- “Good Relationships Mean Good Lives”Warrior-Survivor Identity/ies in David Alexander Robertson’s 7 Generations1
David Alexander Robertson’s graphic novel 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, moves backwards and forwards through and overlaps time in order to connect remembered stories and current experiences to Indigenous identities in Canada. This graphic novel, rendered in colour, was first published as four individual black-and-white comics with coloured covers: Stone, Scars, Ends/ Begins, and The Pact. The series follows the protagonist, Edwin, as he listens to the stories his mother and father tell him about his Plains Cree2 ancestors and family in order to help him heal after his attempted suicide. Although the stories embody the personal histories of Edwin’s ancestors, they may also be understood as representative of the stories of many Indigenous peoples in Canada. The narrative spans across more than 200 years of Canadian history: the first issue unfolds primarily in the early nineteenth century; the second progresses through the smallpox epidemic of 1870-71; the third follows Edwin’s father in a residential school in the 1960s; and the final issue continues Edwin’s father’s story and concludes, full circle, in 2010. At the end of this fourth book, The Pact, Edwin and his father, James, walk alongside a river, which becomes the site of their reconciliation. In this essay, I argue that Edwin’s warrior-survivor identity is shaped in an interrelationship with the river that embodies his past and present ancestors.
7 Generations can be situated within a larger body of work by Indigenous authors and illustrators in Canada, who use the graphic novel to represent and advocate for [End Page 39] a variety of social justice issues that pertain to First Nations peoples. Between 2008 and 2013, the Healthy Aboriginal Network published fourteen comic books dealing with a range of issues including gambling, bullying, sexuality, and health. In 2009, David Alexander Robertson published his first graphic novel, The Life of Helen Betty Osborne, illustrated by Madison Blackstone. In 2010, Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas published Red: A Haida Manga; in December 2011, David Alexander Robertson and Scott Henderson collaborated on their second graphic novel Sugar Falls, based on the residential school experiences of Betty Ross, an Elder from Cross Lake First Nation; and in 2014, Robertson published the six-book graphic novel series Tales from Big Spirit.
One of the guiding questions I have been asking myself while studying this body of work, and 7 Generations in particular, is why so many writers turn to the medium of graphic novels in order to tell these stories. What can graphic novels do that other media cannot? In This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature, Rocco Versaci argues that there are three main reasons to understand comics as a sophisticated art form, and I take a combination of these reasons as a starting point for the work that graphic novels do:
1. the marginalization of the form allows creators to be subversive;
2. the self-consciousness of the form’s “graphic language” invites a close engagement with the text;
3. the graphic language “operates with a unique poetics” (Versaci 13-14).
I address all three of these reasons in my discussion of 7 Generations, specifically in relation to the way that they intersect with each other. In other words, I analyze how the subversive self-consciousness of the graphic novel’s poetics informs one of the main philosophical imperative of the series: that the past and present occur simultaneously to help shape healthy identities. In this case, 7 Generations subverts a linear and singular notion of history/ies and identity/ies by inviting a close-reading practice that also refuses linearity and singularity.
In order to analyze how 7 Generations summons this practice of simultaneous reading, I look at the cover of the first comic in the series, Stone, and then follow some of the cover’s key signifiers that flow throughout the series. The cover illustrates how the past and the present, the dead and the alive, the spiritual and the physical occupy the same space and time and in that simultaneity...