The portrayal of Native Americans in American popular media has undergone a number of changes over the past several hundred years. With that in mind, CBR News interviewed eight professionals in and around the comics industry to learn more about their perspectives on the portrayal of Native Americans in comics, past and present. Our participants include:
- Jason Aaron (“The Other Side,” “Scalped”)
- David Mack (“Daredevil,” “Kabuki”)
- Jeff Mariotte (“Desperadoes”)
- Jay Odjick (“The Raven”)
- Robert Schmidt (“Peace Party”)
- Michael Sheyahshe (“Native Americans in Comics”)
- Tim Truman (“Scout,” “Turok: Dinosaur Hunter”)
- Mark Waid (“Brave and the Bold,” “52”)
Some of the earliest depictions of Native Americans in American fiction were in the dime novels that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. To the frontiersmen marching ever westward, the indigenous peoples of the United States were little more than savage heathens, an obstacle to be overcome on their path to manifest destiny. And it was in these dime novels that the groundwork was laid for what would become the prevailing image of Native Americans for decades to come.
With the advent of the motion picture in the early 20th century, the medium that would one day supplant literature as the primary mode of American escapism, adopted a similarly skewed view of Native Americans. The Western genre was as popular in the action-adventure serials as it was in dime novels, and the serialized storytelling from which the weekly installments got their name, as well as the cliffhanger plot device that the serial pioneered, were just a few of the ways that early film influenced the burgeoning medium of comics when the comic book first penetrated the public consciousness in the 1930s.
Comics, too, were quick to jump on the Western bandwagon (pun intended), and in the earliest days of the medium, Native peoples were, for the most part, portrayed in a less than favorable light. Then a curious thing happened: the concept of the noble savage began to take hold, as epitomized by the Lone Ranger’s traditionally simple-minded Native sidekick, Tonto.
“For a long time, the Western mythology was about the tough white man standing tall against the red savages,” writer Jeff Mariotte said. “That was eventually replaced, or at least joined, by the idea of the noble savage. Western comics grew out of those same contradictory mythologies – more the former than the latter, since the creators and readers were white, or were presumed to be, and because the stories were relatively simplistic good vs. evil tales of heroism.”
“In terms of heroic fiction, I think, sadly, everything we know about Native Americans was defined by Tonto,” veteran comic-book scribe Mark Waid said. “And that’s really sort of unfortunate and it’s a very narrow definition. And I think that as Native Americans started to really find their own voice in pop culture in the ’70s and ’80s, shamanism and mysticism became a little more prominent in the nation’s culture, and that helped comics writers and adventure writers find new and interesting things to do with Native American characters. But there’s still probably a long way to go.”
Indeed, as Waid attested, as the years wore on, the noble-savage sidekick eventually rode off into the sunset. But the stereotype that so stubbornly stood the test of time had all but become the Native archetype, and Native American characterization to this day, in comics and elsewhere, remains mired in a laundry list of misrepresentative stereotypes. The image of the stoic Native shaman sporting an ensemble of leather and feathers has been so ingrained in North America’s collective unconscious that even Natives themselves have difficulty divesting themselves of this self-image.
As cultural identity is at once informed by both one’s own people’s perceptions as well as those of others, it becomes difficult for Native peoples to reconcile the cultural construct that has been imposed upon them by America’s dominant race with the often-contradictory messages that are imparted to them through their people’s oral traditions.
Author Timothy Truman admitted that he himself has, at times, been guilty of leaning on the tired stereotype of the Native shaman. “With my stories, however, I tried to strike a balance and base things on research,” Truman said. In Truman’s eyes, there are three reasons that writers fall back on this kind of characterization: Because magic and mysticism is “cool and mysterious,” it is an iconic tool, and because it’s a way of superficially applying Native traits to a character saving the writer the burden of more thorough research.
Comic-book writer Jason Aaron (“Scalped”) was of the same mind. “Once upon a time, I’m sure it seemed like a novel way to portray Native Americans and was probably a real advance over the ‘savage redskin’ portrayal,” he said. “But these days, it’s usually just a bland, watered-down way of touching upon traditional Native American religions without really containing any substance.”
“There are many elements that are over-used when telling stories that include Native American people,” Michael Sheyahshe said. So many, in fact, that Sheyahshe wrote a book about it. “I go into more detail about what these stereotypes are, what they mean, where they come from, and how they stack up to reality in ‘Native Americans in Comic Books.’ Even those stories created with the best intentions fall into these stereotypical traps. Thus, it becomes important that we not only identify these issues, but devise ways to overcome these negative elements.”
