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Tonto Talk

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Josey Wales: You be Ten Bears?
Ten Bears: I am Ten Bears.

A variation of You No Take Candle, but one which applies specifically to Native Americans. For decades (if not centuries) Native Americans were portrayed in fiction speaking a form of pidgin English characterised by the phrases "heap big," "ugh," and "how," and verbs conjugated with "um." Trains are referred to as "iron horses," guns as "thundersticks," 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."note 

While most assume that this is just some baloney stereotype invented by ignorant racists, it was actually originally Truth in Television. In the 17th century, Native Americans adopted a pidgin now called American Indian Pidgin English (AIPE) in order to communicate with white people and members of other tribes. Here are a few recorded real-life examples of AIPE:

Good Indian, me. Heap good Indian, hunt buffalo and deer.
— Ottawa, Oglala Sioux war chief

You silly. You weak. You baby-hands. No catch horse. No kill buffalo. No good but for sit still, read book. Never mind. Me like. Me make rich. Me make big man. Me your squaw.note 
— A Native American woman proposing to a white man

Straight usages of this trope have fallen out of favor due to racial sensitivity (and due to the language barrier that AIPE was meant to bridge simply not being there anymore, since the vast majority of Natives are raised with actual, fluent English these days; unfortunately most of the old languages are dead or dying, although there are efforts to preserve/revive them), although it does get parodied quite frequently. A common gag involves a white (or otherwise non-indigenous) character speaking to a Native American in this manner on the assumption that this is how all Native Americans talk, only to receive a bemused response in perfectly articulate English.

Occasionally you may even find someone so ignorant as to think this is the Native American accent, which is incorrect, as the accent that Native Americans had before the colonists arrived is the very one that non-native Americans adopted and now speak.note 

See Asian Speekee Engrish for the Asian equivalent, and Stereotypical South Asian English for the South 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 or Hollywood Natives.

See also Elective Broken Language, for when a Native American can speak English perfectly and just fakes this trope, either for making fun of white people's stereotypes or for the sake of Obfuscating Stupidity.


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    Comic Books 
  • 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.
  • Asterix 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.
  • "Little Plum" from The Beano peppers his sentences with "um" so much that it becomes almost a self-parody.
  • This was how Native Americans 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.
  • Lucky Luke used this with the occasional subversion, with most of the humor stemming from just how odd this talk sounds when translated very literally into French.
  • Played with in a short story in Fear Itself: The Home Front, in which a bunch of white racists try and stir up American Eagle's neighbors by posing as Native American spirits in the wake of the murder of a white local sheriff. The fact that they resort to using Tonto Talk is part of how Eagle figures out that they're full of shit.
    American Eagle: Oh please. "Thunderstick"? "Pipe of peace"? What did you do — watch Pocahontas? Read some Custer fan-fic?
  • Ompa-pa the Redskin: Ompa-pa and the other Indians speak this way.

    Comic Strips 
  • Tumbleweeds: Bucolic Buffalo played this straight, adding "um" to his words. The other members of the Poohawk tribe though averted this trope.

    Fan Works 
  • The Discworld of A.A. Pessimal builds on the canonical introduction of Red Indians. One seemingly submissive Indian employed as a scout by the local Expy of General George Armstrong Custer addresses him seemingly respectfully, as Kemo Sabie. Then, later on, he watches a bull bison depositing a large steaming heap of kemosabie onto the prairie.

    Film — Animated 
  • Moshi Monsters: The Movie: The character Big Chief Tiny Head, a villain and more a parody of the stereotypes than an actual Native American, speaks like this.
  • In Peter Pan, the residents of Injun Country get a whole musical number in which they present the defining characteristics of the race as saying "how" and "ugh" and having red skin. Hey, it was The '50s.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Spoofed in Assassination (1987) when a Native American is apparently speaking like this, but is actually a Terse Talker. When Charles Bronson's character responds in kind, he delivers a long tirade over the idea that an American can't speak good English.
  • Parodied in (of course) Blazing Saddles with the chief played by Mel Brooks chanting in Yiddish.
  • Averted in the negotiations with Cochise in Fort Apache, where we have a somewhat reverse situation: the focus is not on Cochise not being able to speak English, but on the negotiating officer York not being fluent enough in Apache. Therefore, York decides to use a Spanish interpreter to interpret for Cochise, who is rather fluent in Spanish.
  • Played with in Dudley Do-Right. In one scene, Nel Fenwick returns to town and Dudley reintroduces her to the Chief of the South Brooklyn Indians.

    Dudley: You remember Nel.
    Chief: Nel Fenwick! You look terrific. How's it goin'?
    Nell: Me do well.
    Chief: Good for you, sugar.

