Native American Superheroes
Author Michael Sheyahshe talks to Cowboys & Indians about the fine line between celebrating and stereotyping.
If my own son is any indication, kids these days may still play the game of cowboys and Indians, but the Indians are likely to have some kind of energy spear and the cowboys always use laser pistols.
Aficionados of all things sci-fi will tell you of the longstanding and often overlooked presence of Native Americans in the science fiction and superhero genres — a trend that author Michael A. Sheyahshe (an enrolled member of the Caddo Nation) explores at length in his book Native Americans in Comic Books: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2008).
Cowboys & Aliens, based on the comic book of the same name, mixes the scenery of the Old West with the “what if?” flavor of science fiction to create a potent storytelling cocktail and a crucial opportunity for Hollywood to break out of its usual stereotypes, says Sheyahshe.
The usual western conflicts (local tyrant vs. outcast hero, tribal warriors vs. settlers) are set aside, and instead the cowboys and Indians team up to battle a new threat from beyond the stars. For Sheyahshe, there has to be more to the story than that if Hollywood wants to break away from the usual stereotypes.
“Cowboys & Aliens was just coming out when I finished my book,” says Sheyahshe, expressing regret that he couldn’t include the popular graphic novel in his work. He admits his anticipation for the upcoming summer blockbuster, but when I ask him to name the most visible or even a well-known sci-fi Native superhero, his answer comes as a little bit of a throwback.
“What popped into my head was Predator ,” he says. “There was a Native character — Billy — and he’s a lot of people’s favorite from that movie.” Cherokee and Seminole actor Sonny Landham famously played Billy alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the cult classic. Sheyahshe says that although Billy’s place in Predator’s ensemble cast of ethnicities is not original — it has its roots in the World War II comic Sgt. Rock — the film differs in that the Native character is not just a magical way to resolve the story.
“That particular character in that movie is one of the toughest, the one to take on death, the unknown force. Even though in some circles that reinforces the stereotype, that’s still a favorite character for a lot of people,” he says. And there’s the paradox of Native superheroes: How does one create a likeable and interesting character without resorting to the usual bag of tricks?
Sheyahshe is wary of what he calls the “instant shaman” or “instant warrior” stereotypes, where Native characters are automatically assumed to be supernaturally spiritual or physically adept at fighting simply because of their ethnicity.
Citing the propensity for Native costuming or things like war paint or feathers as part of the character, Sheyahshe admits it’s not an easy task to create well-rounded Native characters when the medium depends, in part, on being able to dazzle with color and costume. “Comics, of course, being mainly visual, we need those sometimes,” he says. “What I ask is, ‘Where’s the humanity in the Native character? What defines the person as being a human character, not a noble savage, not an instant shaman?’ ”
The Evolution of Three Great Native Superheroes
Jason Strongbow’s body is transformed by a combination of sonic energy and radiation, giving him superhuman strength and senses. Although the ’80s version of the character was bedecked with full feather headdress and buckskin boots, the current version sports blue jeans, a leather jacket, and long hair. Michael A. Sheyahshe says in Native Americans in Comic Books: A Critical Study that American Eagle’s character is “a significant improvement” for not having powers with an ethnic origin (such as tribal ancestor magic or powers from the Great Spirit).
Code-named Spirit, Charlie Iron-Knife is part of G.I. Joe and frequently appears in the various comic book, video game, and animated incarnations of the team. Spirit used to sport braids, a knife, and a pet eagle name Freedom — more recently his costume has played down those elements and shifted to a more military-style garb. Also notable in the recent relaunch, says Sheyahshe, is “a newfound sense of humor that was missing from the 1980’s version … and remains absent in most mainstream media representations.”
One of the handful of female superpowered Native characters to be found, Danielle Moonstar is a longtime character in the X-Men series. She forgoes Native dress (most of the time) for the standard X-Men uniform and is able to create realistic illusions from her thoughts and the thoughts of others. Although her powers seem to change with whoever is writing that particular issue of the comic book, she is a strong female presence in a medium where many women characters are relegated to the sidelines.