The Good, Bad and Ugly of Marketing ‘The Lone Ranger’

The Disney blockbuster provides an opportunity for appropriation--and conversation.

By Aura Bogado Jul 03, 2013

"The Lone Ranger" debuts in theaters in time for the July 4 holiday, and while Johnny Depp’s decision to play Tonto–a fictional Native sidekick to the white cowboy–has drawn attention and criticism, the film’s release means that all things Native are unusually relevant–and marketable. And that can be a good, bad, and very ugly thing, all at once.

Tonto action figures are already being sold as "Native American warrior spirit" caricatures. The Lego Corporation is pushing its "Comanche Camp" toys. And Subway is hawking plastic soft drink containers with Tonto snapshots that guarantee the image, which is offensive to so many Natives and non-Natives alike, will live on in consumers’ kitchens for years to come. While "The Lone Ranger" film will come and go in theaters, and perhaps to be revived on DVD and in film awards, corporate promo deals will sustain the Tonto image for years to come–and will make millions off of retailing Native stereotypes while doing so.

But it’s not just corporations that stand to make serious profit from the film. Just last week, Jezebel touted a $2,000 Lone Ranger belt created by an "actual Native American designer." Racked, meanwhile, reported on the same designer, stating that a "Native American chief" made the accessories. A project that features Native artisans would be a great thing (notwithstanding the problematic nature of dissolving all Natives into "chiefs"). Except the artist in question, called Gabriel Good Buffalo, is not a "chief," as Racked wrote. He’s not "Lakota Sioux," as Jezebel wrote, either. In fact, Gabriel Good Buffalo is not even Native. Rather, he’s a striking example of how the burgeoning market for Native appropriation and branding operates.

It might be easy to confuse Good Buffalo for a Native. The last name he uses is not uncommon among certain Natives. And his own website features "Cheyenne War Shield Yell" and "Sioux Turtle Clan" designs. In an email, Good Buffalo claimed that Will Leather Goods, the company that originally marketed him as a "Native American chief" did so without his knowledge. He said the company had informed him it would change that on its website (as of publication, it has not, and a phone call to the company store was answered by a clerk who explained that Good Buffalo is a "prestigious Native American craftsman.").

Individuals and companies marketing themselves as "Native American craftsmen" often make up clans, tribes, and nations that don’t even exist–further fueling confusion. Journalist Simon Moya-Smith, who is Oglala Lakota, says he spoke with two elders; neither had heard of the "Sioux Turtle Clan" named in Good Buffalo’s marketing. One of them, Maka Black Elk, is the great grandson of Holy Man, Black Elk. Moya-Smith affirmed, "none of us have heard of a Sioux Turtle Clan, and if anyone would know, Maka would." 

What might surprise most readers is that Good Buffalo is in apparent violation of federal law. Congress enacted the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in 1990, which allows for the prosecution of anyone who sells any good in a way that fraudulently suggests it was produced by a Native, when it was not. Just last week, a man who went by the name "Redhorse," whose real name is Andrew Gene Alvarez, plead guilty to peddling jewelry that he knew was non-Native. Alvarez claimed to belong to different nations throughout his counterfeit career in Santa Fe, and was sentenced to two-and-a-half years probation, with the explicit agreement that he never again sell jewelry he makes as a Native product.

Santa Fe Indian Market remains New Mexico’s biggest cultural event–showcasing more than 1,000 Native artists who represent more than 100 tribes and nations annually, drawing more than 100,000 visitors to the market for a week each summer*. As such, the city has become known as a Native arts place. But the city is also a magnet for non-Natives like Alvarez, who sell fraudulent Native goods; Gabriel Good Buffalo himself is listed as Lakota in galleries there. While Good Buffalo did admit he’s not Native when contacted directly, his claims about Cheyenne and Sioux belts remain suspect under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. As an individual, he risks a five-year prison term, with fines up to $250,000. Businesses like Will Leather Goods can be fined $1,000,000 for continuing to sell $2,000 belts made by a "Native American chief."

Adrienne Keene, a writer whose Native Appropriations site tackles the hijacking of Native culture by non-Natives, points out that what we’re seeing isn’t anything new–it’s just on a bigger scale, from corporate promotions to boutique accessories. "’The Lone Ranger’ is a Disney blockbuster, with big names," says Keene. "And that’s changing the way the products attached to it are marketed."

For Keene, that’s a result of a consumer society, where people expect everything to be for sale–and ideally, at a low cost. Along with Dr. Jessica Metcalfe at Beyond Buckskin, Keene has advocated for buyers to be prepared to pay good money for an authentic Native craft. And that, says Keen, is part of what makes Good Buffalo’s marketing that much more insidious: well-meaning consumers will think they’re paying $2,000 for a Native artisan’s belt, when they’re instead spending thousands on being duped.

And while the Indian Arts and Crafts Act exists to protect Native artists, Keene notes that, "it doesn’t have a lot of teeth." That’s because although President Obama signed an amendment to the act three years ago that allows any federal law enforcement agent the authority to investigate any violations, the number of breeches are far disproportionate to the number of agents that scrutinize them. "The Lone Ranger" provides an extraordinary chance to exploit consumer desire for something–anything–Native.

Still, Keene hopes "The Lone Ranger" can also be a learning opportunity. "Most people don’t think about these things daily," says Keene. "But there are some exciting shifts happening in the ways that Natives are being represented in the media right now."

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that more than 500 tribes are represented at the Santa Fe Indian Market; it is more than 100 tribes instead.