TontoTalk Tonto Talk YKTTW Discussion

Tonto Talk
How um Native Americans used to speak in um Westerns.
(permanent link) added: 2013-04-06 10:32:46 sponsor: Nemmington (last reply: 2013-04-15 11:55:59)

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A variation of You No Take Candle, but one which applies specifically to Native Americans. Although this trope has fallen out of favour due to reasons of racial sensitivity, for decades (if not centuries) American Indians were portrayed in fiction speaking a form of broken English characterised by the phrases "heap big", "ugh" and "how", and verbs conjugated with "um". Trains are referred to as "iron horses", white people as "palefaces" (who speak with forked tongue), a baby as a "papoose", the tribal leader as "Big Chief", money as "wampum" and whiskey as "firewater".

There is a grain of Truth in Television in this, as there would obviously have been a point in history when English was not the first language of most North American Indians. However, fiction turned this into a complete caricature which often made Indians look foolish and primitive. Some fiction, particularly cartoons and comics, portrayed Indians speaking this way well into the twentieth century.

See Asian Speekee Engrish for the Asian equivalent. Related to Braids, Beads and Buckskins. Sometimes the dialect of choice for the Magical Native American or, for extra-special Unfortunate Implications, The Savage Indian.



  • Subverted in an animated segment in Sesame Street. Two boys play Cowboys and Indians, with the "Indian" speaking in this manner. A modern-day Indian boy shows up and explains that that's not how Native Americans actually speak.
  • The Indian chief in the Supermarionation series Four Feather Falls spoke this way. Oddly, he was able to make animals speak fluent English using his magic, so why he didn't cast this spell on himself is unclear.
  • On the Brady Bunch 3-part episode where they went to the Grand Canyon, at one point Bobby and Cindy get lost in the canyon. When they encounter a Native American boy about their age, Bobby opens with Tonto-like "How!" while putting his hand up. The Indian boy is only confused by that and replies "How, what?" with an American accent. Bobby quickly says "How are you?".

  • "Little Plum" from The Beano peppers his sentences with "um" so much that it becomes almost a self-parody.
  • Astérix plays with this trope: the Native American characters in Asterix and the Great Crossing speak a language consisting entirely of "how", "ugh" and "ole" (the last word being introduced to them by the Gauls, who believe the Indians to be Spanish). The loose film adaptation, Asterix Conquers America, averts this trope by giving the Indians a new language comprised of American place names.
  • As Superdickery has demonstrated, this was how Indians in the DC Universe spoke in the 1970s.
  • Parodied in the New 52 version of Dial H, when Nelson becomes Chief Mighty Arrow (a character who appeared in the original series), he talks this way unless he concentrates on not doing so. Roxie refuses to let him leave the house because he's an offensive stereotype.
  • When the Archie Comics gang takes a trip out west, they stop at a Native American village. Reggie walks up to an Indian man and says something like:
Reggie: Me come from land beyond blue water. How!
Indian: Say Alice, come here! Like there's some kind of creep trying to make the scene, but I don't dig him.

  • Invoked in Maverick where Joseph, the chief of the local tribe, is being paid by a wealthy Russian to give him a "real west" experience which involves, among other things, talking in the stereotypical way, much to Joseph's disgust and annoyance.
  • Some of The Three Stooges shorts featured American Indians speaking this way, such as the 1940 short "Rockin' Thru The Rockies".
  • In The Frisco Kid, when Avram and Tommy are captured by Native Americans, they attempt some Tonto Talk, e.g. something like, "Me rabbi. Jewish Rabbi. I cross big ocean. I read much book about Indians." The chief is not amused and replies "You don't speak English very well."
  • In the Ma And Pa Kettle movies, Geoduck and Crowbar speak this way.

  • In a short story set in the Shadowrun Verse, a mercenary company is led by an ork and his Native American second-in-command. Joking around, these long-time friends speak to each other in their respective minstrel-show-dialect equivalents: the Native saying they'll "make-um heap hot for paleface", and the ork replying "smash 'em good, ook ook!"
  • Aaron Latham's 2002 novel Code of the West stars a white man who was kidnapped as a boy and raised by Comanches. He speaks fluent English, but when he is using the Comanche language the novel renders his speech into English as Tonto Talk.
  • In the Winnetou novels, Indians often use the word "howgh" and some other terms like "palefaces" and "firewater", but the Indian protagonist speaks pretty good English.

Video Games
  • In Sunset Riders, stage boss Dark Horse enters battle with the line "You in heap big trouble!" and then "Me in heap big trouble!" when defeated. However, he doesn't look particularly Native American despite the mannerisms and the game's Wild West theme.
  • Subverted in Red Dead Redemption, where MacDougal treats the Native American Nastas as though he can't speak English. Nastas speaks it perfectly, however.
  • Wumba in Banjo-Tooie speaks like this - but then, most of the characters use some form of broken English.

Western Animation
  • The Indian Chief in Peter Pan. He even performs a musical number about Indians, in which having red skin and saying "how" and "ugh" are presented as the defining characteristics of the race.
  • In a Family Guy episode, Peter and Lois decide to enter a community talent show by reviving their old folk act in the '60s (or whatever) called "Pocket Full of Peter". They flash back to the longhaired duo playing a song lamenting the plight of Native Americans, which used various speech stereotypes, such as the "ababababababa" sound made by vibrating the hand against the mouth, and at the end Peter speaking the lyric, "How did this happen... HOW" (speaking the last word like the stereotypical Native American greeting, with his hand held palm out).
  • The Martians in Futurama, who are based around stereotyped Indians, speak this way. "Oh no! Martians kidnap Amy! I know it them 'cause they no use good grammar!" remark Amy's parents.
  • On one occasion Pepper Ann found out she had some Native American heritage and found some of that tribe, who were your typical modern people, and kept trying to talk to them like she'd seen Indians talk in westerns.
  • In an episode of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids the kids go to see an old cowboys-and-Indians movie and come out thinking that that's how real Indians act. When an Indian boy moves into the neighborhood they don't believe he's a real Indian because he doesn't talk/act like they did in the movie.

  • A Green Aesop speech attributed in Urban Legend to Chief Seattle -- actually written in The '70s by screenwriter Ted Perry -- has elements of this, with references to "the smoking iron horse" and "The red man is a savage."
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