NDN Tonto: Back Story
Roy Cook, edit
Saginaw Grant was in the first grade, he played the role of a reindeer
in his school's Christmas play.
Decades later, Grant,
the actor, traditional southern straight dancer and lecturer, is starring
as "Chief Big Bear" alongside Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer in
this summer's probable blockbuster The Lone Ranger.
Saginaw is a respected member of the Sac-n-Fox, Iowa and Otoe-Missouria Nations.
In 1936, Saginaw Morgan Grant was born to Sarah and Austin Grant Sr. at Pawnee Indian Hospital in Pawnee, Oklahoma. He was raised on a farm in Cushing, Oklahoma with two brothers and one sister. Having a traditional upbringing by both parents, Saginaw was especially influenced by his grandparents. His grandpa Kirvin was a strong medicine man and his other grandpa Saginaw (whom he is named after) was also a very spiritual man. They taught Saginaw their customs, culture, and traditions and the importance of this way of life. As a result, Saginaw witnessed many special ceremonies and events taught to very few.
As a young adult, Saginaw experienced all the situations both good and bad every young person faces in today's society. Yet he overcame the obstacles that challenged him, and with that he took his courage to become the man he is today. But Grant, a citizen of the Sac and Fox, Iowa and Otoe-Missouria nations, said he never endeavored to be an actor. One day in the '80s, Grant was speaking at a seminar near San Francisco. A man approached him and asked if he'd like to play a role in a car commercial. Saginaw took the role and he's been acting ever since.
You've met and worked with Johnny Depp on the set of The Lone Ranger. What do you think of the controversy surrounding his role as "Tonto"?
Saginaw's interview continues with, what's been the best role of your life?
This role is the best, as "Chief Big Bear" in The Lone Ranger. I really like the part I played, even though I do get killed; I probably have died in a lot of movies I've been in. I probably hold the record there. Floyd [Red Crow] Westerman and I kind of argued about this. I said, "I died more times than you do. "That's just the way it is, I guess. I've been very fortunate because people seem to like my look, because it's an "Indian" look. I'm not a star or anything, but I've been able to stick here and have work. And I've been becoming pretty well known, especially since people found out that I'm in The Lone Ranger. They've really paid attention to me now. I feel good about it.
How do you spend your time when you're not acting?
I go to a lot of
events. I do a lot of public speaking. And I talk to my new generation
about indigenous culture. You know, we.re in a place where we're losing
our identity by not holding true to our traditions and our culture. And
when we lose our culture there will be no more Native peoples. That's
my main purpose now is to teach our young people our traditions and our
culture. We must never lose it. It's kind of strange when I talk to young
people. They don't really know what their beginning is. They need to hear
the stories that our grandpas and grandmas had. There are principles in
the stories. Every morning, I start off my day by talking to the Creator.
And these are the things I tell my young people: Keep true to who you
are. You are a Native person. You're different than all these other cultures.
It doesn't hurt to compliment somebody. This is what I teach the young
people. I go to recovery houses where men are suffering and wanting to
get away from alcohol. I know that life. I've been through it. And when
I talk to them they know I.ve had that experience that they are in or
are going through. I'm somewhat successful in my endeavor. I was at one
time an alcoholic myself, but I'm no longer an alcoholic. And it makes
me feel very proud because I'm making up for what disgrace I did bring
to my people when I was using alcohol. I try to get this across to our
people who are still suffering from it. The Creator gave us the ability
to know right from wrong. We just have to make the right decision. Today,
if we live by these principles, we can be happy.
Depp was adopted by Comanche tribal elder LaDonna Harris in May 2012 and traveled to the Comanche Nation headquarters in September to complete the adoption ritual. Keeping with the traditional Comanche ways, Depp was presented to the tribe and Coffey completed it by dressing him in Tuhu Wii-style attire, which is a reflection of his character in The Lone Ranger movie. "But before Saginaw and Johnny Depp the role of Tonto was best associated with Jay Siverheels as Tonto, he too was an Indian.