name for the sake of their own self-aggrandizement are the epitome of the latter.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.