In his 2008 book Native Americans in Comic Books, Native American writer Michael A. Sheyahshe of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, examines the problematic ways in which Native People’s have been portrayed in comics.
Sheyahshe identifies seven primary issues:
- The Mohican Syndrome or ‘white-man-becoming-Indian’
- Multi-ethnic heroes or ‘suffering for mixed heritage (not being able to ‘fit in’)’
- Indian as Sidekick
- The Indians Sidekick or ‘animal/spirit animal sidekicks’
- Instant Shaman or ‘Indigenous people as innately spiritual, shamanistic/mystic.’
Sheyahshe provides readers with a funny but spot on rebuttal to this common stereotype “No one truly expects everyone of Irish ancestry to somehow transform into a Celtic priest of old” or for that matter a Catholic priest (Sheyahshe, 2008:55) so why do audiences believe in an Instant Shaman?
- Indigenous Trackers Union or ‘Indigenous people as trackers and supernatural sensory perception.’
- Indigenous Characters as Historical Artifacts
Let’s unpack this last one a little. Time is a hard concept to grasp so its no wonder that humans tend to view the past only in the past and as such tend to place historical cultures solely in historical settings despite the people and cultures continuity. The argument to be made is that often Native representation in comics is based on outdated depictions and stereotypes rooted in colonizing ideology. The ‘noble savage’ is a pervasive stereotype depicted in media in which Indigenous characters are feared for their inherent violent natures, yet there is an interest in Indigenous knowledge without really knowing what that even means. Consumers of these comics look for what it meant to be Indigenous before colonization while simultaneously viewing these Native characters through the lens of a colonizer. Visual elements such as feathers, leather clothing, and bows and arrows act as historical costumes and “serve to exemplify the iconographic stereotypes that other media have used over the years” (Sheyahshe, 2008:98). Character motifs like the 7 identified by Michael A. Sheyahshe further solidify these stereotypes and provide little space for Native agency. He stresses the importance of seeing Indigenous people in modern contexts without being relics of the past. In Chapter 7 ‘Sepia-Toned Prison: Indigenous Characters as Historical Artifacts’ Michael A. Sheyahshe quotes Jon Proudstar, creator of Tribal Force (Sheyahshe, 2008:94)
“People and or companies tend to blanket Native characters into the best-known stereotypes from the Old West. It is from that period that they see us in our finest hour. Little do they realize that the Natives of that time were scared fathers and mothers defending their children and way of life from foreign invaders. Of course, we were at our finest at that time. Much like the Americans during 9/11. That was a horrific event, but it brought out the very best in all of us. Americans seem to forget that our 9/11 is when the boats hit our beaches” – Jon Proudstar.
There are 573 federally recognized Nations in America, and countless more unrecognized yet few accurate representations exist of Native Peoples in popular media. However, there is an increasing amount of Native creators and publishers such as Native Realities, a publisher focused exclusively on Native creators and in 2017 the first ever Indigenous Comic Con was held in Albuquerque New Mexico (For information on the 2018 ICC).
To get you started, here are 5 comics representing Indigenous Peoples
Giant-Size X-Men (1975) #1 Introducing Thunderbird
- Turok: Dinosaur Hunter
- Tales of The Mighty Code Talkers, VOL. 1 edited by Arigon Starr (available in digital form from Native Realities)
- Tribal Force by Jon Proudstar (available in digital form from Native Realities)
Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection Vol. 1
The first two feature some of the problematic issues we discussed above, yet they are among the most famous representations. Compare and contrast these two with the rest of the list. What differences did you find? Could you pick out any of the 7 character motifs Michael A. Sheyahshe identified? What are some Native comic creators or Native characters that you love?