From Super-Chief to Tonto: What comics tell us

Non-indigenous storytellers and artists have been imagining indigenous peoples through sketches, paintings, political cartoons and sports mascots for quite some time, writes Niigaanwewidam Sinclair.

Non-indigenous storytellers and artists have been imagining indigenous peoples through sketches, paintings, political cartoons and sports mascots for quite some time.

The popular “image of the Indian” remains with us and is a political vehicle that influences public opinion and supports ideas found in government policy.

Nowhere is this more evident then in graphic novels. 

Also called comic books, graphic novels combine text and visual art and provide a platform to document our experiences as well as reflect upon and fantasize about our identity.

Gold Key Comics' Turok, Son of Stone, looks like a dated history textbook illustration with his "archaic" beliefs and weapons. (
Graphic novelist theorist Scott McLoud argues in Understanding Comics that "when we create and read comics we are really constructing reflections of ourselves over and over and over again."

In other words: we are telling stories to figure ourselves out.

This makes the history of indigenous representations in graphic novels so fascinating and one reason why we started a graphic novel collection both about and by indigenous peoples here at the University of Manitoba.

Called the Mazinbiige collection, it refers to an Anishinabe word meaning beautiful images and writing — something fairly easy to see in the dozens of texts by indigenous storytellers and artists representing their cultures and communities.

Something harder to see is in the approximately 100 graphic novels created by non-aboriginal artists in the collection that represent indigenous peoples in generally inaccurate and potentially damaging ways.

But I find these extremely interesting too.

Always situated in unique times and political incarnations, here are five consistently-appearing categories that appear in the collection and can be seen in modern comics.

The Warrior

Angry and usually accompanied by a spiritual entity, warriors like Joshua Brand in Image Comics’ Shaman's Tears and Marvel Comics’ John Proudstar (aka Thunderbird) of the X-Men are isolated men with an axe to grind.

They are constantly obsessed with protecting the natural world, fighting injustice, and have access to mystical secrets about the Earth.

Decorated in eagle feathers and wavy black hair, they work poorly with others and generally frown unless petting animals.

Warriors generally appear during times of angst surrounding land or indigenous peoples, such as during environmentalist trends in the 1990s (Shaman's Tears) and in the wake of the 1973 American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee (Proudstar).
Michael Sheyahshe writes that there is a popular "assumption that within every indigenous person there hides a potential shaman." (McFarland)

The Artifact

Off the pages of a textbook, clad in buckskin, and carrying archaic beliefs and weapons, characters such as Gold Key Comics’ Turok, DC Comics’ Super-Chief, and Eclipse Comics’ Scout: War Shaman are vestiges to a dying way of life in a modern world.

Often tragic heroes who are literally out of time (Turok fights dinosaurs and aliens simultaneously, Super-Chief suffers from time warps, and Scout battles monsters in a post-apocalyptic wasteland), these characters are living an uphill and never-ending battle for survival in a harsh and unforgiving world.

Artifacts generally appear during times of wartime trauma and fear (Turok and Scout) and cultural nostalgia (Super-Chief).

The Sidekick

Usually a decoration for a stunning, heroic, non-native hero, athletic and noble servants like Dell’s Tonto in the Lone Ranger comic books may have been ignorant or just played the role to please his handler, but either way relished in the role.

Providing comic relief and a simplistic sensibility, other notable sidekicks include Little Beaver (for Dell’s Red Ryder) and Thomas “Pieface” Kalmaku (for DC’s Green Lantern).

Sidekicks soothe cultural discomfort during moments when race and ethics conflict — such as during the Great Depression (Tonto and Little Beaver) and the Vietnam War (Pieface).

The Shaman

In his study Native Americans in Comic Books, Michael Sheyahshe writes that there is a popular “assumption that within every indigenous person there hides a potential shaman with 'magical' abilities to communicate with supernatural forces."

These lend well to creating romantic, mysterious characters.

Oddly, these powers are often innate (often based on some sort of blood genealogy), drawn from power found in land and animals, and can be employed via chanting and spells.

Marvel Comics has built an empire off of this image, with characters like American Eagle, Coyote, and the aptly named Shaman — all of whom appeared shortly following the economic instability surrounding energy and resource use in the 1980s in North America

The Wannabe

Not an aboriginal character, but a non-aboriginal who is captured and/or raised by indigenous peoples, this character’s superpowers are gained simply by exposure.

Adopted into indigenous ways of life, beings like Magazine Enterprises' White Indian and DC’s Scalphunter make “playing Indian” cool.

Much like Lt. Dunbar in Dances With Wolves or Jake in Avatar, each are non-native saviours who learn and protect Indian cultures and traditions better then the originals.

Over the past century, whenever a need arises for a legitimization of the well-meaning intentions of non-indigenous imperialism across North America and the world, there are characters who prove that it's not so bad after all.

Popular in Canada, too

These aren't just U.S. mainstream sentiments — these comics were popular here too.

Through these graphic representations, we can see an entire history of prejudice and preconceptions that led to policies such as residential schools, the banning of ceremonies, and the Indian Act — and, ultimately, the abusive cycles of relationships that form the fabric of the country. 

These texts are not beautiful by any means but encourage us to understand, and perhaps maybe even see beyond, violence and abuse.

With context and good teaching, they can help us understand who we are; the good, the bad, the in-between. The relationships. And this possibility within these books is the most beautiful vision of all.

Another way to understand this is to look at the ways indigenous graphic novelists are bravely creating another vision of this country — and that's another story.


Niigaanwewidam Sinclair is a writer, graphic novelist, and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. He teaches courses in Indigenous cultures and communities, and specifically Indigenous graphic novels.


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