“It’s somewhat natural to think of Indians and the supernatural,” said Blue Corn Comics publisher Robert Schmidt. “The traditional Indian talks of being in harmony with or linked to nature, the universe, the Great Spirit. If you want to do a pro-Indian comic, you want to reflect these values, so your heroes tend to have some connection to mystical forces. The question is not so much whether creators do it, but whether they overdo it,” Schmidt explained. “For your first few Native characters, it’s understandable to give them a connection with the natural and supernatural worlds. But for the 10th or 100th Native character, it’s time to do something new.”
Mariotte doesn’t necessarily agree that the mystical aspects of Native culture have been overused. “Probably certain aspects have been, but others have barely been touched on, and I think most readers don’t know much about them,” Mariotte said. “Most Americans, for instance, think of Geronimo as a war chief of the Apache. In fact, he was a shaman who believed himself magically protected from the bullets of the Europeans. He remained unwounded through the longest war in America’s history, so who’s to say he wasn’t right? I would love to see more serious attention paid to the culture and beliefs of the First Americans in comics.”
There is also an argument to be made that elements like Native mysticism are simply congruent with that mainstay of the mainstream marketplace, the superhero story. As a child, getting an earful of Native American stories from his Cherokee uncle on the one hand, and more than his recommended daily requirement of comic books on the other, a young David Mack recognized that the two shared many a common theme. “Native American stories were very similar and congruent with our superhero stories, these incredible archetype stories where, basically, it’s a morality play, where someone learns to use whatever their unique thing is, even if it’s using a handicap as a strength, that ends up saving the tribe, or helping the good of their tribe or their area,” Mack said. Sheyahshe said that he has frequent conversations with his wife, a fiction writer in her own right, about myth and heroism and their place in stories. “Some of these more overused elements are endemic to the idea of hero in general. However, it is the vehicle by which these powers or heroism presents itself that sometimes push the story over to the stereotypic side of the scale.” Dr. Strange’s mysticism and Storm’s weather control powers do not stem from their cultural identity, for example, whereas characters like Shaman and Sarah Rainmaker “both have super-power due in large part to them being Native American.”
So there would seem to be a fine line to walk in the portrayal of Native American characters. Characters who are Native American in name alone may invite charges of tokenism, but superficial, stereotypical portrayals are just as culturally insensitive.
“To me, it’s always more interesting when characters reflect their heritage and background in real and significant ways,” Mariotte said. And this seems to get to the heart of the matter: Those overused aspects of Native life and culture aren’t offensive in and of themselves, it’s how they are portrayed that makes or breaks a stereotype. Portraying shamanism as an easily and arbitrarily attainable superpower is in effect trivializing that important aspect of Native culture.
“Native people aren’t really all natural trackers, for example,” said Jay Odjick, the Native American creator of “The Raven.” “If you have a character in a book or movie who knows how to track animals because he grew up learning how, and it makes logical sense, then I don’t have an issue with it.”
Even though creators in the comic book medium have certainly been guilty of perpetuating the misrepresentative Eurocentric construct of Native Americans, the question becomes, is today’s comics landscape a viable platform for counter-appropriating said myths by portraying this continent’s indigenous people in a more accurate light? Furthermore, can the medium of comics be used to raise awareness about the problems that haunt Native peoples to this day?
One such problem is the living conditions on Reservations. “Someone once asked me, to my surprise, what the answer was to problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, illiteracy etc. on reserves, and the only real answer is that there is no answer, rather, there are answers; you have to look at things on a case by case basis,” Odjick said. “The answers involve education, engineering, counseling, economic development, awareness, crime prevention as opposed to reaction, health care, etc. In a lot of cases, awareness needs to be raised as to living conditions on reservations both in Canada and the US, and I think if handled properly, comics, as well as other forms of entertainment, are a great way to help create that awareness.”
“Comics can be, and have been, used to address social issues in a variety of settings,” Mariotte said. “They could be used to talk to Native Americans themselves, about the necessity of preserving their own heritage and overcoming the problems thrust upon them by poverty, discrimination, substance abuse and so on. They could also be used to inform a more general audience about those issues. As always, one has to be careful of didacticism, and to couch any lessons inside entertaining stories, but comics are an ideal medium for that sort of thing. Cheaper to produce than a movie, more likely to be read than a textbook or a news article, and involving because of the way they tell stories. I’d love to see it happen, and I’d love to see a movement of Native American comics storytellers telling their own stories.”
