Johnny Depp’s History of Racism and Broken Promises to Native Americans

Why does the actor, a self-proclaimed “gentleman from the south”, claim a clearly fictitious identity?

  • While promoting the 2013 film The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp claimed to have Native American blood, an unsubstantiated claim that is not recognized by any Native American tribe.
  • Johnny Depp portrayed Tonto, a Native American character, preventing a real Native person from taking on the important role.
  • Depp promised to buy land that once belonged to the Lakota people and return it to them. A decade later, he still hasn’t kept that promise.
  • Depp used the racially insensitive term “Injun” in drunken rage while lending credence to the indigenous myth of firewater and substance intolerance.
  • Depp has been accused of cultural appropriation and racial stereotyping for defending an advertisement in which he appeared 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 Rangera Johnny Depp film in which the actor played, not the white masked hero of the west, but his Native American sidekick Tonto. In their view, the studio’s public relations strategy has obscured the real issues of marketing and the identity of Indigenous peoples.

There was a simmering concern among many that Depp was trying to pass himself off as something he was not in an attempt to legitimize his role as a Native American and offset criticism that a white actor playing Tonto stole a Native American actor in a marquee role.

“I was told at a very young age that I had Indian blood – God knows how much, but there is. It’s part of me,” the former Pirates of the Caribbean star said. the daily mail. “We were told we were of Cherokee descent, but it’s possible it was Creek Indians. I vividly remember a story from the late 1700s or early 1800s. It was the story of an Indian woman who had an affair and then married a white man and in no time time, she was murdered and beheaded.

The only problem with this is that none of this is true.

“Depp is of predominantly English descent, with French, German, Irish and West African ancestry,” wrote Brian Robb in his 2006 book Johnny Depp: a modern rebel.

After Indian country today reported that Depp never inquired about his heritage or was ever recognized as a Cherokee, Depp’s claims have come under scrutiny. Native American leaders and educators simply did not buy Depp’s claims about Cherokee heritage and were particularly concerned about Disney’s attempt to keep it ambiguous.

“Disney is relying on public ignorance to allow this ambiguity to exist,” says Hanay Geiogamah, an acting professor at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television. Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware) was a consultant for Disney’s Pocahontas and was a producer and co-producer for TBS’ Native Americans: Behind the Legends, Beyond the Myths aired in the 1990s.

“If Depp had legitimate blood from any tribe, Disney would certainly have all the substantial evidence of that already. It’s not that hard to establish tribal ties,” Geiogamah said.

Geiogomah thought Disney’s The Lone Ranger was a “missed opportunity” because so few Native American actors are cast in Hollywood roles. Instead of Depp, Disney could have promoted a young Indian actor to play Tonto.

“Now they are reintroducing Tonto with a non-Indian. So can you call this progress? asked Geiogamah.


In what can now be seen as the ultimate publicity stunt to legitimize his role as an iconic Native American character and to allay the concerns of tribal leaders, Depp has promised to spend millions out of pocket to buy Wounded Knee, a land in Dakota from South. , and return it to local Native Americans who could not afford to buy it. Depp pretended to be outraged that the feds hadn’t already done so.

“It is very sacred ground, and many atrocities have been committed there against the Sioux. And in the 1970s, there was a confrontation between the Feds (federal government) and who should own this land. This historic land is so important to 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 a year earlier. He was already worth $40 million to $50 million, so it’s not like he was suddenly saddled with multimillion-dollar lawsuits and needed a 10-year payment plan to fulfill that commitment. But as the Lone Ranger’s PR campaign ended and the film slumped at the box office, Depp’s promise was quickly forgotten by all but those she cared about. A now closed petition serves as a reminder, however:

“Keep your word. Promises to Native 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 give it away free to the Sioux Nation.

In 2022, Depp still hasn’t bought the land, or explained why he broke his promise, but he continued his Native American facade, which resulted in several PR nightmares for the actor.


In a now infamous text sent to the actor Paul BettanyJohnny Depp propagated a myth about Native Americans and used a racially insensitive term for Indigenous people in one sentence:

“I’m fine with quitting the booze thing, honey… I drank all night before taking Amber to fly to LA last Sunday… Ugly, mate…. No food for days…powders…half a bottle of whiskey, a thousand red bulls and vodkas, pills, 2 bottles of Champers on the plane and what do you get??? …an angry aggro Indian in a fucking power outage, shouting obscenities and cursing at any fk who came near.

The term “Injun” is a mispronunciation of “Indian”, first used in the 17th century to mock or imitate the supposedly heavily accented Native American English. Indigenous peoples consider the term pejorative and racially insensitive, so it is not widely used. But used by Depp in conjunction with his intoxication elevates him to another level of offensiveness: the stereotype of Native Americans becoming savages after drinking the alcohol presented to them by white settlers.

“The fire water 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 plays a role in the risk of alcohol use disorder, there is little evidence to support the idea that biological differences or genetics play a greater role in alcohol use disorders. alcohol consumption among American Indians compared to other racial groups.”

“The ‘Firewater’ myths stem from the racist ideology that fueled colonialism… the height of victim blaming, the idea that genetic ‘inferiority’ makes Indigenous people particularly susceptible to addiction was not falsifiable when it first spread [and] even now that it has been debunked, the myth obscures the true causes of addiction,” says Maia Szalavitz in his article on the subject.

Raising the bar on racial insensitivity and cultural appropriation, Depp’s next Native American controversy erupted in 2019 when he was heavily criticized for his controversial Dior film “Sauvage.” Originally intended to advertise the Dior perfume of the same name, the ad was pulled after people complained it featured stereotypes about Native Americans. In the ad, Depp wanders the desert as Native Americans perform a war dance in traditional costume. The company received complaints that it was offensive, and it was later removed.

According to The Conversation, the announcement ticked off a whole list of triggers:

  1. Native Americans seemingly stereotypically portrayed? To verify.
  2. A wealthy Hollywood movie star in the lead role, whose Native American ethnicity is debated and who could therefore be accused of cultural appropriation? To verify.
  3. A much younger Native American woman in the background as Depp’s potential love interest, with all the gendered power relations that suggests? To verify. (Note: The actress said in an interview that she was hesitant to take on the role and felt conflicted during filming, “showing that a company clearly disrespected indigenous culture.”
  4. A brand name evoking a racial slur with long and ugly connotations? To verify.
  5. An American minority that has experienced dispossession and systemic historical disadvantage juxtaposed with a luxury that few can afford? To verify.

NOTE: While promoting The Lone Ranger, Depp was made an honorary son by LaDonna Harris, a member of the Comanche Nation. Although now an honorary member of his family, he is not a member of any tribe.