The Lone Ranger, Tonto, Genocide, and Laughter

I grew up listening to “The Lone Ranger and Tonto” on the radio from my bed at night. It was my favorite program, after the one that began with Teddy Bear’s Picnic Song. I’m not at all clear as to why it was my favorite, but it may have been the music, The William Tell Overture,  which came to represent that program. When I heard the movie was out, I was not exactly in a hurry to replace my deeply treasured childhood memories with some updated, (to me… ) ill-informed version of that radio program I loved.

Before going to see the film I had heard some raves and more roasts. Thus, I went mostly to see if it offered me any of what I remember from listening as a 6 yr old. The music did not disappoint!

(The rest of these comments have to do with what I have been working on for the past few years. So, here is a brief summary.)

For the last couple of years I have been part of a project in the Episcopal Church (USA) the focused on the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. The DOD, as we now refer to it, was and still is (in international law) the legal and church documents that authorized and even blessed what came to be one of the two American Genocides; the taking of the land and encouraging the  deaths of most the Native Peoples of the Americas. This is not a pleasant story, very far from it. Once the Church managed to repudiate what was legal and taken by most people as the right thing to do, there remained a problem of how to make that repudiation meaningful to the people of the Church in a way that leads to actual change and healing of some kind.

Here is a link to the various resources that our team put together

Doctrine of Discovery Resources | Episcopal Church

These resources include a 15 min. DVD, Exposing the Doctrine of Discovery and materials to help people reflect, explore, pray, and learn together about this painful matter at various seasons and occasions of the Church year.

The culmination of the first year of work on this project was an international Lament over the Doctrine of Discovery held on July 10th at the 2012 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. That event was a very powerful experience for many people. But it also caused some of us to notice that in our efforts to solve a problem, we were also creating other problems for which we had little understanding and fewer strategies for responding.

Part of the awareness from the Lament over the DOD was that for those of us whose ancestors came to this continent from Europe, we were stopped in our tracks, with no clue as to how to move forward. The overall scope of our understanding of and trust in the events and significance of the history of our “home land” was at best gravely incomplete and to a large extent put forth a false image of how this nation came to be. So as I and others sat with our Native sisters and brothers and listened with respect to their expressions of trust and confidence in the wisdom of their elders, I/we cringed with shame at what our elders had done to and said about their elders.  In other words, our identity as American citizens was gravely challenged by a painful new grasp of our History, and we had no place to turn.

You may already be thinking “shame”? Why is she talking about “shame”? This is usually where the word guilt shows up, and then shuts off interest, attention, and meaningful response. It is precisely the ways in which this new version of the Lone Ranger & Tonto brings attention and honor to those who have been shamed by the history of this nation. And the fact that whole theaters full of people are able to laugh at the funny parts, plays a critical role in being able to sit through the other parts that are shameful, violent, and very sad.

This is where the movie The Lone Ranger becomes a vital and strategic resource in this very difficult matter of responding to the Doctrine of Discovery from Christian Faith. After several years of working on this matter, I have recently come to see that unless we find ways to engage these wounds with both very serious attention as well as laughter, we will make no progress in our response! The necessity for laughter here is absolutely NOT because genocide is in any way “funny” to those who experience it. (The laughter in the movie is not laughter at genocide, it is rather what makes it possible to notice the genocide and to learn from it.)  The laughter is necessary because the level of challenge is so great, overwhelming, and unmanageable that we cannot access it straight. The laughter provides a kind of buffer / mixer that makes possible taking in the hard stuff.

The movie is at various points “stupid”, slap-stick, absurd… etc. with horses jumping from buildings, riding on top of a train, people doing equally unreal and impossible feats. The movie also very carefully weaves together these moments of stupid, slapstick with brief, but VERY powerful moments that proclaim, possibly for the first time in a major motion picture, a perspective on the settlement of North American that was anything but just, right, or Christian

The way the west was won, was certainly not in any way in keeping with the values that “we” as Americans claim to hold — justice, truth, freedom, respect for human life, etc.

It may be understandable that one would be caught up or distracted by the “stupid” aspects of the film and not notice how this version of the Lone Ranger and Tonto is the same story that I heard from my bed as a 6 yr old, but it is headed in the opposite direction.  This movie uses fiction to present more of the “truth” about the settlement of the West. Carefully wrapped in a silly, “action film format” +  the questions of a wise child, this version of the LR & T manages to include some very powerful examples of the egregious treatment of Native Peoples, Chinese railroad workers, and the rule of greed, violence, and ignorance that governed the actual settlement of the West.

One of the most powerful scenes captures the unscrupulous railroad “magnate” challenging the cavalry General by pointing out that he, the general, had participated in the ten-fold massacre of Comanche people, who did NOT attack the homestead where  the beautiful woman and her child were living.

Another brings in the Chinese laborers who also worked under horrific conditions on the building of  the railroad. In that brief scene a group of Chinese workers all nod and smile “yes”…when (Tonto) comments about the injustice of their working conditions. And the audience laughs!!! We laughed together  because we know that it is “true”.

Yes, for the most part, the movie is silly, entirely made up, unrealistic. and based on fiction, etc. And yet, Tonto (Johnnie Depp) and the Lone Ranger, have done what many Native and other wise humans do; they have taken a horrific event or experience and turned it around by entering deeply into it, and come out the other side, laughing and crying, while seeing more of what matters in life.

If you haven’t seen it. Please go, and let me know what you think.

About kathrynrickert

Possibly from watching the movie Bambie at the age of 6, I have had a life-long awareness that saying ONLY nice things, does not make the world just or kind. Thus, my 2009 doctoral dissertation..."Talking Back to God" , is one of the main aspects of the work I do. Always interdisciplinary, seeking connections across borders that are usually marked with DO NOT ENTER, I seek to pay attention, pray, think, create,and imagine using biblical laments, Christian worship texts, and the ordinary stuff of everyday life.
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