What Does 'Kemo Sabe' Really Mean?

By Fran Striker, Jr

The origin and meaning of the words "kemo sabe", often heard in in Lone Ranger stories, are often debated. The first use of the words apparently occurred in an episode in which Tonto is helping a severely wounded Texas Ranger recover from injuries inflicted by The Cavendish Gang. Tonto and the Ranger recognize each other as childhood friends, when they called each other "kemo sabe" (faithful friend).

Fran Striker (senior) was a well-renowned writer of several OTR favorites, including The Lone Ranger, Covered Wagon Days, The Green Hornet, and Ned Jordan, Secret Agent. His son, Fran Striker, Jr. relates the story of the origin of the words "kemo sabe".

Hi Lou,

I briefly visited the otr web site (http://www.old-time.com) over the
weekend,  very interesting.  I'm don't recall the specific place where
I found some interesting speculation about the meaning of Kemo Sabe.

Naturally, this question has come up often, and has been the topic of
many scholarly studies.  Below you find my (I hope definitive) answer
the question-- which you may want to post at the site for others to
enjoy.

After I get a few more horse power into my PC, I hope to become a more
regular web visitor, but until that time, I'll do my best to answer
any E-mail that sent directly to me at FranStrike@aol.com.

As for me, happy, healthy and living in New Jersey.  My current
endeavour is trying to raise funding necessary re-launch my Dad's Tom
Quest series.  The New TQ series is set in the current time, Tom has
grown up and (along with a special sidekick) fights lawlessness around
the world using hi-tech, wit, humor and good measures of traditional
ethics and values.  I'm hoping to launch it as a series of comic
books.

Now,  About Kemo Sabay (Sabe)-- (It was first introduced as ‘sabay,’
but soon became ‘sabe.’)    WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN?

It is a most interesting question... one that has been pondered and
investigated frequently throughout the decades.  In the past there
have been scholars who have conducted extensive research and studies
on the phrase... trying to develop the premise that in Kemo Sabay (as
with the name Tonto) there was a subtle discriminatory nuance
intended.  Logic usually seemed to dictate that those researchers look
the dialects native to the southwest for support.

The investigator, student or scholar, must realize that when this land
was discovered there were already some 220 mutually unintelligible
languages native the America north of the Rio Grande alone.  While it
may be logical to make geographical associations with the southwest
and the Spanish language, then put forth suppositions -- when dealing
in non-scientific areas (such as the creation of fiction) logic can be
quite misleading and the conclusions drawn quite incorrect.

In addition to writing the scripts, books, cartoon strips, and
personal appearance scenarios; my father was also charged with
answering fan letters to the Lone Ranger.  He always started his
replies with... "Ta-i ke-mo sah-bee (Greetings trusty scout)"  AND
this was Dad's only intended meaning of the term.   But still, there
have been many interesting, but incorrect, conclusions drawn (with no
negative implications intended) about the derivation of the phrase.

Many years ago, a Dr. Goddard, of the Smithsonian Institution, was
reported as believing that Kemo Sabe was from the Tewa dialect.  He
supported his contention by calling on the "Ethnogeography of the Tewa
Indians" which appeared in the 29th Annual Report of the Bureau of
American Ethnology (1916).  It seems that in Tewa, "Apache" equates to
Sabe and "friend" to Kema.

A scholar from the University of California at Berkley hypothesized
that Kemo Sabe came from the Yavapai, a dialect spoken in Arizona.  He
suggested that my Dad could have asked a source in Arizonia for the
Indian term for "one who is white," or shown a picture of the Ranger
(in the white shirt and trousers he wore in the earliest publicity
photos) and asked for a descriptive name. A Yavapai would respond
(correctly) kinmasaba or kinmasabeh.

So what's the truth?  One must look at practicality rather than logic.
An article in an old Saturday Evening Post magazine claims that Tonto
was supposed to be a Potawatomi Indian, from the great lakes area.
(Now that's practical... at the time Dad had never been west of
Buffalo, New York and the program was launched from WXYZ in Detroit,
Michigan.)  In research for my book, I came across another old
reference-- a photograph of a children's camp in the northern part of
Michigan.  The photo was from the early 1930s and showed the camp
entrance.  It was named camp "Ke Mo Sah Bee."  The accompanying
caption pointed out that the name stood for "trusty friend" or "trusty
scout."  These two tidbits from history dovetail nicely and are in
keeping with the meaning of the term as officially stated for the last
sixty some years.

It has been written that Jim Jewell, the radio programs dramatic
director in the early years and a native of Michigan, originally
suggested the phrase to my dad.  In light of everything else, I find
that to be a credible claim.

Most recently, I became aware of yet another (humorous) meaning of the
phrase.  In his book of humor and observation, noted columnist James
Smart observes that the New York Public Library defines Kemo Sabe as
Soggy Shrub. His entertaining collection is appropriately titled
"Soggy Shrub Rides Again and other improbabilities."

Allow me just one final note on Kemo Sabe... an interesting side
light.  It is usually assumed that Kemo Sabe is how the Ranger refers
to Tonto. However, in many of the early radio broadcasts, the Ranger
calls Tonto Kemo Sabe AND Tonto also calls the Ranger Kemo Sabe.

Fran Striker, Jr.  (franstrike@aol.com)


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