Depp, who has claimed in the past to have Indian heritage (a claim that Indian Country Today, a media network for the American Indian community, has contested), is playing Tonto, one of the longest-running Indian characters in American media. It's also an intensely problematic one.
Depp, who was adopted into the Comanche Nation after signing on to "The Lone Ranger," claims that his role is a "salute" to American Indians, and "Smoke Signals" director Chris Eyre, an American Indian, has said, "I completely respect Johnny Depp for making this movie happen and for him to try and rewrite Tonto for a new generation."
But stereotypical portrayals of American Indians are still very much with us: "Look at the products on the shelf at the grocery store," said LeAnne Howe, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois. "Or the Jeep Cherokee. The Pontiac. Land O'Lakes butter. The Native American cigarettes [American Spirits]."
The white idea of that which is Indian -- leaving aside the vast number of differences between tribes, American Indians are generally seen as exotic, stoic, "connected with the land" -- is among the most easily monetized tropes for anyone seeking the patina of American-ness. The Disney corporation is surely hoping Americans will spend their Independence Day holidays indulging the exoticism of Tonto.