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Reclaiming A Narrative



— October 1, 2019

Reclaiming A Narrative

  • Native American illustrators and storytellers are dedicated to telling their peoples' stories with nuance and sophistication.

graphic novelsWeshoyot Alvitre has inked dozens of graphic novels and comic books, but no project has meant more to her than Toypurina: Our Lady of Sorrows, which she wrote and illustrated over five years.

The self-published graphic novel, due out at year’s end, tells of a medicine woman of Alvitre’s Tongva nation who led a 1785 revolt against Spanish colonization. The story dovetails with Alvitre’s own family history; her ancestor Sebastian Alvitre was imprisoned with Toypurina at the San Gabriel Mission.

The 35-year-old artist’s written treatment of her people’s history promises to be more realistic than what she says is a one-dimensional “romanticized” version of Toypurina that emerged in the 1950s.

In fact, Alvitre is among a growing number of Native American illustrators and storytellers penning graphic novels and comic books with richly layered Native characters and compelling storylines long missing in popular culture. And Native Americans have their own version of Comic-Con, called Indigenous PopX, to showcase them.

Self-publishing allows Native American storytellers and graphic artists to present material with richly nuanced characters instead of Indian stereotypes. Click To Tweet

“Things changed as soon as we started self-publishing,” says Alvitre, whose Tongva tribe lived where Los Angeles now sits. “We haven’t been given much freedom with major publishers. The power really lies with people who publish, write and draw their own work. Now because self-publishing is so much easier, with the internet and crowdfunding, we’ve been allowed to have much more freedom and representation for our tribes and culture.”

A pioneer in the genre, Lee Francis IV, PhD, has been called the Stan Lee of the Native American graphic novel movement. Francis’ Indigenous PopX confab of Native comic book fans is entering its fourth year, and his Native Realities publishing company is expanding.

“We range from superheroes to anthropomorphic to traditional stories,” says Francis, who also owns Red Planet Books & Comics, an Albuquerque store.

The title character of Deer Woman, published by Native Realities, becomes a superhero and guardian of Native women after facing an assault. Readers learn self-defense techniques from the character, which comes from traditional storytelling and was developed for graphic novel by writer Elizabeth Lapensée, who also creates Native-themed video games.

Indigenous PopX—the Native version of Comic-Con—gives Native artists their own publicity platform. Click To Tweet

Francis has also taken pen to paper, crafting a story called “Six Killer,” illustrated by Alvitre. “It’s Alice in Wonderland meets ‘Kill Bill,’ but in Cherokee country,” Francis says. “It’s about a young woman seeking revenge for the murder of her sister.”

Panels from the story “Coyote and the Pebbles” (story by Dayton Edmonds, art by Micah Farritor) from
Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection (Fulcrum).

Such vigorous, empowered characters signal an about-face from what Alvitre calls the “erasure culture” of the first half of the 20th Century, when indigenous people were relegated to the shadows of popular storytelling as either background characters or villains.

“It perpetuated the myth that we are these animalistic creatures and all we do is kill cowboys, that an Indian is a shirtless male with a loincloth and feather headdress,” Alvitre says. “It helped embed stereotypes with not only adults but also children first introduced to comics and western novels.”

Michael Sheyahshe tracked the evolution of those portrayals in his 2016 book, Native Americans in Comic Books (McFarland). Over time Native images improved slightly, with the occasional portrayal of a Native American as a naïve hero.

Slow Progress

At the same time, from the 1930s to the 50s, a stereotype of what Sheyahshe calls the “white Indian” or “wannabe” emerged.

“The white person becomes a better Indian than the Indians,” Sheyahshe explains. “He can do a better job at hunting, for example. I call this the Mohican syndrome for the main character in The Last of the Mohicans, who is white.”

Gold Key Comics in the 1950s birthed Turok, the first, and one of the longest-running, major Native comic book heroes. Turok, about a warrior who travels back in time to fight dinosaurs, ran for two decades and became a video game. Marvel Comics created the next major Native characters: X-Men member Thunderbird and
Red Wolf.

But Sheyahshe says both characters, products of the “Red Power” movement of the 1960s and 70s, came with their own clichés. “Thunderbird is a proud Native person but quite angry,” Sheyahshe says. “He’s a stereotypical angry person representing people of color and trying to give voice to some of their grievances.”

Red Wolf, meanwhile, is flawed for his clichéd “animalistic or totemic” persona, Sheyahshe asserts, and because his power comes from a Native god. “The stereotype of the Native is he is always spiritual or has New Age workings,” he says. “While I can celebrate the character, it has some issues. It’s not without its faults.”

Like other indigenous writers and artists, Sheyahshe authors his own work, which has a foothold in fantasy while rewriting the narrative of his people to reflect a more truthful telling of history. Sheyahshe, who is Caddo—a tribe rooted in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana—has edited, along with Lapensée, a third volume of Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection (Alternate History Comics), an anthology of graphic stories.

A Sheyahshe work in the first volume is a twist on a story from Caddo oral tradition and imagines a futuristic home for the Caddo people.

“The backstory is we get fed up and we’re going to have our own world,” Sheyahshe says. “I take these twins—Thunder and Lightning are their traditional names; in my story they are Strike & Bolt—and set them up with futuristic work and technology and all this cool stuff.”

