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Lords of the Plains
Unlike previous incarnations of the legend, in this new version of "The Lone Ranger," there's no mystery regarding which Native American nation Tonto belongs to. As Jerry Bruckheimer notes, "It made complete sense to us geographically, historically and culturally that since the Lone Ranger is from Texas, Tonto should have been born into the great nation that had lived on those lands for generations: the Comanche."

At the height of its power, the Comanche Empire ranged from present-day eastern New Mexico to southern Kansas, all of Oklahoma, and most of northwest Texas. Known historically as being among the fiercest warriors in protecting their lands from the waves of outsiders who encroached upon them, and some of the greatest horsemen to traverse North America, the Comanche -- who call themselves the Numunu -- have survived culturally and linguistically against unbelievable odds. Although reduced in number by some 30, 000 from their population in the late 18th century, the Comanche today, based in Lawton, Oklahoma, remain strong and committed to their powerful history and promising future. Wahathuweeka-William Voelker, one of the greatest living repositories of his people's traditional knowledge, interpreted the Comanche's extraordinary way of life for the film. As the founder of Sia (the Comanche word for feather), the Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative conservation program, Voelker has bred more than 400 eagles in captivity (many of them through revolutionary methods of artificial insemination) and restored their place in the natural order of Numunu spirituality.

Working on "The Lone Ranger" as a technical adviser along with Troy "The Last Captive," his longtime associate at Sia, Voelker served as a close consultant on the film to ensure historical and cultural accuracy on many levels. Voelker's wide range of responsibilities included coaching Depp on the Comanche language and assisting the production with accurate representations of Comanche Numu kahni (teepees), clothing, and weaponry. At the same time, however, he was also mindful that the film is a work of entertainment that occasionally takes dramatic license with the past. "Because of our life's work in cultural preservation, the movie industry at times will come knocking when there's an effort to involve historical accuracy," says Voelker. "Our primary work is preservation of culture and the eagle as a historical, spiritual, and ceremonial entity. But when it seems appropriate, we look at the project and agree to come onboard, as we did with 'The Lone Ranger.'

"We're not making a historical document with the film," continues Voelker, "but the production is committed to historical accuracy, to the extent to which it works for the film. We know we have to try to take a cooperative point of view on this. Not that we will compromise our culture, but we are focused on entertainment of the masses, done with sensitivity to our way of life. Unfortunately, we're living in a time where the Comanche people have fewer traditionally knowledgeable people, so anything of historical accuracy we can get before our young people is the primary reason we are involved."

On "The Lone Ranger," Voelker and Troy worked closely with numerous departments, particularly production design, set decoration, and props, to find the middle ground between historical accuracy and the needs of the fictional film. "Gore has a very specific vision," confirms Voelker. "He's played these scenes over and over in his head many times. What we've been able to arrive at is a happy medium between what's absolutely historically accurate to us and what works within the palette that he has in mind. There's been a little bit of compromise, but not to the point where it's something we can't live with. We're making it work.

"We brought all the different departments together so that they could understand a little better about what we do and the living culture that we bring," Voelker continues, "and in dealing with them I can say with absolute certainty that they were all committed to working within an authentic historical framework." As a perfect example, Voelker and Troy worked in close collaboration with set decorator Cheryl Carasik, leadman David Manhan and their team to develop and create accurate teepees for the Comanche camps in the film. Voelker proudly notes this is the first time such dwellings will be seen in a film. "We Numunu always get stuck with Northern Plains teepees, but this is one of the things that we got accurate in 'The Lone Ranger.' Our Numu kahni had a four- pole foundation put together in a very specific way, and everything was built up from that. When you take into consideration that our villages were situated on the Southern Plains where there is nothing to break the wind, it was essential that our Numu kahni were set up in a way that fought back against the elements."

Throughout production, Voelker and Troy were also pleased to develop a close relationship with Johnny Depp, advising him throughout the shoot on all manner of issues. "Johnny quickly revealed what a sensitive person he is, and a quick bond developed between us," says Voelker. "As a result of Johnny's great interest in who we are culturally, he has added words in Numunu that were not part of the original script where it seemed appropriate to call on our language. It's gratifying that he's so committed."

Indeed, it was Voelker and Troy who presided over the ceremonial adoption of Depp (himself of partial Cherokee heritage) into the distinguished Tabbytite family of the Comanche Nation, "taken" in the old tradition by LaDonna Harris, the legendary activist who has spent the better part of her eight decades working tirelessly to improve the lives of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world. The Comanche name chosen for Depp and announced by Voelker at the ceremony was Mah-Woo-Meh, which in an approximate translation, means "He Can Change" or, perhaps in the vernacular, "Shape-shifter."

As one who has devoted years to the propagation of sacred birds, Voelker is uniquely qualified to address the most talked-about aspect of Johnny Depp's Tonto costume -- the inanimate crow that adorns his head. "The crow is probably second only to the eagle in the level of medicine or power that the warrior would aspire to," explains Voelker. "We had an elite group of Comanche warriors, and the English translation of their name is the 'Crow Tassel Wearers,' of which I'm a direct descendent. The large cluster of crow and raven feathers on the head symbolize the fact that the individual was a member of this elite warrior society. The use of a whole bird or major parts of a bird on the head is something that transects many different tribal boundaries. It just so happens that with the Comanche, it is even more pronounced. So it's fitting that the Tonto character is one of us. A crow or feathers on the head is heavy-duty medicine, or spiritual energy, for our people."

The relationship between Wahathuweeka-William Voelker, Troy "The Last Captive," the Comanche Nation, and Johnny Depp continued beyond wrap. Just two days after completing seven grueling months of filming, Depp flew to Lawton, Oklahoma, on September 29, 2012, to participate in the Comanche Nation Fair, fulfilling a promise he made months earlier to the late tribal chairman Johnny Wauqua. In one very rainy and busy day, often in the company of Comanche tribal chairman Wallace Coffey, Depp rode side by side with his adoptive Comanche mother, LaDonna Harris, waving to cheering crowds in a soggy but joyous parade. He spoke eloquently in a gymnasium filled with Comanche children and teens along with Harris and Gil Birmingham, who portrays Red Knee in "The Lone Ranger" and is himself a Comanche. He also visited the beautiful Sia facility in nearby Cyril, Oklahoma, and paid his respects to the grave of the great Comanche chief Quanah Parker in a cemetery at Fort Sill, just across the road from the fairgrounds.

The love and warmth with which Depp was greeted by the Comanche people was returned to them in kind by the humbled and grateful actor. During his talk to those assembled in the gymnasium, Depp reminded the young people of their incredible heritage, saying that they could accomplish anything they wanted because they have the "warrior spirit" within them. The survival of the Comanche is testament to a people of enormous inner strength and dignity who, unbowed, find their hopeful future in their proud past.

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