    • Subverted further in that the person Nel was addressing was probably not even a real Native American. Later in the movie, Standing Room Only (one of the tribe members) sarcastically remarks, "Oh, yeah, like we're really Indians," implying that they're not.
  • 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.
  • Invoked in Maverick where Joseph, the chief of the local tribe, is being paid by a wealthy Russian noble to give him a "real west" experience including Braids, Beads and Buckskins, war drums, and Tonto-speak - to the great disgust of Joseph, who is fully fluent not just in English but in French (which was pretty much the first language of Russian nobility at the time) besides.
  • Averted in The Missing, where all the Native tribes do speak realistically, though with accents.
  • Subverted in The Outlaw Josey Wales. The Comanche chief Ten Bears note  does tend towards whimsical turns of phrase, and his English is a bit stilted, but he sounds like someone who has learned a second language as an adult rather than a caricature. He even manages to get one over on Josey:
    Josey: You be Ten Bears?
    Ten Bears: I am Ten Bears.
  • Every Indian character talks this way in the Shirley Temple film Susannah of the Mounties.
  • Some of The Three Stooges shorts featured Native Americans speaking this way, such as the 1940 short "Rockin' Thru the Rockies".

  • Used for the obligatory dirty joke: While scouting with the Lone Ranger, Tonto puts his ear to the ground to listen.
    Tonto: Buffalo come.
    Lone Ranger: That's amazing, Tonto! How do you know?
    Tonto: Ear sticky.
  • A middle-aged couple traveling through New Mexico were in a cafe and couple of Zuni nearby overheard them talking about becoming forgetful with age. The younger one said "Getting old doesn't have to mean you lose your memory. My great-grandpa is close to 100 and he remembers everything. Just ask him." So the husband says "What did you have for breakfast on this day in 1944?" The old guy says "Bacon and Eggs." Twenty years later, the couple stop at the same cafe and Grandpa is still sitting there. So the husband goes up to his table and says "How!" And Grandpa says "Fried."

