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Change Agents: Meet Native American and Indigenous Studies Professor Dustin Tahmahkera

image of Dustin T. Wo

image of Dustin T.Dr. Tahmahkera, a citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, examines how native people are represented in music, television, film and online. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies and the author of Tribal Television: Viewing Native People in Sitcoms (University of North Carolina Pres, 2014).

We caught up with him to learn more about his research—and how actor Johnny Depp’s role as Tonto in the 2012 remake of The Lone Ranger became the genesis of his forthcoming book.

Capturing Johnny Depp… After Johnny Depp reprised the historic role of Tonto, he was “captured” by Tahmahkera’s auntie LaDonna Harris and named an honorary member of the Comanche Nation. “She embraced him for many reasons, particularly for his genuine interest in learning about indigenous people and his efforts in putting forth a fully rounded view of Comanche culture.”

Moving beyond the captivity narrative…One important message he hopes readers will take away from his forthcoming book The Lone Ranger: Captivating Comanches in Media Borderlands (University of Nebraska Press) is that the story of his tribe doesn’t end at the fall of the Comanche empire. “I want people to see how history has informed and shaped who we are in the present and into the future. The narrative doesn’t stop in 1875. We continue to endure, to be critical, to be creative in all kinds of ways in pop culture.”

Finding common threads…To say that Tahmahkera is a movie buff would be an understatement. He keeps a close watch on small- and big-screen movies created by both native and non-native filmmakers. One film he recommends is Winter in the Blood, a drama directed by UT Austin Radio-Television-Film alum Alex Smith. Though the film has been criticized for playing into stereotypes about Native Americans and alcoholism, Tahmahkera says it is a beautifully told character-driven story of love, loss and healing. “It is an incredible story that everyone can identify with in different ways.”

Fun trivia fact… Tahmahkera is the great-great-great grandson of Quanah Parker, a legendary Comanche chief who co-starred in the 1908 silent film The Bank Robbery. “The film showed a very early instance of a Comanche playing a Comanche, and it is a radical departure from the Hollywood westerns in subsequent decades.

Indigenous dub step… In his third book Sounds Indigenous, Tahmahkera will explore the many inventive ways artists create a new understanding of indigenous people through music. He points to one group in particular that is putting a new spin—literally—on cultural awareness. Through high-energy performances, an emerging Canadian dub-step group, A Tribe Called Red, is educating young people in a way that has never been done before. They fuse catchy electronic music with First Nations drumming, singing and dancing—all against the backdrop of clichéd pop-culture images of Native Americans projected upon a screen. “Their performances complicate audience perceptions of what it means to be native.”

Portrait by Alberto Gonzalez