Tonto and Me
Did you ever wonder why the Lone Ranger was alone? Or why Tonto wasn’t hanging with the other Indians*? It’s been a long time since Tonto and the Lone Ranger have crossed my mind.
We had Indians at our school. They got bussed in from the Curve Lake reserve. We would hurl snowballs at their bus while making animated war whoops. The funny thing is that Indians had this strange kind of alone-ness that set them apart. They looked at you with burning eyes but didn’t say anything.
One Indian kid has stuck with me all these years. He was somewhere in the background in my grade but I only ever really encountered him as an individual down at the creek where we were sailing wooden boats. He was with a group of bad white kids, who outnumbered us. It wasn’t long before they grabbed us and pinned us to the ground. The ringleader gloated. He found a sizeable stick and while we were forced to kneel in front of him, he beat us mercilessly about the head and shoulders.
One lone Indian hanging with some bad kids was pretty normal. Indians along with being mysterious, were reputed to carry knives, and so their presence lent some street cred to any gang. Indians didn’t really expect any comraderie. What we knew of them was from the black and white spaghetti westerns on TV – perhaps not a subtle way to gain appreciation for what Indians might be thinking or feeling behind all that mystery.
I just finished a book by Richard Wagamese, One Native Life. Reading it made me understand maybe for the first time how one dumb idea can derail a lot of what is natural and good in culture, and set it on the outside of life. In his reflections, Wagamese details just how it feels to be a kid growing up outside of the system, with no good way to own your origins. I like that his story is inclusive and redemptive. He forgives the abuse he suffered at the hands of his own family. He forgives the flaws in the system that swallowed up his humanity. With us, he parts as friends, and cites forgiveness and understanding as the things which led him forward to a full life, relearning how to be Indian in the best of ways. It made me understand that skin colour or culture are only a small part of those things in life which make us different and set apart. His choices which at the beginning of life were often bad, improved. He chose the better option.
All of which brings me back to the group of toughs who were beating us up as kids. I wouldn’t give any of those kids credit for being sensitive or thoughtful. They might represent the worst side of human nature, the neanderthals among us whose first instinct is to destroy. But the lone Indian was another story. He did something quite unusual on that day. Maybe existing on the fringes, he had nothing to lose.
The Indian kid suddenly tackled the ringleader and wrestled the stick from him. “Run!” he called out. And we did. We twisted our way free from the ones holding us down and took off. He saved us the better part of a beating and I always wondered if he literally got the wrong end of the stick after we ran away. He had been the one guy in the crowd who thought through what was happening, saw it was not right, and chose the better option.
I would like to think that the idea of being an individual out of a crowd is a product of the Western Enlightenment, but the Indian kid proved me wrong. I think there is a divine spark in all of us that calls forth the better thing when we are listening.
Nothing changed in a big way when we got back to school. The Indian kid remained largely aloof. The only approbation I got from him was when he met my gaze the first time after our escape. He looked at me and grinned. Reading the biography from Richard Wagamese makes me think back and have a fuller understanding what that grin might have been about.
Maybe that kid knew he would spend his entire life in other peoples’ eyes, as just a Tonto. The sidekick who stood around and followed the leader. But in his own mind, the Indian knew something that made him grin. Even at an early age he had parsed some basics about right and wrong, who the assholes were in life, and that he didn’t have to be one of them. He could set himself apart and act differently, and that made all the difference.
It’s ironic that choosing to do the right thing made the Lone Ranger enough of a target that he had to disguise himself. Maybe the only person who got him, was the silent Indian who was not really a follower at all. Together they made choices which set them apart from all the others out there following the herd. We can always choose to be better. It’s how we go forward in the world and how we get along.
In terms of identity, Richard Wagamese had figured this out. His role in life was to become a better human being, a better man, and a better Indian, in that order. It sounds like pretty good advice to me. Hi Ho Silver, and away…
*For anybody offended at the word “Indian”, I use this first because it is hard for me to change gears at this stage in my life. The second thing, is that Richard Wagomese, whom I am citing, ONLY refers to himself as an Indian throughout his book. I take that as license, not intending to offend.