The Definitive Word on "Kemo Sabe"

We all know, or at least those of us over 30, that Tonto called the Lone Ranger "Kemo Sabe." Did you know that during the early radio shows the Lone Ranger also called Tonto "Kemo Sabe?" (It was originally spelled "Kemo Sabay") I have assumed that it was a friendly expression from one of the Native American languages, and I have found nothing to dispute this, but very little to support it. Like all good theories, one must try just as hard to disprove them as to prove them. I have asked several Native Americans about "Kemo Sabe" and they have all looked at me like I was asking them about the unified theory of the universe.

Recently my friend Fran sent me a newspaper clipping that sheds some additional light on the matter. This information came from Dave Barry's column in the New York Daily News, Saturday, June 10, 2000. Dave Barry swears that he has researched the matter and his facts are correct. According to Barry, "The original "Lone Ranger" show was created at Detroit radio station WXYZ in 1933. This explains why Tonto called the Lone Ranger 'Kemo Sabe,' a phrase that is derived from the name of a boys' summer camp in Michigan owned by the director's uncle." Now the question remains as to where the boys' camp got their name. I have read that Kemosabe in the Navajo language means "soggy bush," or "soggy shrub." I don't believe they would have named their camp "soggy bush." There are a lot of things I could say at this point, but none of them are tasteful, so I'll move along.

A search of the Internet using "Kemo Sabe" got me 80 links, and many of those had other links. Several links led me to a miniature donkey named Kemo Sabe. There are a number of commercial ventures using the name Kemo or Kemo Sabe, including one design firm. I wonder if they know about the Navajo translation. I did find out that the first use of the name Kemo Sabe was in a very early film clip where a group of six Texas rangers were ambushed and all of them killed but one. The surviving ranger, which is where the "lone" comes from in Lone Ranger, is found and nursed back to health by an Indian named Tonto. Tonto recognizes a ring that he gave the ranger when they were youth many years ago and calls him Kemo Sabe, as in recognition of a long lost friend. At this juncture, we can only speculate to its meaning. "Trusted friend" or "long lost friend" are plausible guesses.

I don't trust anything that Dave Berry writes, so I did some further research. In the 1930's, when the Lone Ranger show got its start, there was indeed a camp in the northern part of Michigan called "Ke Mo Sah Bee" and the name is reported to have stood for "trusty friend" or "trusty scout." Since the show got its start in Michigan, it seems logical that the name could have come from there. Could Dave Berry be right? But wait! A respected researcher at the Smithsonian Institute claims that Kemo Sabe comes from the Tewa Indian dialect where "Kema" means "friend" and "Sabe" means "Apache." Another scholar claims that in the Yavapai Indian language the word "kinmasaba" means "one who is white."

kemosabe1Personally, I think Tonto, who was a Mohawk, was speaking Navajo, and he was insulting the lone ranger for being ambushed (no pun intended) like an amateur. After all, The Lone Ranger was a member of the famed Texas Rangers. If Gabby Hayes had found him instead of Tonto, the phrase "Lilly Livered," or "Dag nab it" might have become famous instead of Kemo Sabe.

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Check out the best web site for information on the Lone Ranger: C Craig Coomer's Web Site

If you wish to know about Jay Silverheels (aka Tonto), go to: Tonto

Tony Lawler, from Illinois, has subsequently provided some verification for Kemo Sabe meaning "trusty scout. He says he has seen one episode twice, where Tonto explains to a sheriff that Kem Sabe means trusty scout.