While admittedly the current comics landscape is largely bereft of Native stories told by Native creators, this is not the case in other media. “There’s actually been really good films about that sort of thing these days by Native American filmmakers, there’s one called ‘Smoke Signals,’ there are a few other ones,” Mack said. “That stuff is probably best learned from some of the stories or films about Native American reservations by Native Americans.”
While Sheyahshe certainly agreed that there are many and varied problems facing Natives of today that do need to be addressed, it is just as important in his eyes to tell stories that promote the positive aspects of Native American culture. “In my opinion, there are far too many stories that demonstrate the problems we face, as a people and race. Everyone figures the only story we have to offer is a sob-story about the wrongs and injustices we endured over time. What is distinctly lacking, not only from comic books but from film, television, cartoons, video games, are stories that go beyond the drama toward celebration of what it means to be Indigenous. ” Another pervading problem is the disconnect between young Native Americans and their Native roots, which is due in no small part to the legacy of the so-called boarding schools that the U.S. government forced Native children to attend with an eye towards cultural assimilation.
“It’s been true for more than a century, since the U.S. government ripped Native kids away from their families and forcibly educated them in government schools,” Truman said. Native children were forced to cut their hair, and admonished if they said their own prayers or tried to practice their religious beliefs. “So much for freedoms of religion and self-expression.”
Odjick explained that the “assimilation agenda” was as prevalent in Canada as it was in the U.S. “Especially the Residential school system, in which the speaking of Native languages (as well as other cultural practices) was strictly forbidden. Given the amount of people who attended those schools (often against their will, or the will of their parents), it isn’t surprising that many people became disassociated with language, culture and heritage.”
“A lot of tribes began losing their cultural distinctiveness in the 20th century, ranging from the boarding school era in the early 1900s to the assimilation and termination phase in the 1950s and 1960s,” Schmidt said. “The people were simply too poor to succeed in their reduced circumstances, so they gave up and left. Since the ‘Indian pride’ era of the 1970s through today’s gaming explosion, I’d say they’ve stemmed the tide of adaptation. While some tribes are selling out and becoming pure capitalists, others are using their newfound income to revitalize the languages and cultures they began losing decades ago.”
Waid suggested that the estrangement from cultural heritage is not limited to Native Americans. “I think it’s just a natural outgrowth of Western culture in general,” he said. “I don’t care what your cultural heritage is, or your skin color is, you’re going to be swept up in the new electronic age where the demolishing of walls and barriers between cultures is happening at a faster and faster rate because people don’t interact anymore in person. Cultural heritage means nothing if most of your communication happens not face to face, but over text messages or on the web.”
This supposed cultural disconnect was not as evident to Schmidt and Sheyahshe, however. “Most Native people I’ve had interaction with are working to become more an integral part of the community. While, like the rest of us, they may get sidetracked along the way or become over-busy, the intrinsic need for positive changes for our people seems to remain intact,” Sheyahshe said.
“As Native peoples continue to explore avenues to increase awareness of culture and language amongst our youth, I think ground is being covered to help address these issues; as with all things, change takes time, but the wheels are in motion,” Odjick agreed.
If there was one thing that all of the participants agreed upon, it’s that there is a distinct dearth of Native American characters in comics today. “Characters like Wyatt Wingfoot, Red Wolf, Moonstar, Shaman and Forge are all on hiatus,” Schmidt said. “Manitou Raven and Echo have played a minor role in recent years, but nothing deserving mention in the grand scheme of things. The recent revivals of Rainmaker, Super-Chief, and Black Condor may signify a change, but they probably won’t.”
Odjick thinks that the problem is not limited to the portrayal of Native Americans. “Business is business, and I think the perception is that books that feature non-Caucasian characters are deemed risky in terms of potential sales,” Odjick suggested.
While Waid certainly agreed with the sentiment, the solution eluded him. “We don’t wanna go creating Native American characters just for the sake of creating Native American characters,” he said. “It’s a fine line, we want to be socially relevant and socially conscious, but at the same time it would just be way too easy to create token characters just for the sake of creating token characters.”
