Jeremy M. Carnes, University of Central Florida
Comics studies, much like any other area of study, is demarcated along nationalist and temporal frames. While, of course, scholars do not always stay within strictly demarcated boundaries, institutions like graduate school and its attendant preliminary or comprehensive exams and dissertation encourage students to maintain a specific focus. This focus often becomes defined around nationalism and temporality, especially if those students are in humanities departments. In comics studies this means scholars will develop a focus on American comics, British comics, Franco-Belgian comics, or manga, among many others.
While these labels reveal various problems in the construction of our educational institutions, the one I am most interested in considering is the settler colonialism at the heart of “American comics.” Broad categorizations like “American comics” necessarily flattens difference, translating Justice John Marshall’s infamous ruling that Indigenous communities in the United States are “domestic dependent nations” from political and legal rhetoric into cultural and literary definitional boundaries (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 1831). As such, the bourgeoning development of Indigenous comics in the United States becomes another “exciting movement” in the development of American comics more broadly. Such a view upholds settler colonial institutions and the “protector/ward” relationship between Indigenous tribal nations and the U.S. laid down in the Marshall rulings. The relationship is similar in Canada, where the infamous “White Paper” of 1969 called, in the words of Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard, “for the blanket assimilation of the status Indian population by unilaterally removing all institutionally enshrined aspects of legal and political differentiation that distinguish First Nations from non-Native Canadians under the Indian Act.” (4). Across North America then, Indigenous literary and cultural production itself exists as an extension of the bodies already subsumed under the national banner and identity.
It is within this oppressive and settler-defined relationship that Indigenous comics have grown and where creators are demanding self-determination of their art. In the past eleven years, one of the most prolific forms of Indigenous comics publication has been the comics anthology—so prevalent in fact that the annotated bibliography focusing on Indigenous comics and graphic novels itself includes a section focused on anthologies. Publications like Trickster (2010), Native American Classics (vol. 24 of Graphic Classics, 2013), Moonshot volumes 1-3 (2016, 2017, and 2019), Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers (2016), Deer Woman: An Anthology (2017), Native Realities: Anthology One (2017) Sovereign Traces volumes 1 and 2 (2018 and 2019), This Place: 150 Years Retold (2019), and Marvel’s Indigenous Voices #1 (2020) bring Indigenous creators together from across tribal nations to help define Indigenous comics and determine Indigenous artistic practice and aesthetics in the realm of comics. These anthologies demonstrate trans-Indigenous community building that works within tribal nation specificity and across tribal differences to consider the continued artistic importance of visual stories across Indigenous relations.
In his book Trans-Indigenous Chickasaw scholar Chadwick Allen argues for the importance of “staging purposeful Indigenous juxtapositions” which he argues “develop[s] a version of Indigenous literary studies that locates itself firmly in the specificity of the Indigenous local while remaining always cognizant of the complexity of the relevant Indigenous global” (xix). This approach to Indigenous studies, rather than the more commonly comparative or that likened to a domestic dependent nation approach, “may be able to bear the complex, contingent asymmetry and the potential risks of unequal encounters borne by the preposition across. It may be able to indicate the specific agency and situated momentum carried by the preposition through. It may be able to harbor the potential change as both transitive and intransitive verb, as both noun and adjective” (xv). More than anything then, in approaching these comics that are created within global contexts, considering them within the frame of the trans-Indigenous centralizes the Indigenous at the expense of the settler nation and domestic dependency, foregrounding both the individual tribal nations within specific comics and global indigeneity as it appears across the anthology.
Take for instance the collection Sovereign Traces volume 2. This anthology includes stories from members or descendants of more than fifteen tribal nations and communities across Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. Simply by printing these stories in a collection together, editor Elizabeth LaPensée has “stag[ed] purposeful Indigenous juxtapositions” that works socially, culturally and politically in the world. The subtitle of this volume, “Relational Constellation,” highlights the central, trans-Indigenous value of kinship, which Daniel Heath Justice approximates as “an active network of connections, a process of continual acknowledgements and enactment” (42) and “chosen connections and commitments, as well as political, spiritual, and ceremonial processes that bring people into deep and meaningful affiliation” (75). Across these stories, the creators provide comics narratives that highlight trans-Indigenous understandings of kinship and connection, of a “Relational Constellation,” that are particularly poignant in the anthology form.
