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

By Cyn Felthousen-Post
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.