This past semester I had the opportunity to take a new class within the English department here at Kutztown University: Native American Women Writers. Its funny- I wasn’t supposed to be in this class. I was interested in it immediately last spring once I saw posters for it, but no matter how hard I tried to fit it into my schedule it couldn’t in conjunction with another course that I desperately wanted to take that would finish out another one of my minors.
In the end, none of the finagling matter as the other course had low enrollment and during winter break I got an email telling me I would need to find another course as the one was dropped. So, I ended up back here, which was for the best as I’ve learned an astronomical amount within this course and was introduced to the wonderful world of indigenous literature- and specifically comics. I started collecting comics my freshman year here at Kutztown, and although people don’t typically mean indigenous comics within that context I’m more than happy to. As my final project I’m happy to present to you 4 Indigenous comics that you need to read.
- Hero Twins Vol. 1
The Basics: Hero Twins is written and illustrated by Dale Ray Deforest (Navajo), and was published by Native Realities Press in 2017, although Deforest also has the 2016 Kickstarter version available for purchase on his website.
The Story: Following the storytelling tradition of Navajo people, the Hero Twins act as mythic heroes and protectors not altogether unlike many heros taught within the classical canon of mythology. The story is inspired by the Navajo creation myth wherein the titular Hero Twins are taken from that context and mixed with the modern idea of a superhero to create something entirely new. This first installment acts as a sort of origin story wherein Changing Woman (another mythic Navajo figure) must survive along wither her babies who are predestined to help save the world. The artwork is nuanced and yet familiar for superhero fans and is engaging and vibrant.
Why It’s Important: What Hero Twins does so wonderfully is introduce native spirituality and mythology which is something relatively unknown within popular culture. In a world where my 5th grade class was taught Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief with the goal of learning all about the deities and heroes of the classical Greek canon, it seems strange that we haven’t given the same focus to indgenous people whose land we’re living on. These people and cultures still exist, however our education system still largely focuses on history that presents people with nonjudeo-christian beliefs as if they’re absolute fiction and come from people who no longer exist, which does a disservice to these people by closing off any conversation. In reading comics that feature such-action packed and engaging stories about indegenous mythologies we can better understand their culture while also recognizing that they, as a people, haven’t “died out” as people seem to think they have. This allows us to start a conversation where people can become more educated on indegenous people and their beliefs outside of a historical context.
Note: I am not saying this is a comic book that depicts someone’s literal beliefs but that it is inspired by actual cultural beliefs and stories and is a representation of some of those things.
- Sixkiller Vol. 1
The Basics: Sixkiller (Volume 1) is written by Lee Francis IV (Pueblo of Laguna), and illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva). The first volume was published by Native Realities Press and released in June 2018. Sixkiller, is one of the two comics we explored in class- but is easily my favorite on this entire list. I, like many others in my class after reading it, am anxiously awaiting the next installment.
The Story: Native Realities describes Sixkiller as “Alice In Wonderland meets Kill Bill set in Cherokee Country,” and this first issue certainly gives off those vibes, although at this beginning stage of the story- we aren’t quite at the revenge stage implied via Kill Bill, but I strongly believe that when we get there it’ll be just a bloody and possibly even more satisfying. The story follows Alice Sixkiller whose sister is violently murdered before the comic starts. Alice is institutionalized in a mental hospital to treat her schizophrenia and must navigate her journey for revenge through grief, and the complications involved with her schizophrenia.
Why It’s Important: Mental health within American society carries a heavy stigma, this is doubly true for psychoactive disorders like schizophrenia wherein people assume all schizophrenic people are delusional and violent. These stigmas are worse for people of color and indgeneous people who are traditionally stereotyped as exceedingly violent people by racial association alone. To even discuss the mental health of an indegenous woman who seeks violent retribution is dangerous within the context of these stereotypes. However with an indgenous person writing the story there isn’t the sort of “all mentally ill people are dangerous and detriments to society” ideology that is often found within white media.
Within the make-believe context imposed by the Alice in Wonderland themes, Sixkiller is able to explore these stigmas and stereotypes. Her mental illness is not up for debate but Sixkiller thoroughly separates Alice’s choices and actions as her own apart from the sometimes false or exaggerated reality she experiences from her mental illness. This creates a dialogue about mental health and violence wherein Alice’s violence has a clear and personal motivation outside of her mental illness which doesn’t define her or her existence (although it alters both). Sixkiller takes us away from the familiar discourse surrounding violence, race, and mental illness and instead allows these things and grief to coexist without demanding an intersecting explanation or casting moral judgment on Alice because of her mental illness.
- Pemmican Wars (A Girl Called Echo Vol. 1)
The Basics: Pemmican Wars (A Girl Called Echo) is written by Katherena Vermette (Métis), and illustrated by Scott B. Henderson. The comic debuted in March 2018, and is published by Highwater Press. The second installment, titled Red River Resistance, was released March 2019, and volume 3, Northwest Resistance is set to release February 25th, 2020. This comic was recommended to my by an illustrator friend who had seen pictures of the art freebooted onto someone else’s instagram. During one of our coffee dates I had gone off on a tangent about Sixkiller’s art, and she in turn offered up this series as one I might appreciate– which I 100% did, I already preordered the third issue and although the point of this list isn’t to recommend books, I can’t recommend this one enough.
