Why Were They Called 'Tonto'?



The bronze index finger of the youthful student paused over a topographic map of Arizona, as his grandfather urged him to point to the geographical center of the state. The boy's finger slowly descended until it came to rest on the town of Payson.

"You are in the heart of your homeland," said the aging man. "Here, the De-he'ch-ahe lived and died and lived again."

"The De-he'ch-ahe?" quizzed the youth.

"That is the name by which we call ourselves," the elder said. "You have heard only the name the White-eyes gave us Tonto Apache. Well, the term 'Apache' comes from the ancient pueblo language and it means 'enemy.' And the word 'Tonto' in Spanish means 'foolish' or 'crazy.' How we got that name is another story."

The youth and his grandfather sat together in the shade of a juniper with the map propped on their knees as they leaned against the tree trunk. Around them on the hillside, like occupants of an amphitheater, were the modern houses of the Tonto Apache reservation. They could hear the activity from the nearby Mazatzal Casino, set back from the highway. Cars came and went from the nearly full parking lot, and a representative headdress of a Mountain Spirit Dancer capped the casino entrance, a constant reminder of the presences of Usen, the Apache name for God.

Not many elders are left who could teach the lessons to the young generation of Tontos. In fact, most of the young are not interested in the past, taken up with school activities and pressed by the Euro-American culture.

They do not speak the native language, and with the elimination of the language goes the richness of the culture. The goal of the Territorial government and early White settlers was the genocide of the Apaches.

That failed. As the grandfather said, they died but lived again, having returned to their homelands after the war. However, the genocide of their culture has almost been completed.

There is a letter at the Rim Country Museum library, written in 1926 to a Mrs. Matthews of San Francisco by the director of the State Museum in Tucson. In answer to a query, the director wrote, "Regarding the Tonto Apaches, I find I can be of little help to you. I know nothing that has been written upon this group. They are now mixed in to the other groups in the White Mountain tribe at Fort Apache and at San Carlos. But I know of no one who had traced their history ..."

Unfortunately, that is still true today.

The only thing most Americans know about the term Tonto begins with The Lone Ranger and his sidekick Tonto.

Several years ago, Clayton Moore, best known as The Lone Ranger, died at the age of 85. At this death, members of his fan club lauded him for "the morals and lessons he taught us through his wonderful, believable portrayal of the masked rider of the West."

In childhood, many of us glued our ears to the radio to hear those thrilling words, "A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a 'Hi Yo Silver!'" We came to feel a special excitement when the orchestra played that galloping section from the William Tell Overture. Then there was "his faithful Indian companion, Tonto."

As an adult, I came to the real Tonto territory and often wondered about the origin of the masked man's friend. I discovered he was Jay Silverheels, a full-blooded Mohawk from the Six Nation Reservation in Ontario, Canada. Silverheels played the part throughout the entire Lone Ranger series, as well as in a couple of feature length motion pictures. He died in the spring of 1980 at the age 62. But why the name "Tonto" for a Mohawk?

In the first episode of The Lone Ranger, a solitary Indian comes upon the bodies of six Texas Rangers who have been ambushed by a gang of outlaws. In a nearby cave, the Indian finds another of the Rangers barely alive. The medallion around the White man's neck is the same one the Indian remembers giving to someone who helped him when they were boys.

"You kemo sabe," the Indian tells the ranger.

"Kemo sabe?" the Ranger asks.

The Indian explains how the White boy had come to his rescue after renegade Indians had burned his camp and killed his family, leaving the Indian boy alone to die.

"Yes," the Ranger remembers. "You're Tonto."

"Yes, me Tonto," the Indian replies. "Now, me help you."

Tonto stays to nurse the Ranger back to health and together they hatch a plan to devote their lives to ridding the West of outlaws. The Ranger will wear a disguise so no one will know who he is. He makes a mask from the vest of one of the dead Rangers. Tonto says, "You all alone now. You the lone Ranger."

I have difficulty understanding the "kemo sabe" handle. "Sabe" is the third person of "to know" in Spanish. "Kemo" could conceivably by a corruption of "amigo," the phrase then suggesting, "I know of you (as a) friend." I wish the Lone Ranger were here to tell us.

So the tale began. But why the name Tonto? Perhaps the script writers seized on it as a common Indian name, since Wild West writers had used it to label many different tribes in Arizona. Undoubtedly, the Lone Ranger's writers knew little about the many real people called Tonto, or the many places in the Rim country that carry the name. Nor did they know the Spanish derivation of the name, or they would not have given it to the noble partner of the Lone Ranger. He was hardly foolish or crazy.

It all started in Texas. Didn't they know that is Comanche country?

Whites don't know the history of the Tontos any better than the museum director who wrote, "I know of not one who has traced their history."

We can only hope that someday, their history will be told by someone.

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