This week we read Sherman Alexie’s book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In that story the narrator is a boy living on a reservation. Alexie’s story doesn’t hesitate to share the negatives alongside the seemingly sparse happy moments within his hero’s story. This book is partially autobiographical, reflecting moments from Alexie’s childhood, and sometimes events described in the book are so shocking they shatter society’s established role for Native Americans. It’s no accident. Sherman Alexie is using his skill as a writer to take back stereotypes forced on Native Americans by outside influences. I was excited to find that there is work being done by museums to reclaim Native American narratives for their people.
Rose Bean Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo),
Objectification: Super Pueblo, 2008,
mixed media on Masonite, the artist.
The exhibition I found is from the museum part of the Foxwoods Resort Casino complex owned by the Mashantucket Pequots in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. Link here. The exhibit is called Comic Art Indigène. It looks at how storytelling has been used through comics and comic inspired art to express the contemporary Native American experience. Within this exhibit American Indian artists “articulate identity, reclaim stereotypes, worldview, politics, and culture through the kinetic expression of sequential art.”
Ryan Huna Smith (Chemehuevi/Navajo) and Joe Korkan,
Page 6 from Tribal Force #2, 1996, ink on vellum, the artist
While it may seem bizarre to connect Native Indians with western comics, comic art is more related to Native American art traditions than one might expect. Stephen Cook, the curator at the museum, explains that comics books are “a lot like old Native American pottery and petroglyphs, the old rock art. They tell stories graphically, without words. If it is done right, people will understand the story.” Indians being forced off their lands would even use ledgers to draw their stories in the late 19th century. These forms of ledger art told about their life, marriages, children, hunting, and fishing. They had pages of storytelling art using Plains techniques that weren’t meant to look realistic. Cook explains that very few examples of ledger art survive because the paper was fragile and “nobody thought anybody would want to see them, so nobody saved them.” If more had survived, they would have been featured alongside the artists whose work hangs in the exhibit. The museum has a great variety of artwork from different nations. Marcus Amerman is Choctaw, Jason Garcia and Rose Bean Simpson are from the Santa Clara Pueblo, Ruan Huna Smith is Chemehuevi/Navajo, And Marty Two Bulls is Oglala Lakota; just to name a few.
Marcus Amerman (Choctaw), Wonder Woman, 2005,
beaded bracelet, Diego Romero
Martha Arquero (Cochiti Pueblo), Pueblo Spider-Man, 2006,
Anonymous Loan, Photo by Addison Doty
Some of the art uses traditional techniques such as ceramic sculpture and beadwork techniques to represent comic book characters in todays media. Other artists choose to comment on stereotypes with pen and ink drawings. Some of the contemporary work is based on older comic-art images. Some drawings are interpretations of the Marvel Comics of the 1960s. There is a mascot cartoon depicting a leprechaun-ish face with the same pose and grin as Chief Wahoo for the fictional “Whites” team.
Marty Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota),
Whites, 2005, Pen and ink
My personal favorite would have to be commentary on the Lone Ranger, where the verbally challenged Tanto is delivering a lashing to the Lone Ranger, very eloquently with his fist and the contents of his speech bubble.
Comic Art Indigène has traveled to the Museum of New Mexico and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. The majority of the art in the exhibit are from 1990 to the present day. The more recent works are from 2008 and the oldest, a shield carrying warrior pictograph from the Pueblo II period, has been carbon dated 1290 ce. The exhibition had accompanying workshops “Cartooning 101—Native Style!” as well as a “Comic Art Fan Day” where Native Indian artists were invited to the museum to participate. There is also a podcast of a recording of the exhibit’s curator leading a group around to explain the objects on display.
(inset) Jim Steranko, Captain America #111, 1969, Digital Reproduction.
Anonymous donor. Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, © Marvel Comics.
Artist Unknown, Pueblo II, All American Man Pictograph, c. 1290 ad.
Image courtesy of the National Park Service, Canyonlands National Park.