Odjick agreed that comics have had their share of token Native characters, but he cautioned that a character lacking in cultural awareness does not necessarily a token character make. He said that in any given conversation he has on any given day, “The subject of my heritage / religion / culture probably won’t come up. That happens in real life, and it should be reflected in art, too. I think that’s a good thing, as well as a realistic thing.”
The fact that Native characters are so carefully scrutinized by Native fans and activists could actually be contributing to the trend of under-representation. “Native people have been upset with their portrayal in the media, rightfully so, at times,” Odjick said. “But to an extent I can understand and respect that some companies and creators might be concerned about opening themselves up to that kind of criticism and controversy.”
There is, of course, a long-standing ethnocentricity that exists in much of the westernized media, which persists at the expense of all minorities. Not only are Native American characters few and far between, but historically many comics characters that have been labeled as Natives were, in actual fact, white men raised by Natives, or in some cases so-called half-breeds. Even characters who are purported to be full-blooded Native American would often be drawn with westernized features.
Sheyahshe said there were three things that contributed to that the kind of ethnocentricity: “Dominant culture, the audience or readership over the years, and finally, us, the Indigenous people being portrayed.
“The dominant culture concept is straightforward enough: Anglo culture has seemingly always felt a need to demonstrate its superiority over the ethnic, racial, or geographic ‘other,'” Sheyahshe continued. “Thus, supplanting a white character, or one that is partially white, in place where an Indigenous character would normally fit probably feels more comfortable.” Mariotte agreed on this point: “The ‘other’ is such a powerful fictional element. A white person raised by Indians is automatically the ‘other,’ both when he’s with the Indians and then when he returns to white civilization. Scalphunter, in the DC Universe, is a perfect example of that, no longer fitting in with either group.”
“This ethnocentric storytelling has occurred for so long, that change to non-white heroes seemed alien at first,” Sheyahshe said, of the audience element. “The idea has caught on, but we seem a little far behind, when counting the number of Indigenous protagonists.”
And Sheyahashe admitted that his people do shoulder their share of the responsibility. “There are way too many instances over the years of Native people allowing others to tell our stories for us. As we have done with literature and film, the time has come for us to tell our own stories in comic books as well.”
It goes without saying that creators of Native descent are more likely to produce authentic Native characters. This begs the question, then, why aren’t there more Native American creators in comics?
“Well, Indians make up only about 1% of the population, so I wouldn’t expect more than that,” Schmidt said of the disparity. “Indian creators tend to live in more rural areas, have less education, come from more unstable families. In that case, they’re less likely to be able to attend art school, visit a publisher in New York, or come up with the funds to self-publish their work.”
Odjick said there were a number of factors that may contribute to the disparity. “It always takes a while for people to branch out into new occupations that they weren’t traditionally involved in; many Native peoples are known for oral traditions and oral forms of storytelling, and we’re now starting to see that being applied into mainstream entertainment,” Odjick said.
Odjick did note that native authors, directors and producers are becoming more prevalent, and he attributed that to younger generations of Natives having the means to pursue careers in the arts. Odjick was lucky enough to have two gainfully employed parents, but when his father was fresh off the Reserve, the elder Odjick had little choice but to pursue more practical, blue-collar work. Finally, Odjick reasoned that, “this [comics] business has a finite number of job openings and is notoriously tough to break into; I wouldn’t underestimate that as a factor as well.”
Sheyahshe suggested that, often as not, the call for stereotypes comes from the highest echelons. “Comic book publishers have a very strong opinion about what people want,” Sheyahshe said. “Even when there is a highly skilled or talented individual, many times this person will be asked for what is expected.” A Native American artist, say, might be urged by the powers that be to adhere to a portrayal that most closely approximates the stereotypes that still today pervade the public consciousness. “These obstacles would probably be very frustrating to any person looking to break out of the stereotypical box by creating characters free of the usual trappings, but even more so for Indigenous people.” “Why there haven’t been a lot of Native Americans working in comics, I don’t know,” Mariotte said. “It’s not like the marriage of story with art is not as pervasive in that culture as in ours. Pictographs, or pictures that tell stories, go back just as far in North America as they do in Europe. There might be cultural differences at play. Most comics, after all, are superhero action stories, and slugfests tend not to be how Native Americans choose to solve problems.”