In Darcy Little Badger’s “Oceanographer” she tells how her name relates to the creation and emergence story of the Apache, where Badger goes from underground, where all living things dwelled, to the surface of the Earth and then returns to tell the people what it saw, leading to their emergence. Little Badger ends up providing a story about knowledge of oneself and the ways that we are built up by the communities in which we reside. The comic immediately following, “Liminal” by Michelle Lee Brown, tells of how Brown has to continually work to “remember who [she] is,” in the words of her Nana. As an Euskaldun woman from Basque, a coastal community, Brown highlights the relationships between her community and herself through her relationship to water the world over. Through relating to water, Brown highlights also the ways that we are built up by the communities in which we reside. In these two short comics, we get two tribally specific approaches to considering the value and worth of oneself, here two Indigenous women who often face ridicule, which also appears on the pages of both comics. In the juxtaposition of these comics the collection highlights the importance of the trans-Indigenous approach to community and self-determination, even while the specifics of that determination may change depending upon the community.
The connections do not stop there either. They continue across the collection, whether in the combining of Anishinaabe and Maliseet linguistic translations of Tibetan ideas of the inherent worth of people in Margaret Noodin, Henrietta Black, and Bernard Perley’s “People Were Made to Be Loved” to the fierce love of aunties in their desire to see connections between young Alaska Natives in Lucas Rowley and Dale Ray Deforest’s “Atoruk: Auntie Cameo.” In Dan Steinhart’s “Two Spirit Step” we see a visual approach to the Anishinaabe oral tradition in a comic without words. The story shows of connections between two-spirit people at a community pow-wow. Furthermore, in the final comic of the collection “Hot and Bothered,” authors Lee Francis IV and Shaun Beyale tell the story of a Native romance writer whose tribal community is not specified. Yet, even without that specification, the comic ties into trans-Indigenous ideas of kinship and communal connection. Towards the end of the comic the narrator explains, “I love women. And men. I love my own self, my own Indigeneity. My own reflection in the world around me. I love the deep pulse of night when the stars show their faces, radiant and joyful” (126). Connection, to oneself, one’s community, one’s land, and to Indigenous peoples the world over become central to this collection and highlight tribally specific as well as trans-Indigenous ways of considering kinship, which decentralizes and destabilizes settler stories about Indigenous communities, their cultural and artistic productions, and their connections, both within and across.
Akiwenzie-Damm, Kateri, Sonny Assu, Brandon Mitchell, Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, David A. Robertson, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, Jen Strom, Richard Van Camp, Katherena Vermette, Chelsea Vowel, Tara Audibert, Kyle Charles, GMB Chomichuk, Natasha Donovan, Scott A. Ford, Scott B. Henderson, Ryan Howe, Andrew Lodwick, and Donovan Yaciuk. This Place: 150 Years Retold. Highwater Press, 2019.
Allen, Chadwick. Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies. U of Minnesota P, 2012.
Coulthard, Glen Sean. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. U of Minnesota P, 2014.
Daigneault, Taylor, Amy Mazowita, Candida Rifkind, and Camille Callison. “Indigenous Comics and Graphic Novels: An Annotated Bibliography” Jeunesse 11.1 (2019): ii-xxxvi.
Dembicki, Matt (ed). Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection. Fulcrum Books, 2010.
Graphic Classics: Native American Classics, Volume 24. Eureka Productions, 2013.
Henry Jr., Gordon and Elizabeth LaPensée (eds.). Sovereign Traces, Volume 1: Not (Just) (An)Other. Michigan State UP, 2018.
Justice, Daniel Heath. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Wilfried Laurier UP, 2018.
LaPensée, Elizabeth (ed). Sovereign Traces, Volume 2: Relational Constellation. Michigan State UP, 2019.
LaPensée, Elizabeth and Michael Sheyahshe (eds.). Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 2. Alternate History Comics, Inc., 2019.
LaPensée, Elizabeth and Weshoyot Alvitre (eds.). Deer Woman: An Anthology. Native Realities Press, 2017.
Nicholson, Hope (ed.) Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 1. Alternate History Comics Inc., 2016.
—. Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 2. Alternate History Comics, Inc., 2017.
Starr, Arigon (ed.). Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, Volume 1. Native Realities Press, 2016.