Native Americans have long objected to their treatment by popular culture. They're often not represented at all, and when they are, they're cast as sidekicks or caricatures. So Native people are working to tell their own stories in films and comics.
Recently, many of these makers gathered for the second annual Indigenous Comic Con at Isleta Resort & Casino near Albuquerque.
In this comic con, Star Wars stormtroopers move with the drum, and cosplayers mesh traditional regalia with pop culture icons. Vendors sell T-shirts and skateboards, combining indigenous designs with "Star Wars" themes. One shirt reads, “The Force has always been with our people.”
Welcome to the world of indiginerds.
“We get to add the cultural influences in a way that's respectful and responsible and not just, you know, utilizing the trappings of native culture to throw on it and make it look cool,” says Lee Francis IV, founder of the Indigenous Comic Con.
Francis says bringing together indigenous creators empowers native people to tell their own stories, rather than having them appropriated by others.
“It's about us,” he says. “And we can tell those stories with all the nuances that are necessary for that type of a narrative.”
Those nuances include humor interlaced with social commentary and a nod to a common tragic history. For instance, Super Indian, a character created by Kickapoo author Arigon Starr, got his super powers after eating Commodity cheese tainted with rezium. Among the villains he fights is a new-age woman with crystals.
“’Oh, I'm a shaman, and I drum. And look at my headdress,’” says Starr. “You know, those kind of people where it's like not connected to the land, not connected to the people but would love to rock a headdress at Coachella.”
A panel called “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse on the Rez” laid out why Native communities will win any coming battles with the living dead. Jack Malstrom led the panel with Johnnie Jae, who founded the website and podcast A Tribe Called Geek. Malstrom says native communities know how to live with scarcity and how to protect themselves.
“I mean, you know, Johnnie's people have the skullcracker. Us Yaquis, we are very partial to decapitation. Ask any Spanish mission,” Malstrom says. “But, you know, and these are already tactics for destroying zombies. We got this.”
Jae developed the panel because it’s part of the curriculum that she teaches at schools and conferences. Malstrom says they use this session to explore historical trauma but also resiliency.
“It's like telling our people you have the power and you have the knowledge inside of you to thrive in this environment or to survive in general,” Malstrom says. “We've been surviving forever. Don't ever forget that. You're here because of the power of your ancestors and the knowledge that we hold in our communities.”
But surviving also means confronting persistent stereotypes. Jonathan Joss, who voiced John Redcorn on "King Of The Hill" and played Chief Ken Hotate on “Parks and Recreation” once worked on a film plagued by delays from rain storms. The director called late one night and asked to meet with Joss.
“In this meeting, I was asked if I could do anything about the rain,” Joss says.
The set of "Wonder Woman" was somewhat more enlightened. Eugene Brave Rock's character wore authentic regalia and spoke of massacres of Native Americans by whites, but Brave Rock told director Patty Jenkins he wasn't happy his character was named Chief.
“She mentioned to me that based on DC comic book characters that they couldn't change the name,” Braverock says. “But she would make it up to me by letting me speak my own language. (Speaking Blackfoot). I said, hello, my name is Napi.”
Many attendees hope by showcasing stories of Native Americans in films and comics, they can shift perceptions that persist in the real world.