By all accounts, storytelling is and always has been a vital part of tribal culture, and one of the Native peoples’ best and most commonly used methods for divesting themselves of the misrepresentative cultural construct that has been imposed upon them since Europeans first set foot on American soil. But this adherence to an oral tradition is one of the reasons that Native scholars have been hesitant to embrace the form of the written narrative. A tribe’s oral stories naturally evolve and change with the times, whereas once you put pen to paper a story becomes immutably set in stone.
In David Mack’s “Daredevil” arc entitled Vision Quest, the writer’s art imitated his life as the Native character Echo recalled the tribal stories that her father had told her as a child. “These stories are reminders of how to look at life in a kind of logical way that makes sense and can be helpful,” Mack said. “Once a story is out there, it has a ripple effect that you can’t necessarily foresee, and even a story that [Echo] heard when she was younger, that sounded just like a lot of crazy stories from her dad, when she hears the story again from someone else who heard it from someone who heard it from her father, now it’s as if she hears it for the first time in a new way as an adult, and she completely understands the meaning of it in a very practical way.”
“There are a few comics that stand out as positive examples and those making attempts to shatter stereotypes,” Sheyahshe said. Sheyahshe went on to laud Jon Proudstar’s “Tribal Force,” Tim Truman’s “Scout,” and the Chickasaw nation comic, “The Chickasaw Adventures.” The latter, he says, “uses this medium to convey some of the finer points of what being Chickasaw means and why that is important. There is some mention of various hardships, but the focus is always our continuance as a people, which in itself is a pretty important concept, for both Native and non-Native people alike, to remember.”
“One book that I feel has for the most part been very even handed and fair in its approach to Native Americans is Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s ‘Jonah Hex,'” Odjick said. “Another one would have to be David Mack’s run on ‘Daredevil,’ featuring the character Echo, which I really, really did enjoy and would point out. I thought it was really ballsy to see a Native character as a love interest for a popular mainstream character such as Daredevil.”
“For every good comic there are probably 50 titles that severely misrepresent us,” Sheyahshe lamented. “Comics like ‘Red Ryder’ denigrate us with simple-minded, child-like characters like Red’s sidekick, Little Beaver. Titles like ‘Tomahawk’ (from the 1950s, not the Vertigo one-shot), ‘White Indian’ and ‘Scalphunter’ seem to convey the message that white people make better Indians than we do.”
“To say there is room for improvement for Indigenous representation in current popular media would not adequately address how much disparagement still occurs,” Sheyahshe said. “Nor would it adequately suggest that there is an urgent need for more Native authors, artists, writers, and everything in between to get out there and make things better by infiltrating the entertainment industry and reshaping those old, worn out stories into ones we can truly call our own.
“Sure, things have improved marginally overall in comics as well as many other genres, Sheyahshe continued. “But this slight improvement is not enough; it is far too little too late. We are way overdue for a major breakthrough and change across the board in every media source. I look forward to reading comic books that shatter all of these misrepresentations.”
|“Red Ryder Comics” #28||“Tomahawk” #1|
So, while the portrayal of Native Americans in comics has come a long way from the images that were popular in early American media, the skewed cultural construct that grew out of that era continues to (mis)inform Native characterization to this day. Aspects of Native culture like shamanism are not only overused but are often trivialized by their portrayal in mainstream comics: shamans are not born, but made, through years of practice and dedication.
While Native characters and themes could stand to be more prevalent in mainstream comics, tokenism and didacticism should be avoided at all cost. Some publishers are both hesitant to produce Native characters that represent a marked departure from the pervading Native cultural construct and are at the same wary of scrutiny that Native characters and themes receive from the Native community. As a result, Native stories remain firmly in the minority, and accurate portrayals number even fewer.
Comics are a viable outlet for raising awareness about the problems that face Natives to this day, like poor living conditions on Reservations and an eroding cultural identity, but it is equally important to tell stories that celebrate the positive aspects of what it means to be a Native American. While vestiges of the assimilation-era boarding-school mentality still remain, the cultural disconnect that long held sway over Native Americans may well be on its way out.
There has been something of a renaissance in recent years of Native American filmmakers and novelists, and great strides have been made in multicultural representation in film and television. But Native creators are still vastly under-represented in the medium of comic books. As Native peoples continue to adapt their oral traditions to the written form, and more and more Natives have the means and the inclination to pursue careers in the arts, hopefully Native stories told by Native creators will abound in the years to come, and the misleading cultural construct that has persisted for so many years will be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.