Reflection: Story – History – Story

On Tuesday, April 12, State University of New York (SUNY), Oneonta hosted the annual Susan Sutton Smith Lecture. The late Dr. Sutton Smith was a SUNY English professor. Each year a prize is awarded to a member of faculty that is making great strides outside the classroom. The 2016 recipient was awarded to Dr. Susan Bernardin, chair of the Women’s Studies department. Dr. Bernardin specializes in American Indian literature, and is the author of several publications including Trading Gazes: Euro-American Photographers and Native North Americans, 1880-1940. I was able to attend Dr. Bernardin’s lecture, entitled Story – History – Story: Contemporary Native American Literary and Visual Arts. [1]

Dr. Susan Bernardin

The title of Bernardin’s work originates from a contemporary Native American poet and artist, Heid Erdrich. We recently discussed Erdrich’s poem, Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects, in class. Some of Erdrich’s more recent work include a “poem-film” called Pre-Occupied. The six and a half minute “poem-film” is the artist’s commentary on the Occupy Movement, the reframing of the movement from a Native American Perspective, and the evolution of the meaning of the word, “occupy.” Her work can be found here on her website. The work features ironic visuals created by Carolyn Lee Anderson, Andrea Carlson, and Angela Erdrich and flow under Erdrich’s spoken word. These visuals highlight popular images such as vintage superman cartoons, and traditional portrayals of domesticity.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas was another contemporary artist discussed in Dr. Bernardin’s lecture. Yahgulanaas is a Haida artist that drew inspiration from Haida line-form and Japanese manga. The result was a new, groundbreaking genre of Native American comics. In fusing these styles and sources of inspiration, Yahgulanaas created Red: A Haida Manga. The comic tells the story of Red and his sister, Jaada, in British Columbia. One night, pirates capture Jaada. As the story progresses, Red grows into a chief and searches for his sister. Eventually, Red discovers his sister’s whereabouts and seeks revenge on her captors. The comic can be purchased as a book with 108 bound pages. However, the reader is encouraged to remove the pages and reassemble them into one image. The pages fit seamlessly together to create an expansive mural. The original took the artists several years to create and has been displayed at the Seattle Art Museum. [2]

Red: A Haida Manga by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Dr. Bernardin also discussed other contemporary Native American graphic artists, notably, Arigon Starr and her comic, Super Indian. In Super Indian, Starr has created a distinct Native American super hero. Her hero wears a tight blue suit with a large red ‘S’ emblazoned across his chest, not unlike another famously popular superhero. The character of Super Indian gained his powers from eating tainted commodity cheese. With his canine sidekick, Diogi, Super Indian comes across many exciting adventures. The comic was even turned into a radio show. According to Starr’s website, Super Indian, can be seen at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona and is part of an exhibition in Washington D.C. at the United States Department of the Interior. [3]

Dr. Bernardin points out that the work of these contemporary artists flies in the face of the “vanishing Indian” stereotype that we had discussed in class. This myth was perpetuated by pushing Native American children into boarding schools, forced assimilation including the loss of language, and other artists like Edward Curtis. Around the turn of the century, Curtis’s photographs often depicted indigenous peoples as a lost or dying culture; sloped and lone figures are prominent in his work. Artists of today are working to regain that visibility and further Native American representation in popular media.

[1] Dr. Susan Bernardin, “Story – History – Story: Contemporary Native American Literary and Visual Arts.” (presentation, Annual Susan Sutton Smith Lecture, Oneonta, NY, April 12, 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Arigon Starr Bog. Accessed April 18, 2016.


Featured Image, Super Indian Cover:

Dr. Bernardin:

Red: A Haida Manga:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s