All photos by Gabriela Campos
For decades Native Americans have been wholly misrepresented in the world of comic books, stripped down to a series of caricatured, homogenized tropes of the American Indian.
"We were either shamans, mystic boogeyman, or pocahotties (Pocahontas hotties)," said Arigon Starr, creator of the comic book Super Indian, while speaking to VICE about the representation of Native Americans in pop culture at the first ever Indigenous Comic Con, which ran from November 18 to 20 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"We have been prostituted and raped in the story world," said Jonathan Proudstar, creator of 'Tribal Force'—America's first all Native American superhero comic. "The power of the media is that it has taught us Natives that we don't have a space. So it is our job to carve out that space."
Starr and Proudstar were just two of the dozens of high-profile Native creators—illustrators, game designers, artists, and actors—present at Indigenous Comic Con. The event was organized by Lee Francis of Native Realities Publishing, in partnership with A Tribe Called Geek, a weekly radio show and website.
The event, the first of its kind in the world, represents the growth of the subcultural vanguard of indigenous-created media that is slowly working its way into the multibillion dollar comic industry.
"Ten years ago, this wouldn't have been possible," explained Arigon Starr, speaking to VICE behind her booth at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque where the event was held. "This event shows that there's a movement and a market for this."
"We need to get Native characters and Native creators into the mainstream," added Native American artist Jefferey Verege, who works on 'Red Wolf'—which centers around Marvel's first Native American hero. "That is what this event is all about."
This year's event, modeled after a traditional Comic Con and complete with artists forums, comic book signings, and cosplay events, was a strong attempt to foster a community for Native creators that are still largely unrepresented at mainstream Comic Cons.
"They don't know we exist," said Arigon Starr, noting the absence of Native creators from the major comic publishing companies, as well as the now hugely popular Comic Cons throughout the United States. "But here we are, doing things that no one else is."
"There's a platform for the subculture, but there are larger media outlets not allowing us in," Jonathan Proudstar said from behind his booth at the event. "They want to propagate our image without giving us our own voice."
For Proudstar, one of the first Native Americans in the comic industry, comic books provide a unique medium to both break down historic stereotypes of Native Americans and address the myriad of contemporary issues facing his people.
His comic book 'Tribal Force' features a team of Indigenous superheroes and engages with issues directly affecting Native people. Of Yaqui heritage, Proudstar has been counseling Native youth for nearly three decades. These kids are, according to him, the "inspiration for Tribal Force."
Proudstar added, "On many reservations, the education system is very poor and you have 8th and 9th graders reading at a 3rd grade level. Comics are a way to start to teach these kids about their culture in a way that makes, has relevance, and is cool."
"They're seeing what they would see in movie theaters, but with their own culture and language," said comic book artist Jay Odjick, creator of 'Kagagi'—a nationally distributed graphic novel and television show deeply rooted in his his Algonquin culture. "Now Kagagi is their guy," he explained, speaking about the popularity of the television show and comic on his reservation in Canada. "It's our job to provide our people with our own culture and our own superheros."
For Odjick, Kagagi also provided a unique opportunity to help preserve the dying language of his people. Each episode of the show (in English) contains Algonquin subtitles. His website also contains translated episode scripts available to download.
"In our community the speakers are literally dying out," said Odjick, explaining to VICE how one of the two translators used for the show has passed away since it began. "Anything we can do to help kids get interested in the language and give it to them in the way they understand and enjoy."
For many of the Native creators VICE spoke with, this event represents a huge step toward inclusion in a media that has long done the opposite.
"Seeing those kinds of stereotypes in comics made me determined to do something for those that never had representation," said Arigon Starr. "It's exciting to see all of doing this. All together in one place."
"To think that this would be possible to be here in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the first ever Indigenous Comic Con representing my own TV show is mind-blowing," said Odjick, who's been drawing comics since he was five years old. "I hope kids that come here see that things are changing. That we can do things that we could not have done just a decade or two ago."
See more photos from the first Indigenous Comic Con below, and visit the organization's website to learn more.
A costume contest at the main stage