The Noble Savage on Screen

A recently watched documentary, combined with the recent buzz about Johnny Depp portraying an Aboriginal Person in the The Lone Ranger (2013) has led me to, once again, thinking about settler narratives and cultural appropriation. I recently watched National Geographic’s America Before Columbus (2010) thinking it would speak to pre-contact Aboriginal economies –which has a misleading title because it was more about the introduction of the North America-Europe economy development and the transfer of goods overseas. However, what ended up bothering me about this film were the constant use of settler narratives, imagary of the "noble savage" and the romanticization of Indigenous Peoples as others.

(America Before Colombus,

The idea of the New Word is problematic in and of itself as the discovery of the Americas did not mean that the found land was new, uncivilized or did not have their own economies and production – it just meant that these aspects of the New World were unknown to the Europeans. I suppose what bothered me most was that there was such a lack of attention paid to the Indigenous perspectives in a film produced in 2010 and that it would be a bit less focused on the domination and conquering of the new lands and their people by the Europeans.

Maybe 2013 will hold less cultural appropriation and romatization of Indigenous Peoples? Maybe not. Disney’s latest The Lone Ranger has received mixed reviews in their choice to cast Johnny Depp to play Tonto. As analysed in a recent article in the Vancouver Sun, Depp’s white painted face and interrupted speech pattern demonstrates cultural inaccuracies in the portrayal of Tonto. Depp’s assertion that he may have had a Cherokee great-great grandmother has been used to justify him in this role, but many are not buying it. On the other hand, many Aboriginal Peoples do not completely object to Depp’s portrayal, as their fondness for Tonto seems to override the cultural appropriation.













(The Lone Ranger,


…but cultural appropriation is something that Disney seems to hold onto. As for National Geographic, the America Before Columbus, while informative, could have had less of a “noble savage” perspective, especially as it its purpose is to be an educational tool.