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Native Stereotypes, Beware: Indigenous Comic Con in the US Is Nearly Here

A young fan poses at the 2016 Indigenous Comic Con in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Screenshot from YouTube video by City Alive.

On the heels of the first Indigenous Comic Con's success comes its second installation, due November 2017 in Albuquerque, in the southwestern US state of New Mexico. This year's comic convention promises more vendors, artists, guests and cosplay, all part of what many are hoping is a growing movement to promote Native pop culture — on their own terms.

Misrepresentation and under-representation in mainstream media is a source of pain for many minority communities, and Native communities are no exception. North American superhero stories have a history of ignoring Native peoples altogether or drawing characters that offer an inaccurate or offensive portrayal of their culture. 

Without indigenous voices, the few representations feel like the flip of a coin,” James Leask, a contributor at the Comics Alliance site, explains. “Heads; the warriors named Warpath and the shamans named Shaman, representations so ludicrously simplistic that they verge on redface. Tails; representations so whitewashed that the characters feel like a coloring mistake.”

Over the years, a growing community of Native artists and writers have taken up their pens to create images of Native peoples that combat these old stereotypes and speak to the complex social issues affecting their communities.

And it's these artistic efforts that Indigenous Comic Con seeks to celebrate. In an interview with Global Voices, Indigenous Comic Con organizer Dr. Lee Francis IV says stereotyping in the industry needs to be counteracted by amplifying these new voices:

You have so many stereotypes out there because there is not enough to counteract that, and to show what’s positive, productive and acceptable. What’s dynamic…to show the brilliance of what’s out there. We got superheroes, we got soldiers, we got everybody out there and that’s what we want to do. It is showing across the spectrum, rather than just a historicized view, of essentially, what boils down to cowboys and Indians.  

The internet and social media has helped provide a space where independent artists can produce work that big publishers might otherwise pass over. To combat the lack of support for Native creators, Francis himself founded Native Realities Press, an independent publishing house, which credits much of its success to this ability to reach larger audiences in a digital space.

Native Realities has since become a platform for innovative artists, like Jeffrey Veregge, who are creating Native characters in a completely new way:

For Francis, the motivation behind the Indigenous Comic Con was simple:

What we wanted to do was to bring together all of the Native folks that are doing really cool stuff across industries. A lot of us show up to the comic cons, and a lot of us show up to the game conventions […], but we weren’t all getting together in one place. So I wanted to basically take all of that pop culture stuff and bring everyone together.  

‘There is just some level where I think we all understand one another’

The event promises participation from Native artists and writers from all across the country. Guest artist Weshoyot Alvitre, who will make her first appearance at the 2017 Indigenous Comic Con, talked to Global Voices about why this event is so important for her and other Native artists:

At this comic con, there are going to be so many amazing writers and artists, so many creative types that are all going to end up together. Other creative people, other Native people who get what you are doing. There is a language there, in regards to Native issues that so many Native people just get because they have experienced racism, sexism… They carry the weight of whatever history that they have, in regards to genocide, stuff with their land, with their family […] there is just some level where I think we all understand one another, and when we are trying to do good work for change, whether it’s through art or writing, there is a real sense of appreciation for it because it is tying in to the way we live our lives.

#marvelcomics #danimoonstar #weshoyot

A post shared by Weshoyot Alvitre (@weshoyot) on

The comic con is open to everyone, but event policy makes it clear that you must leave any disrespectful representations at the door. Any cosplay that might be interpreted as culturally insensitive, like the controversial Tonto in the Lone Ranger, will be asked to leave.  

Some see the event as an opportunity to educate. For Alvitre:

Comic conventions tie in with pop culture and current events. It can only do well for non-Native people. This will be such an eye-opener. They will be welcome to come into this place and see the way we are representing ourselves and be invited into this whole other world of Native storytelling. Knowledge is key in anything. The more people learn about things, the less room they will have to be latched on to stereotypes.  

‘We want to tell our own stories’

The movement of Native artists and writers who are carving a space for themselves on their own terms is growing stronger. Around 1,500 people attended Indigenous Comic Con in 2016, and 3,000 attendees are projected for this year.

“Marginalized communities in this country are actively seeking representation,” Francis says. “We want to tell our own stories and we want some of the stories to look like us. I want to be able to show my son somebody that looks like him.”

For Alvitre, the success of this event is only the beginning:

I can’t see it diminishing because there are generations of kids that want to read comic books, and tons of kids and parents who are so excited by the fact that there are comics written about Native peoples in regards to current Native issues, in regards to Native mythologies… It only spreads from there in the best way possible.

For a peek at 2016's Indigenous Comic Con, take a look at the video report by City Alive below.

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