The Story: I’ve read both of the currently available issues, so to avoid any spoilers, I’m going to let the Amazon book listing explain this first issue: “Echo Desjardins, a 13-year-old Métis girl adjusting to a new home and school, is struggling with loneliness while separated from her mother. Then an ordinary day in Mr. Bee’s history class turns extraordinary, and Echo’s life will never be the same. During Mr. Bee’s lecture, Echo finds herself transported to another time and place—a bison hunt on the Saskatchewan prairie—and back again to the present. In the following weeks, Echo slips back and forth in time. She visits a Métis camp, travels the old fur-trade routes, and experiences the perilous and bygone era of the Pemmican Wars.”
Why It’s Important: The entire A Girl Called Echo series tackles a big problem for both present day indgenous people and white folks in the lack of indegenous education. Due to how curriculum is set federally within the USA some eras and topics are cut to ensure “really important things” are fit into the traditional school schedule. This traditionally excludes education on indegenous people, people of color, civil rights, LGBT rights, and anything else deemed “controversial” by our incredibly white, straight, legislature. By having Echo learn about her people’s history the series educates readers about the Métis people’s history and highlights the lingering threads of colonization that govern Echo’s life in the present day.
Most people will tell you that history has no bias, because historical fact is “factual” when in reality someone was paid by an institution to transcribe specific events and perspectives until our historical tradition is nothing more than a sanitized interpretation of events rather than a black-and-white unbiased account of things. Indgeneous history is often discussed as a non-issue because the predominant notion in american culture is that there aren’t indgenous people anymore, or that there aren’t enough left to make discussing their and our continent’s history worth it or profitable for the american education system. Which is fucked up, American history is Indegenous history that was hijacked by British colonizers until the term ‘American history’ meant white history. In recent years things have gotten better for people of color, and LGBT people as their stories (still sanitized) have been included in more curriculum. This isn’t true for indegenous people but by reading and sharing comics that highlight indegenous history that can start to change too.
- Deer Woman: An Anthology
The Basics: Deerwoman: An Anthology as an anthology features multiple comics written by various indgeneous peoples of multiple nations, but was edited by Elizabeth LaPensée (Anishinaabe Métis, and Irish) and Wexhoyot Alvitre (Tongva). It was published by Native Realities Press in 2017. Although we read and discussed this anthology in class, the work itself wasn’t new to me. It had been assigned in a class the semester prior and immediately cemented itself in my life due to how it discusses the principle of violence within the lives of indegenous women and how violence can be empowering despite the cultural context wherein it is restricted to being oppressive. What can I say, as seen with my enthusiasm over Sixkiller, I’m a sucker for women who kick-ass.
The Story: Based on LaPensée’s original Deer Woman comic, this anthology features multiple comics that all feature work from more than a dozen indegenous women that all explores the deity-like Deer Woman who is a protector of women, and also a source of empowerment for women. Each work explores survival, empowerment, healing, allyship, sisterhood, and violence as a mode of empowerment and a reclamation of power. Each work reimagines Deer Woman in relation to violence against indegenous women wherein sometimes women become Deer Woman, other times they borrow her powers to save themselves or others, and sometimes simply feature women whose strength and dedication to resistance emulates Deer Woman.
Why It’s Important: Having read this anthology twice for two different WGS classes, it’s hard to list all the great work it does. It might be easier to tell you what Deer Woman doesn’t discuss throughout it’s multiple comics. The main goal of the anthology was to create a work that was easily accessable and readable that maintained a dialouge about violence against women within various contexts. The predominant context is domestic violence and sexual assault, although violence against queer women, and violence within the context of verbal abuse is also featured. Despite the grim and serious sounding topics the anthology ends up being a celebration of strong women and the empowerment found in standing against their abusers, supporting other indegenous women, and indegenous culture (which is part of these women, as all of our cultures are a part of us). In this meta context the entire anthology embodies the spirit of Deer Woman by taking these stories wherein women have to endure violence and linking them all through empowerment to the point where I, upon finishing the anthology, feel inspired by the enduring strength of these indegenous women instead of focused on the violence.
This resilience is immensely important for indegenous women who went from living in a very equal and fluid society to one where gender roles and power imbalances are celebrated. In this context the anthology discusses the lasting and oppressive effects of colonization and colonizer-culture via the old-age belief that women are lesser than men. I know that’s not something you learned in history class, but converting indgenous people to “civilized” life included a change to 1700’s ideas about gender where in most places women weren’t even considered legal citizens with rights. Deer Woman starts an open dialouge about violence against women, but also the larger violence commited by colonization from where this violence originated. By continuing this dialogue we can bring awareness to the disproportionate amount of indegenous women who experience these types of violence, go missing, and lose their lives as a result. Unfortunatly in the American legal system women and children aren’t valued and cases of domestic violence, rape, and abuse are often ignored. Awareness isn’t enough but- it’s a start.