January 06, 2009

Sheyahshe interviews Proudstar

IPI:  Indigenous Peeps in the Industry--05In this portion of IPI, we are fortunate to hear from Jon Proudstar, creator of Tribal Force, a comic book featuring Native American superheroes and a historic first for a Native-created comic books, as he shoots the bull with Michael Sheyahshe (me!).

MS: Background info: what is your tribal affiliation and where are you from?

JP: I am Yaqui, Jewish, and Mexican.

MS: Tell us more about the comics you've been working on; how did it all start / come about?

JP: My book is Tribal Force! It's the first all-Indian super hero comic in the history of the United States! I had always wanted to do an Indian comic book since I was a kid. I grew up in a heavily ethnic neighborhood. It wasn't till I was older that I realized all the heroes in comics where white. I began to contemplate what would happen if the heroes where Indian, Latino, or Black.

MS: Keeping in mind any of your other talents, what is your specialty?

JP: I am an Independent Film Director. My first film DUDE VISION won three awards. I am currently editing my first feature length film THE CHAOS EFFECT, a comedy about dating. Also have another project titled BARKING WATER which will open up at the Sundance Film Festival. This project was directed by Sterlin Harjo and Chad Burris. Both Natives, yay!

MS: What is your opinion about Indigenous characters in comics? Do you feel we portrayed properly?

JP: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I have always felt that Tim Truman's Scout has been one of the best portrayals of a Native [character]. Apache, to be more specific. The thing about portraying Native Americans when you're not Native is: it's an Indian thing. Most people in America have never met a Native, much less know one. It's like the Golden Rule of writing: "Write What You Know!" Duuuuhhh!

I feel most people who attempt to write about us are confined to what Hollywood has doled out about us. Hollywood tends to keep us in a historical, romanticized view. There are very few films that portray modern Natives in a realistic light. And even those portrayals are confined to a region. Most people think that all Indians are the same.

Guess what? We're not. We differ from Rez to Rez and Tribe to Tribe. There are 753 Independent Tribes in America...holy cow! I think most comic book creators are just to lazy to do the proper homework on us.

So what's the answer? From me, my opinion. Don't write about us. Let us handle the job. I am tired of being portrayed incorrectly by non-Natives. I am tired of seeing my peoples' ways and beliefs prostituted for the benefit of dramatic license.

What's the difference between Natives creating Native heroes and non-Natives [doing so]? It belongs to us. We finally have a voice, after 500 hundred-plus years of being suppressed and almost killed off. So let me be the first to say "BACK OFF!!" We are here and we will tell our own stories!
Comment:  As the non-Native writer of PEACE PARTY, a multicultural comic book featuring Native Americans, I have to disagree with Proudstar's main point. Back off?! No, I don't think so.

Proudstar tells us he's part Yaqui. The Indians in TRIBAL FORCE are Apache, Navajo, and Lakota. Living close to Apaches and Navajos may have given Proudstar insight into their cultures, but there's no reason to think he knows the Lakota culture well.

His point is also my point. Because there are hundreds of Indian tribes and cultures, no one Indian can claim to know them all. It's ridiculous to think that Alaska's Yup'ik know Florida's Seminole, Maine's Penobscot know California's Kumeyaay, and so forth.

In TRIBAL FORCE, the Navajo hero has weather powers because Navajos are close to nature. The Lakota hero was born with fetal alcohol syndrome because Indians have a drinking problem. These are examples of how "deep" the Indian cultures run in Proudstar's comic.

Do the comics, then decide

My attitude is this: I've done tons of research on Indian cultures. I've met and talked to thousands of Indians. I work for a Native-owned business and write for Native-owned publications. I don't claim to know enough to write the Great Native American Novel, but I think that's enough for a few lightweight comic books.

Besides, what exactly is the problem here? My comics don't affect any Indian's ability to create his or her own comics. Assuming they're reasonably good, I'd say they help by whetting people's appetite for genuine Indian stories. Dances with Wolves opened the door for more authentic Indian portrayals and my comics should do the same.

Why don't we let the marketplace of ideas decide? You put out your Native-themed comic and I'll put out mine. Feel free to critique my work--to rip it to shreds if it's false and demeaning--and I'll do the same with yours. If I lose the debate--if Indians say your comic is good and mine is bad--I'll bow to their wisdom.

That hasn't happened yet. Most Indians who have read PEACE PARTY have liked it. Some educators have ordered copies to use in their Native classrooms. That's about the best endorsement I could ask for.

Thunderbird good, Peace Party bad?

Proudstar's position is inconsistent, to say the least. He admires Chris Claremont's Thunderbird and Tim Truman's Scout, though both were created by non-Natives. He even named himself after John "Thunderbird" Proudstar.

What, he couldn't find a Yaqui hero to name himself after? Instead, he appropriated an inauthentic Apache name chosen by a white writer? Can you say "mixed message"?

Proudstar notes that even "realistic" portrayals of Indians are "confined to a region." I presume he means the Great Plains or possibly the Southwest. That's ironic considering his heroes come from the Great Plains and the Southwest and the action takes place in South Dakota.

Sure, Natives have produced good Native-themed comics: DARKNESS CALLS and AN INVITED THREAT, TALES OF THE CHEROKEE, A HERO'S VOICE and DREAMS OF LOOKING UP. But non-Natives have also produced good Native-themed comics: COMANCHE MOON, SITTING BULL, RELENTLESS PURSUIT. And Natives have also produced some mediocre to poor Native-themed comics. (No names, but longtime Blue Corn Comics readers know who they are.)

There are no hard and fast rules here. I agree that more Natives should create their own comics. And I agree that non-Natives like me should tread carefully. That's what I'm doing, Jon, believe me.

For more on the subject, see Comic Books Featuring Indians.

No comments: