As part of our coverage of Native American Heritage Month, Erstwhile guest author Kerri Clement takes us inside the 2017 Indigenous Comic Con, held November 10-12 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This annual event brings together self-proclaimed “Indigenerds” from around the country to celebrate nerd life and their Indigenous heritage. Attendees show off elaborate costume constructions (or cosplay), delight in Native comic books and comic art, hone graphic design skills, attend panels about Native Americans and popular media, learn basic robotics, run from zombies, screen Native-produced films, play video games, and meet prominent Indigenous actors and cartoonists from Hollywood blockbusters. Through these activities, Indigenous nerd culture and the Indigenous Comic Con challenge historic discrimination and damaging stereotypes of Native peoples while asserting creative, inclusive, and forward-thinking Indigenous narratives.
“Indigenerds Unite!”: The slogan for the second annual Indigenous Comic Con (ICC) proved apt for the three-day-long gathering of Indigenous nerds from across the country, highlighting Native artists, actors, gamers, and comic book writers, with attendees representing fandoms from Marvel, DC, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, Big Hero 6, Wonder Woman, and Disney, to name a few. Through displays of artwork, intricate cosplay, and panel discussions, the ICC pushed back against damaging cultural stereotypes that have been generated by a history of negative media representations of Native Americans within comic books and cartoons, such as DC’s “Apache Chief” character.
Comic cons (or comic book conventions) began in the latter half of the twentieth century, with the San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) as the flagship for a veritable explosion of “cons” throughout urban centers in the United States. Since the first SDCC in 1970, modern cons have evolved from small gatherings of fans bartering over rare editions of Superman comics to multi-day extravaganzas, where thousands of fans converge to compete in costume contests, meet famous actors, and attend advance screening of blockbuster films. In recent years, large movie studios like Warner Brothers, Marvel, and Disney have begun to rely on comic cons as a cornerstone in advertisement campaigns for hit movies such as Thor, Ironman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Wonder Woman. Cons have become a place where geeks, nerds, and fans unite in their love of comic book culture.
Yet, in early (and even more recent) comic books, comic cons, cartoons, and Hollywood blockbusters, artists, writers, and fans perpetuated toxic stereotypes concerning Native Americans. Characters such as DC/Hanna Barbara’s “Apache Chief,” “Tonto” from the Lone Ranger, or Disney’s “Pecos Bill” reflect the broader historical trend of depicting Native Americans in derogatory and racist terms. The historical roots of these portrayals are inextricably tied to the settler-colonial mission of eliminating Indigenous peoples from their lands, a mission that involved dispossession, violence, and repression of Native American cultures. Harmful cultural representations are only a portion of the troubled relationship between Native peoples and Euro-American popular culture, and have continued from the fifteenth century into the twenty-first century. These injurious representations of Native peoples include (but are not limited to) the “noble savage,” “wild Indian,” “magical medicine man/woman,” “fierce warriors,” “beautiful maidens,” and “poor Indian living on the reservation/in the wilderness.” Such inaccurate and pejorative narratives too often suggest that Native peoples are products of the past. Or, as a comic book artist Arigon Starr (Kickapoo) said in a 2016 interview with VICE, “We were either shamans, mystic boogeyman, or pocahotties” (Pocahontas hotties). In short, Indigenous nerds needed their own comic con.
Begun in 2016 by Lee Francis (Laguna Pueblo), Indigenous Comic Con provides space for Native-produced cultural expression that seeks to shift narratives concerning Native Americans within popular media and culture. By highlighting Native creatives (geeks especially!), the ICC helps challenge harmful stereotypes of Native Americans in the United States. Native creatives display work, screen films, and exchange comic books that celebrate Indigenous cultures and generate conversation about Indigenous pasts, presents, and futures.
This year, the ICC’s highlights included appearances from Native actors, comic book writers, and artists. Eugene Brave Rock (Kainai) of Wonder Woman fame made an extended appearance. He posed for photos with fans and spoke about his experience with the blockbuster film and more generally about the representation of Native Americans in popular media at his panel. Lalo Alcaraz, the renowned Chicano cartoonist behind La Cucaracha and Coco, spoke about cultural appropriation and met with fans—he loved my group’s homemade Big Hero 6 cosplay so much he stopped us to take a picture!
Attending comic book creators included Arigon Starr (Kickapoo), creator of Super Indian, and Jon Proudstar (Yaqui, Mayan, Jewish, and Latino), creator of Tribal Force. Both of these creators’ work depicts Native superheroes in a positive light, without resorting to tired stereotypes, in direct opposition to many portrayals of Native Americans in comics. Jon Proudstar’s Tribal Force was the “first comic to feature a team of Native American Superheroes” and was included in an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Proudstar’s latest comic addresses child molestation; the young heroine claims her power to confront her abuser in a formidable, heart-wrenching, and visually-stunning form. Yet, as Proudstar said in an interview with High Country News in 2014, “for the most part, it’s a comic book. There’s action and aliens, and weird stuff.”
One of the largest groups represented was Native artists whose work is heavily influenced by the modern comic book style. Their art explored diverse aesthetic styles; some of the works included t-shirts with Apache Jedi warriors from Sabawear, comic book artwork that addressed racism and molestation (such as the Tribal Force comic), and original works by indigenous artists. Native artists filled the room called “Artists’ Alley,” and their work ranged from digital paintings of popular cartoons to abstract pastel pieces to acyclic paintings of hummingbirds. Works such as these challenge mainstream depictions of Native Americans by presenting work that highlights the strength of Indigenous peoples, the diversity of Native interests, and the fun Indigenous comic creators have with their art.
Other highlights included Native cosplayers, video games, a zombie run, a Darth Vader and Star Wars cosplay booth with a functioning Sand Speeder, a gigantic Lego representation of Ninja turtles, and robots, including a full-sized, functioning Dalek! The panels were not to be missed, with a wide variety of topics including “The Pocahontas Problem” on Native women’s representations in popular media, cosplay competitions, “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse: Rez Style,” avoiding cultural appropriation, and game design. These panels confronted stereotypes, generated conversations about appropriation, and celebrated Indigenous culture.
The ICC also included two evening screenings of Native-made films: the documentary More Than A Word and the horror film The Smudging (which I did not have the pleasure of seeing, due to my general avoidance of horror films—in short, I’m a wimp; my sincerest apologies to the filmmakers). The screening of More Than A Word was a thoroughly engaging yet challenging experience due to the negative depictions and damaging characterizations of Native Americans in the history of Native sports mascots. I highly recommend this film for anyone interested in the fight against Native American mascots, portrayal of Native Americans in popular media, or sports in general. The first project from brothers John and Kenn Little (Standing Rock Sioux), the film examines the usage of Native parodies as sports mascots, in particular the Washington R*dskins, and is narrated by Frank Waln, a Sicangu Lakota musician. The filmmakers use the Washington team’s controversy to address other teams’ mascots, including Cleveland and Kansas City, and the harmful stereotypes they preserve and promote. This film’s impactful message carries forth beyond ICC and challenges every fan to question their complicity in the perpetuation of Native caricatures both within and outside the sports arena.
Indigenous Comic Con was a blast for all who attended, and the organizers certainly fulfilled their goal of creating a community of Indigenous nerds. The event confronted the historical harm associated with toxic depictions of Native Americans in popular media by creating a space for the constructive expression of affirmative Native nerd culture. The phenomenal Native artists, cosplayers, filmmakers, writers, robot drivers, actors, and attendees made the event one for the ages, and future Indigenous Comic Cons will continue to build on the foundation laid by this year’s event. The rallying cry of “Indigenerds Unite!” will continue to ring forth.