If Johnny Depp believes he’s Native American, then is that more important than if he actually is or not? And does the exact percentage make him more or less Native American? How much does that matter for the movie “The Lone Ranger“?

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I ask this as someone who has been challenged as being East Asian American enough by other East Asian Americans, specifically Japanese Americans because I didn’t measure up to their prejudices of how a Japanese American should act. Oddly enough, I was only faced with these accusations when I left my native San Diego and moved to Los Angeles and Orange County. I am 100 percent Japanese ethnicity, but for some, including my ex-husband and former in-laws, that wasn’t enough. There are other East Asian Americans who had earlier attempted to delineate what was true and false (e.g. Frank Chin and the editors behind “Aiieeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers“).

Depp’s assertion that he was part Native American comes long before he was cast on Tonto. According to Ethnicelebs.com, Depp made this claim first in 2002. That was the same year that shooting for the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie began.

It should be noted that Depp probably has little way of proving that he is Native American. Not all Native Americans have been tested and testing that may prove membership will not necessarily distinguish specific tribe membership.

According to a 2006 Slate Magazine article about genealogical testing:

Admixture testing works best in groups like African-Americans, whose ancestors in Africa and Europe lived far from each other. Most of the ancestry of today’s African-Americans can be traced to West or Central Africa, with a minority from other parts of the continent. (Gates’ family is a bit exceptional in terms of origin.)

But for other groups things can get a lot more complicated. Many amateur genealogists are interested in whether they might have a Cherokee ancestor, for example. And for some people, admixture tests can give a relatively accurate answer about Native-American ancestry. But other people, including Greeks and Ashkenazi Jews, may have “Native American affinity,” according to the tests, even if they and their ancestors have never been to America. As far as anthropologists know, there were no lost tribes connecting Greeks, Jews, and ancient Americans. So, maybe this “Native American affinity” reflects the scattering of alleles by prehistoric Asian nomads to the ancestors of Greeks and Jews as well as to American Indians. Maybe the SNPs that they share gave these groups a leg up in fighting diseases.

There another point that the Ethnicelebs brings up. Depp seems to have African ethnicity in his background. I had heard that during less enlightened times during American history, people hid their African heritage by claiming American Indian heritage instead. In any case, according to Ethnicelebs, Depp has both African American (3/2048) and Native American ancestry (1/2048 Powhatan Native American descent).

If Depp’s claims of ancestry are true, it wouldn’t be enough for him to be considered Native American, but that 3/2048 would have, in a different era, been enough to have him considered black. Yet there is another problem within the Native American population. Native American populations mixed with white and African immigrants. White and Native American intermarriages have occurred since the 1700s. Yet to be an official member, an individual must have 1/4 or more ancestry within a federally recognized tribe. Yet who is recognized and who is not?

In researching this article, I was surprised to discover that Rosa Parks was also part Native American. The Wikipedia article on Black Native Americans notes that ” African Americans are using DNA testing to find out more about all their ancestry. Native American identity has historically been based on culture, not just biology.” Further, Native American groups have excluded Freedmen from membership based on the early 20th-century Dawes Rolls (Cherokee freedmen controversy).

As I mentioned above, I am 100 percent Japanese by ethnicity, but most people will not guess that I am Japanese American. The natural state of my hair (wavy) doesn’t help. This and other factors has led other Japanese people in Japan to consider my second and third cousins in Japan as not Japanese.  Traditionally, wavy hair was stigmatized in Japan. So I might not be able to pass as Japanese and if I were an actor, I might not be cast as Japanese.

I’m also not Buddhist, Taoist or a follower of Shinto which might also make me seem less “real” Japanese. Still in Japan, my relatives embraced me and pointed out characteristics that made me part of the family. This was particularly true for my father’s side of the family. I remember this when someone tries to tell me otherwise and pejoratively label me a banana. What gives that person the right to tell me s/he knows how a true East Asian ethnic or Japanese ethnic should act?

My friend once told me that he believed he was full Chinese from Vietnam, but was traumatized to learn that he was part Vietnamese, particularly since his father looked down on the Vietnamese. So just who are we: What we are or what we believe we are? And just how much is enough?

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If Depp isn’t Native American enough either culturally or by blood is one issue, then the other issue should be can he pass? What about Iron Eyes Cody who passed despite being of Italian (Sicily) ancestry? Cody lived his life as a Native American and married a Native American woman. He was also honored by the Native American community in 1995 despite his lack of ancestral ties to the Native American community.

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The Irish, Comanche and Cherokee Micki Free, a Native American musician.
The Irish, Comanche and Cherokee Micki Free, a Native American musician.

One of the commentators, Sonny Skyhawk, has passed for Native Hawaiian and Mexican so that was reasonable enough for him. He was, by his own logic, taking away a job from a Native Hawaiian. Those Mexican roles are easy to rationalize because many Mexicans are mestizo or part Native American, even if the mixing was a long time ago, just as seems to have been the case with Johnny Depp ancestry.In a different era, Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban played Native American roles as well as East Asian (a real stretch).

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So much has been made of the bird in Tonto’s hat. The painting that inspired the make-up has a crow, but not in the Native American’s hat because he isn’t wearing one. Fashionista know that bird in hat are old hat--something that Marie Antoinette popularized. According to the blog by jmongeon, women in the 1900s adopted this fashion long after Marie Antoinette had lost her head in 1793.

Actually, I’ve also seen a few Hollywood hats off to Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in West Hollywood during the 1990s. Bjork may have had a swan dress in 2001, but other women in the 2000s have re-visited the bird or bird nest hat. What could be more steampunkish than re-adopting the stuffed animal hat of yester-year for a bit of high fashion today? That model with the bird nest and wings was from a 2006 fashion show.

Now, I’m not saying that the Native Americans copied the fashion of White American women. Yet we need to ask: Did Native Americans wear bird in their hair? Apparently some did as seen in these photos of Crow (Apsaroke) Native Americans from the past.

See these old photographs of Crow (Apsaroke) Native Americans.

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The movie “The Lone Ranger” had a supervisor and Depp was adopted into an Comanche family. At least from the perspective of one recognized Native American (William “Two-Raven” Voelker) and then one person who perceives himself as Native American (Depp), the movie portrayed Native Americans in an acceptable fashion. But like everything else, that’s just an opinion of two different people.

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