I grew up with the Lone Ranger and Tonto racing around my bedroom. No, not live, but I had authentic Lone Ranger wallpaper. Until the wallpaper was installed, I was sure he was the Long Ranger … as in “he rode a lot and covered great distances.” Y’know. Long range.
Other girls had Disney Princesses, flowers, and butterflies. I had “Hi Yo Silver, the Lone Ranger Rides Again!” Although my walls did not play the William Tell Overture, I could hum it well enough. I had many a long chat with Lone, Tonto, Silver and Scout as I lay abed pondering the meaning of life and how I could convince my mother to let me have a horse.
It was a hard choice between Lone and Tonto. It was even a difficult choice between their horses. Silver was magnificent, but Scout — a stunning paint — was gorgeous too. Really, I would have settled for any horse, any color, any heritage … but if I was going to ride only in my dreams, I got to choose. I was never was able to decide.
I eventually found Jay Silverheels, the man and actor, more interesting than the Lone Ranger. Silverheels was born Harold J. Smith of the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation in Ontario, Canada. He was one of 11 children, son of a Canadian Mohawk tribal elder and military officer, Major George Smith.
Silverheels raised, bred and raced Standardbred horses in his spare time. Once, when asked about possibly running Tonto’s famous Paint horse Scout in a race, Jay laughed. “Heck, I can outrun Scout!”
He probably could have outrun Scout. He was a natural athlete and played lacrosse. He wrote poetry, though I haven’t been able to find any of it or I would gladly post an example.
He never escaped his Hollywood stereotyping as a Native American who could only speak broken English. His career faded with the years. He died too young, at age 67 in 1980.
Silverheels spoofed his Tonto character on a number of occasions, most famously in a Stan Freberg Jeno’s Pizza Rolls TV commercial opposite Clayton Moore (TV’s Lone Ranger).
Jay Silverheels was the person who got me interested in Native American culture, got me reading real history. When anyone makes fun of the Lone Ranger, I always defend the show. Yes, it carried forward a lot of stupid stereotypes, the worse of which is the weird broken English spoken by Tonto in the show … but Tonto and the Lone Ranger were far more equal in their interaction than any other Native American – White Hero combination I saw for many long years. Talking funny wasn’t nearly as important as the mutual respect between the two men. It ultimately changed the way I saw the world and American history. That’s quite a bit of influence for a 1950s TV serial.
Eventually, as I rounded the corner into adolescence, the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian Companion (who had led the fight for law and order in the early west) returned to those thrilling days of yesteryear, whence they had come. They were replaced by plain, off-white paint. I would have preferred Lone and Tonto to live on, but the paper was old and peeling. Nothing and no one lasts forever.
Tonto and the Lone Ranger were the consummate good guys. The always fought the good fight, were always on the side of justice, fairness, and truth. They never asked for anything in return. As role models go … not so bad. Not bad at all.