Many Native graphic artists incorporate science fiction and time travel into their stories. Click To Tweet

Time travel, along with shifting from place to place, is a theme in many Native graphic novel and comic book stories. Travel into the future, in particular, underscores the continuance of Native peoples.

Cosplayer Casey Winter’s Captain Native America costume is also a nod to the original Captain America.

Grace Dillon, editor of Walking the Clouds (University of Arizona), an anthology of Native science fiction stories written in traditional narrative, coined the literary phrase “indigenous futurisms” to describe the ability to slip in and out of different times and locations.

“It could be parallel universes; it could be alternative realities,” says Dillon, a member of the Anishinaabe nation and a professor of Indigenous Nations studies at Portland State University in Oregon. “We grew up with that in our ceremonial stories. That’s why so many Native people have really picked up on indigenous futurisms.”

Straddling Two Worlds

The rise of a Native American comic book festival, Native-owned publishing houses and even literary terminology shows that Native artists and writers are wary about collaborating outside the community in fear of diluting their story even further.

Artist Jeffrey Veregge melds Native American symbols with non-indigenous characters.

Artist Matt Dembicki met resistance from Native American artists and writers when he began recruiting to assemble a comic book collection of Native “trickster” tales. (Trickster stories are folk tales whose characters, often animals, use cunning to fly in the face of convention; they usually impact the natural world—a coyote creates the stars by tossing pebbles in the sky, for instance.)

“A couple of writers were very forward and said, ‘You’re a white guy. Why would we want to work with you on this?’” recounts Dembicki, who, as the son of Polish immigrants, learned English from comic books.

Dembicki put some fears to rest once he got Joseph Bruchac, respected Native American writer, on board. But even then some writers had to check with their tribal elders before lending their talents to the project.

The elders ultimately decided that “anyway we can reach out to help preserve our culture is a good thing,” Dembicki says. The 2010 anthology, Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection (Fulcrum), became one of the best-selling Native-themed graphic novels.

Indigenous artists and writers are becoming more comfortable marrying tradition with themes from outside Native circles.

Artist Jeffrey Veregge, of the S’Klallamn tribe in Washington state, has embraced the “formline design” style popular among Northwest tribes. The style is notable for its use of curved outlines such as ovoids and U shapes, but Veregge says he makes the style more contemporary.

Where his ancestors used a shape traditionally to depict, say, a feather, Veregge says he updates the feather by applying its “essence”—flight—to his work. The feather then forms the shape of a superhero’s cape or indicates a jet’s propulsion. “The spirit is the same as what my ancestors did, but I’m not just telling my people’s story,” the artist, 45, says.

“I’m doing mainstream work with a very Native voice,” he adds. “I’m an artist of the times.”

Veregge has worked on Transformers, GI Joe, Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy books, to name a few, as well as many Marvel covers, including a reboot of Red Wolf. His Marvel work is on exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York through January 20.

Native storytellers and artists often work traditional motifs into contemporary work. Click To Tweet

“I got to do a cover for the 300th issue of The Spectacular Spider-Man. To put your fingerprints on these characters that you love is awesome. All I’ve ever wanted was to play in their sandbox,” Veregge says of mainstream publishers. “It’s also inspired me to say now that I’ve played there, what are the stories I want to tell?”

Veregge is quick with a response to his own question.

“I want heroes that are Native, but it’s not entirely their identity; I don’t want the stereotype. I want my characters to have Native influences, but to be Native in today’s world. I’m Native, and everything I do and say has been informed by my heritage and upbringing. But I’m still part of this world. I don’t have long hair. I don’t travel in a canoe.”

A story Veregge drew for the Moonshot anthology underscores the point. Tapping his tribe’s reliance on fishing, his story, “Sisters,” features a fishing village. He modeled the main characters on his mother and aunt.

A drawing of the medicine woman Toypurina by artist and storyteller Weshoyot Alvitre.

“We’re clam diggers, but we like a good piece of gossip, too,” Veregge says, citing some of the storyline. “Everybody has family members who like to talk about other family members. We’re not any different.”

Some Native American fans embrace the approach of straddling indigenous and non-Native worlds.

Cosplayer Casey Winter, 32, of the Osage nation from the Midwest Plains, showed up at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego wearing his own creation—a Captain Native America costume.

The red, white and blue getup was strikingly similar to the Captain America uniform, but with indigenous touches—feathers around a shield emblazoned with Native patterns and an arrowhead shape inside the “A” on his cap.

Winter, a project manager at a San Francisco shipyard, says he wanted his costume to represent indigenous people but also to be familiar to others in costume at Comic-Con.

“I understand how having Captain America have anything to do with indigenous people could be disarming, but he is a symbol of overwhelming good,” Winter says. “That should not necessarily end at one particular race or group of people. That character is bigger than a border.”

Setting Native comic book and graphic novel characters in and out of their communities could help advance what Alvitre, the Tongva artist, predicts will be a move by indigenous content into mainstream pop culture.

“Once the studios have exhausted the superhero genre they’re going to be looking for new storylines,” Alvitre says. “There’s such a wealth of stories in Native comics but also historical stories. We have the ceremonial culture but we also have our story in the context of colonialism and what people have had to do to survive. There’s an entire genre of indigenous perspective that has never been given the time of day.”


For more articles in our Native Trails Series, see below:
Native Trails
A Relay Through Time
Throwing Darts
The Pulse of Native Rhythms
Revival From the EARTH

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