Between 1938 and 1940, there were a series of Lone Ranger film serials, in which Tonto was played by Victor Daniel, an actor of Cherokee, Yaqui and Mexican ancestry who worked under the stage name Chief Thundercloud.

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But it is Silverheels' TV Tonto who is best known today. Airing from 1949 to 1957 and starring Clayton Moore, the "Lone Ranger" became the first big hit for ABC and the highest-profile role to date for a Native American actor.

"They actually were very progressive in their decision to bring a Native actor in," Richardson said. "Native characters were never played by Native actors. They played background characters who had a stereotypical grunt or two."

Geiogamah recalls watching Silverheels while growing up on the Kiowa Indian reservation in Oklahoma. "I was happy to see Tonto because at least we were seeing a real Indian," he said.

Despite his ethnic authenticity, Silverheels' Tonto had a few cringe-worthy traits — his pidgin English, which spawned the word "Tontoism," his servile position and even his name, which the creators didn't realize means "stupid" in Spanish.

The long-swirling debate around the Tonto character was reignited when Depp's casting was announced — the actor has said he has Cherokee or possibly Creek ancestry, but is identified by most audiences as Anglo. When the first image of Depp as Tonto was released, some found the look, which the actor has said was inspired by a painting by Kirby Sattler, shocking in its theatricality.

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"It's hard to invest positive thoughts in a character that looks like a Halloween gothic creation. It's hard to get into a cooperative adventure with someone with darkened eyes and a taxidermic bird on his head. It's hard to ride along with something like that," said Geiogamah.

A blogger at the website Native Appropriations referred to the character as "rodeo clown Tonto," while Michelle Shining Elkof the Colville Tribes of the Pacific Northwest, writing on the Huffington Post, likened it to a 1920s cartoon.

For their part, the filmmakers said they included Native American perspectives in the film, casting Native American actors in significant roles and in background parts. In the course of making the movie, the Comanche nation adopted Depp as an honorary member, and Comanches offered input on such details as tepee construction.

A Native American idea of land influenced the way the movie was shot, according to Verbinski. The Lone Ranger and Tonto, who slowly come to a kind of mutual respect, are up against a clear-cut villain named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) and an implied one — the greed propelling much of the development of the West.

"Things like the landscape become characters in the movie," Verbinski said. "Trains. Drawing lines through the landscape. Tonto served the function of asking, 'At what cost?'"

Disney is donating proceeds from the movie's premiere, more than $200,000, to the American Indian College Fund. ""We saw it as an opportunity to bring attention and resources to the fund, to use this to have people look at the work of real, modern-day Indians," said the fund's president, Cheryl Crazy Bull.