Jay Silverheels As Tonto: The TV Indian Who Really Was An Indian (And A Hero)

By | May 25, 2021

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The Lone Ranger and Tonto, played by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. Source: Getty Images / Bettmann / Contributor

Actor Jay Silverheels and Tonto, the character he played on The Lone Ranger from 1949-57, were out-of-the-ordinary. Silverheels was an actual, born-on-the-rez American Indian who was playing a Native on TV. The fictional Tonto had lines and thoughts; he and the Lone Ranger worked as a team. These were signs of progress in an industry that had treated Native actors poorly (inspiring Marlon Brando's Oscar no-show), often denying them the significant roles, and had depicted them on screen as little more than savages. As Tonto, the perfectly articulate Silverheels had to speak with the stereotypical movie-Indian diction -- Tonto and the Ranger may have behaved as partners on their adventures, but they weren't equals. Understandably, American Indians have wrestled with Tonto's legacy, and that of Jay Silverheels, ever since. 

Jay Silverheels Came From The Six Nations Reservation

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Source: (IMDb).

Many of the Native Americans in the early Westerns were real Navajos; there was a colony living traditionally in Malibu on studio pay, and they were brought in as background actors. Despite these appearances in the early Westerns, Native American actors did not speak; the real acting roles went to people like Burt Lancaster and Charles Bronson.

Jay Silverheels, who broke whose real name was Harry J. Smith and whose heritage was Mohawk-Seneca, was born on May 26, 1912 at Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario. His father, a decorated World War I veteran, farmed more than 100 acres on the reserve, and Silverheels was quite adept with horses.