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  • “A Necessary Antidote”:Graphic Novels, Comics, and Indigenous Writing
  • Sarah Henzi

In February 2014, prior to the XLVIII Super Bowl, the National Congress of American Indians created a 2-minute ad called “Proud to Be” as a response to the Washington football team’s unwillingness to change its offensive name of Washington Redskins. Dubbed “The Most Important Super Bowl Ad You Didn’t See” by Huffington Post journalist Ben Irwin, the ad “takes the seemingly complicated issue of Indian sports mascots and distills it with remarkable clarity” by “[highlighting] many aspects of Native American identity: Proud. Forgotten. Survivor. Mother. Father. Son. Daughter. Underserved. Struggling. Resilient. ‘Native Americans call themselves many things,’ the narrator concludes. ‘One thing they don’t call themselves, however, is Redskin’” (Irwin). Although the ad did not make the airwaves during the Super Bowl, it has since reached over 3 million views, bringing to the forefront questions of appropriateness, appropriation, and the continued predominance of racist stereotypes in many icons linked to popular culture and mainstream mass media. Some examples include Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, Ottawa Tomahawks, and Edmonton Eskimos; there is an undeniable history of the use of inappropriate sporting mascots and names across North America.

“Comics, games, movies, and television,” states Michael Sheyahshe, author of Native Americans in Comic Books, “have always been a way to gauge how we, as a culture, are viewed by the dominant culture in America. Whether it’s the whooping, attacking horde of Indians in the early ‘cowboy’ movies, the notion of Native American as a crack-shot and/or expert tracker in comics, or the continued (mis) representation in video games […] pop culture media serves to mirror the emotional consensus of how mainstream America sees us” (LaPensée). This ongoing issue, according to Sheyahshe, warrants the need for “Indigenous people [to] become more creatively involved in these various aspects of popular culture”; for popular culture [End Page 23] is just as important to modern storytelling as are traditional art forms. Thus, this article explores how alternative, subversive forms of storytelling—such as the comic book and the graphic novel—are “a necessary antidote to the conventional history of the Americas” (Hill, back cover): these types of productions—or rather interventions —call for a necessary change in world-view, a reflection on the direct link to a past of colonialism, and the undeniable connection to a contemporaneity of imperialism. More specifically, I am interested in an analysis of how the graphic novel and/ or comic book is fast becoming a genre of choice for a new generation of Indigenous writers. As Darren Préfontaine suggests, “the popularity of this format shows—as demonstrated by Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis—complex issues such as the life of Louis Riel, the Holocaust, or the Iranian Revolution can be told well in this medium. So well, that these graphic novels have become secondary school and university textbooks, and are now part of the popular culture canon” (Préfontaine v). Thus, through an examination of Gord Hill’s The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, David Alexander Robertson’s The Life of Helen Betty Osborne, and Richard Van Camp’s Kiss Me Deadly, this article considers the current value of popular culture in its ability to speak beyond linguistic, cultural, and intergenerational gaps, while bringing the mythical up-to-date with the contemporary within new spaces of diffusion and discussion.

In his preface to The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, Gord Hill, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation (Northwest Coast, British Columbia), writes that in order “to understand the world we live in today, it is vital to know our history. Unfortunately, the history we are taught through the educational system and corporate entertainment industry is false […] The story of our ancestors’ resistance is minimized, at best, or erased entirely […] The purpose of The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book is to raise the levels of historical understanding and warrior spirit among Indigenous peoples and others” (5-6). Author and activist Ward Churchill, in his introduction to Hill’s work, admits that at first, when asked to write it, he had “a considerable...


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pp. 23-38
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