August 01, 2013

Yakari the noble savage

Yakari is a popular European comic-book series about cartoonish Lakota Indians. Long ago I read and reviewed one of the comics. I think I said it was well-intentioned but still stereotypical. I'm glad to see a writer who more or less agrees with me.

Decentering Man's Place in the Universe: Yakari and Its Visual Representation of Native Americans

By Sabine N. MeyerYakari is the young hero of a thirty-five-volume comic series of the same title, which was written and drawn by the Swiss francophone cartoonists André Jobin (Job) and Claude de Ribaupierre (Derib) in the early 1970s and appeared in France and Belgium between 1973 and 2009. Yakari is a Sioux boy who is able to understand and speak animal languages. His best friends are a Sioux girl, "Rainbow," and his horse, "Little Thunder." He also has a totem animal, "Great Eagle," which frequently gives him critical advice. All of his numerous adventures center around various kinds of animals (Yakari 2012: n. pag.; Yakari n.d.: n. pag.; Official Website n.d.: n. pag.).

The comic series was such a tremendous success in Belgium and France that its issues have been translated into at least seventeen languages including English, German, Finnish, Breton, Indonesian, Polish, Chinese, Turkish, Arabic, Inuktitut, and Catalan. In Germany, the comic series was readily accepted into the existing repertoire of representations of Native Americans, satisfying German 'Indianthusiasm,' "a yearning for all things Indian" (Lutz 2002: 168). Carlsen Comics published twenty-six issues between 1977 and 2001, and since July 2006, Salleck Publications has published the remaining nine issues as softcover. What is more, the Native American boy and his friends quickly made it on TV.
Meyer's primary critique:Despite its creation and production outside Hollywood and its prescribed set of "Hollywood Indians," as Jacquelyn Kilpatrick has termed them (1999: xv), Yakari engages in similar filmic practices. The series is set in the North American Great Plains and is thus in line with Hollywood's tendency to privilege Southwestern and Plains Indian cultural identities and to present them as an "indigenous norm" (Raheja 2011: xiii). Such a representational strategy also appeals to German audiences in whose "cultural imagination" the Plains stereotype looms large (Weber 2012: 170). Yakari's protagonists are Sioux, as is explicitly mentioned by the characters, who pronounce the tribal name wrongly ([si:uks]). In order to appease ethnologists, the series' creators have attempted to visually approximate Sioux habitation styles (tepees) and clothing (fringed shirts, leather pants, impressively feathered war bonnets). Inaccuracies creep into both book and film version when it comes to everyday objects such as the clay pot, which is actually not a part of the Sioux art tradition (Fig. 3; Yakari und Kleiner Donner 2008: 00:02:04). Furthermore, the series depicts time and again buffalo hunting and emphasizes the significance of horses for the Sioux. Which Sioux division Yakari and his tribe belong to or where exactly the story takes place geographically we never learn. The same imprecision also persists when it comes to the series' temporal placement. Yakari, like most of its filmic predecessors, traps its Native American protagonists in the past but refrains from focusing on Native-settler relations. While the presence of horses, introduced by the Spanish in the early sixteenth century, suggests that Yakari is set in the post-contact era, in the whole series the presence of Euro-American settlers is not mentioned even once. Yakari lives in a secluded Sioux microcosm apparently (yet) unaffected by the effects of colonization. One could now surmise that Euro-American settlers have not yet entered the region of the Plains and that they therefore do not appear in the series. What is rather astonishing, however, is the fact that--with a few scattered exceptions, such as the two Pawnees in episode three--no other tribes or bands are present either (Kleiner Donner reißt aus 2008: 00:08:01). This absence suggests that the producers historically decontextualized Yakari as much as possible, placing the boy and his friends into an untouched, exotic paradise hermetically sealed from interhuman interferences. This paradisical atmosphere is enhanced through the series' audiovisual tracks. Yakari's upbeat and rhythmical signature tune and the producers' predominant use of primary colors underline the carefree and historically decontextualized setting thus created.

Both through its plotlines and cinematographic techniques, Yakari constructs most of its characters as noble savages. Both their words and actions reflect values such as community, courage, and mutual respect. Yakari, in particular, also gradually develops into the epitome of the ecological Indian, who protects nature and treats the animals respectfully. However, there are distinctions made regarding the ecological Indian, which I will discuss later. While most of the tribe's hunters are portrayed as extremely muscular, agile, and endowed with the stereotypical beaked nose, they are friendly, display a sense of humor, and speak grammatically correct German. This appears particularly progressive if one compares this depiction to the earlier one in the Yakari comic books, in which stoic, ill-humored, and linguistically disadvantaged Native Americans abound (Fig. 1 and 2).

In Yakari's world--in both book and film version--most of the women carry out traditionally female chores, such as cooking, sewing, and fetching water. Many of the men, by contrast, are prominent for their inactivity, laziness, and absent-minded behavior (Fig. 3 and 4; Yakari und Kleiner Donner 2008: 00:02:00).

Considering the focus of most European Indian fantasies on Native-settler interaction and the dying of a race, the series' degree of historical decontextualization is unusual, but in terms of stereotypization Yakari corresponds to most of its American and European filmic and literary predecessors, such as travel literature, Buffalo Bill's Wild West, Karl May's oeuvre, the DEFA 'Indianerfilme,' and a plethora of Hollywood productions. The animated cartoon series, in particular, abounds with mostly positive images of noble savages, interspersed with occasional "homages" to the "lazy" and "stoic Indian."
Comment:  So the cartoon version pronounces "Sioux" as "see-uks"? Wow, that's ignorant.

This sentence kind of sums up Yakari for me:Considering the focus of most European Indian fantasies on Native-settler interaction and the dying of a race, the series' degree of historical decontextualization is unusual, but in terms of stereotypization Yakari corresponds to most of its American and European filmic and literary predecessors.In short, it could be better, it could be worse. Which is about what I said in my review.

For more on the subject, see Review of YAKARI.

Below:  Yakari and the "lazy Indian."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Didn't read much of it, but I really don't need to, since stereotypes exist because of constant media portrayal in a stereotypical manner.

But even the name Yakari doesn't sound Lakota. There's no /r/ in Lakota.