  • Able Team. Downplayed when the team encounter Nate, a Vietnam veteran living with an indigenous tribe in the mountains of Guatemella. He's Gone Native and hasn't spoken English in decades, so he keeps pausing to remember the words.
  • The Geronimo Brothers of the Brentford Trilogy. Neither brother is in fact any kind of Native American, but Paul believes he and Barry are the dual reincarnation of Geronimo and feels obliged to "act the part". Sadly he learned everything he knows about Native Americans from watching old Westerns. Barry tags along because he likes playing dress-up.
    Paul: If paleface not talking out back of loincloth, that technological miracle of first order. Nobel prize in it for inventor
  • Completely averted in Blood Meridian. No native characters speak in English; either they have no dialogue, their conversation is in their native language but not recorded in the text, or they speak in reasonably fluent Spanish, as is the case with the Yuma chief Caballo en Pelo.
  • 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.
  • A variant of this was still used, of all places, in My Heart Is On The Ground, a 1999 children's book in the "Dear America" series. Native reviewers called the style "Early Jawbreaker".
    My teacher, Missus Camp Bell, say I must write in this book each day. She calls it die-eerie. It is the white man's talking leaves. But they talk not yet.... Teacher tells it that I know some English, that she is much proud of me, but wants be more proud.
  • In the Philip Marlowe novel Farewell, My Lovely, a Mook named Second Planting shows up and engages in this. Marlowe doesn't buy it for a minute, finally telling him to "Skip the pig Latin". The mook's English improves, indicating he was faking most of it, but it's still a little broken.
  • Subverted in Patrick O'Brian's The Fortune of War : Stephen Maturin habitually greets the Native American hospital porter with 'Ugh' in the genuine belief that it is a civil greeting in his language, until the man politely asks for an explanation.
  • Very briefly, in Dave Barry's radio-based Astonishingly Appropriate Interruption gag article, "Garbage Scan", the ongoing "Bill Doberman" political ad briefly veers into this...
    AD: "...Him good. Him heap strong. Him your father. Him..."
  • Played with in The Indian in the Cupboard. Little Bear has fairly stunted English, but is shown to be intelligent otherwise, sometimes more intelligent than Omri, who's just a boy. Inversely, Boone, a white cowboy, has just as terrible English, and also is clever in his own way.
  • Subverted in Peter and the Starcatchers: When the heroes meet Fighting Prawn, chief of the Mollusk tribe, they assume this trope and greet him with "How", to which Fighting Prawn replies "Can we start the conversation along, old chap? I'm getting frightfully tired of 'How'."
    • It should be noted that since Peter And The Starcatchers was published by Disney's Hyperion Books division, this was likely intended as a parody of the Indians in the 1953 movie, who played this trope totally straight.
  • Parodied in Reaper Man: Mrs. Cake's spirit guide, One Man Bucket, is from "one of them heathen Howondaland tribes", and talks like this... but only when he's on the job. He was actually born and raised in Ankh-Morpork, so his exaggerated use of "-um" and talk of spirits and the Happy Hunting Grounds are an affectation for the benefit of Mrs. Cake's customers.
  • Inexplicably, the Sparra tribe, otherwise entirely based on English sparrows, speak this way in Redwall, with the additional use of the word "worm" to mean either "food", "anyone that's not a sparrow", or "anything the sparrow dislikes". Probably why they didn't show up again after Mattimeo, when it became less acceptable to use this trope. They are perfectly smart, though.
  • 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!"
  • In The Sign of the Beaver, a children's historical novel by Elizabeth George Speare, an Indian character named Attean is portrayed speaking in a stereotyped pidgin dialect ("What for I read? My grandfather mighty hunter, he not read"), to the dismay of some modern teachers teaching a Newbery Honor wining book.
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Chief Screaming Chicken, a character who is exactly as painful to watch as the name suggests, talks like this in the Batman (1966) episode he appears in.
  • On The Brady Bunch three-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?" The boy's grandfather shows up to take him home, played by Jay Silverheels (Tonto) himself!
  • 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.
  • In an episode of Jeeves and Wooster, Bertie Wooster (as part of a Zany Scheme) is persuaded to disguise himself in Blackface as an African chief to retrieve a tribal artifact. He naturally assumes that as the "chief" he should speak in Tonto Talk. The poor dolt only succeeds in making everything think he's gone insane. Then to make matters even worse, the real chief shows up— speaking the Queen's English in a flawless Oxford accent due to his university education.
  • On Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell try to apply Lily to a classy kindergarten that is very keen on finding Token Minorities, and figured Lily is bound to be admitted as a Twofer Token Minority (being both Asian and the daughter of two gay fathers). Upon realising their competition for the only available slot was an interracial lesbian couple, one of whom was in a wheelchair, Cam resorts to bringing up being 1/16 Native American, and talking like this in the interview as a final Hail Mary.
  • Spoofed in the Monty Python sketch "Red Indian in Theatre." "She fine actress... she make interpretation heap subtle."
  • On One Life to Live, a woman tries to endear herself to the son of the man she's dating by talking like this when she sees his Halloween costume—he's dressed as a Native American boy. Unfortunately, the boy's already upset by her presence in the first place—his beloved stepmother died only two months earlier and his Jerkass father is refusing to deal with either his or his own grief—and her act makes him blow up at her.
  • Press Your Luck had a Whammy Indian rowing in a canoe chanting "Ai-yi-yi-yi money money" before his canoe springs a leak and sinks.
  • In the Australian current affairs show Real Life, indigenous reporter Stan Grant, while interviewing an American actor, showed an Old Shame clip of the actor in blackface portraying an indigenous Australian (with the genuine article as literal spear carriers in the background) talking exactly like this.
  • Saturday Night Live had multiple recurring sketch characters (including a Tonto expy and Frankenstein's Monster using this instead of the more traditional Hulk Speak). Several even appeared together in a sketch called "Succinctly Speaking".
  • In the Seinfeld episode "The Cigar Store Indian," Jerry gives Elaine the title object as a gift with a note that reads, "Let's bury the hatchet. We smoke um peace pipe." Unluckily, Elaine's attractive friend Winona is a Native American, and Jerry spends the rest of the episode trying unsuccessfully to convince Winona he's not a racist.
  • 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.

  • Briefly heard in "I Wanna Be a Cowboy" by Boys Don't Cry, when the words "white man speaking with forked tongue!" are said by a background character.
  • The French Ludwig Von 88 made a whole song named Mon coeur s'envole phrased in that manner. This is meant as a joke.

  • Parodied in a 1949 Bob & Ray skit featuring Pronto, sidekick to the Lone Agent:
    Pronto (Bob): Ug. Lone, that be completely impossible. You would be implicating me in crime, in which I can have no hand.
    Lone (Ray): Huh? Is this Pronto speaking?
    Pronto: Ug.
    Lone: Where'd you get the education?
    Pronto: Me go Harvard. Me Boston brave.
  • Tonto from The Lone Ranger is the Trope Namer and possibly the trope codifier. Language aside, he was portrayed as highly intelligent (actor John Todd's "Hmmm..." could speak volumes), often coming across as smarter than the Lone Ranger. Jay Silverheels in interviews and comedy skits used to make fun of the "him say" stuff and used the term "Tonto talk." Modern versions, such as the 1981 film and the Dynamite comic series, did away with this, due to the creators wanting to portray Tonto more respectfully. The 2013 film, however, brought it back.
  • Our Miss Brooks: Chief and Mrs. Thundercloud in the episode Bartering With Chief Thundercloud.

  • The Girl of the Golden West has Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle speak somewhat like this. The interjection "Ugh!" is a bit overused.
  • In the original stage version of Peter Pan, the Indians that live in Neverland speak like this.
    Tiger Lily: Pirates! Have um scalps? What you say?
    Panther: Scalp um, oho, velly quick.
    The Braves: [in corroboration] Ugh, ugh, wah.

    Video Games 
  • Humba Wumba in Banjo-Tooie speaks like this - but then again practically everyone (and everything) speaks in Hulk Speak anyway, so the only thing particularly unique about Humba is that she throws in the odd "heap big" every once in a while.
  • Big Chief Tiny Head in Moshi Monsters is the only character to speak specifically with the "um" and "heap" and consistently so. He is not leading anyone, wears attire that does not add up and was introduced as a man of great wisdom to soon be revealed as working for an an Evil Organisation and simply faking it all.
  • Averted in Red Dead Redemption, where the Native American Nastas speaks fluent English and justifies it as having been schooled while growing up; however, supposed anthropologist MacDougal treats him as though this trope applies.
  • 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.
    • Chief Scalpemnote , who is an obvious Native American, also speaks this way, saying "Me ready for Pow-wow," and "Me Pow-wowed out" before and after his boss fight, respectivelynote . His sister, who appears after he's defeated to beg the main characters not to kill him, speaks perfect English.
  • In World of Warcraft, the minotaur-like Tauren are thematically loosely based on Native Americans.note  They speak fluent English, but if you click on an NPC, one of the stock responses is "How... may I aid you?"

    Web Comics 
  • Something*Positive: Aubrey's aborted attempt to make Native American-themed porn involves her obviously white friends dressing up in Braids, Beads and Buckskins and speaking like this, while using the stage names Princess Takes-It-Like-Doe and Chief Thrusting Bull. "Sweet Tonto! Your tomahawk is wampum big!" Jhim says that if it gets released none of them will ever be able to walk into a casino again.

    Western Animation 
  • The Beatles visit an Indian village where the guide subverts this while Breaking the Fourth Wall. From the episode "Little Child."
    Confusing, isn't it? Of course, I could clear it all up and speak perfect English. But they're tourists and I don't want to disappoint them.
    John: (to guide) Now, uh, we friends. We strangers here. Come-um long way, see-um your people.
    Guide: (to John) Me know. Me show you how Indian live. (does Eyebrow Waggle to camera)
    • The two Native children in the episode avert this as they both speak clear paleface—er, English.
  • In a Family Guy episode, Peter and Lois decide to enter a community talent show by reviving their old folk act from the '60s (or whatever) called "Handful 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 "woo-woo-woo" soundnote  and at the end Peter speaking the lyric, "How could this have happened... HOW" (speaking the last word like the stereotypical Native American greeting, with his hand held palm out). Although it turns out that they were very high for this performance and this was merely their own interpretation of how it went. What actually happened was them wailing on their instruments randomly while screaming like lunatics.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Running Board speaks this way in Go Go Gophers.
  • 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 heard Indians talk in westerns.
  • In the Wacky Races episode "Why Oh Why Wyoming", Dick Dastardly enlists the aid of an Indian, Chief Crazy Buffalo, who talks like this.
  • The Woody Woodpecker version of The Barber of Seville has a Native American walk into the barber shop, speaking like this and wearing a headdress in the 1940's.
  • Parodied in The Simpsons when a Native American casino owner is seen yelling over the phone, "Your people have broken many promises to us. Now laundry bill soars like eagle!" It overlaps with Elective Broken Language though, as he speaks normally once Bart shows up in his office.

    Real Life 
  • 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." Seattle made several such speeches, and they weren't nearly as pleasant. His real words are filled with heartbreaking bitterness.
  • "How" or "Howgh" actually is an Indian word. It's usually more properly written "Hou". It may have started as a word of greeting and "yes" in Creek, spreading to other tribes they traded with, which is how the Lakotah picked it up (they would have said "ho"). You'll also hear the Wazhazhe (Osage) speak this word. Anglo visitors would have heard "how" a lot in council meetings as people agreed with the speaker, like "hear hear!" "Ugh" probably started as a bad transcription of listeners muttering "how". In some places "how" was used by the speaker to mean "this concludes my statement."


Video Example(s):


Sesame Street: Indians don't talk like that!

Just to show Tonto Talk is pretty inaccurate...

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