Graphic Classics, Volume 24: Native American Classics
By Robby McMurtry, Ryan Huna Smith, Randy Keedah, Joseph Erb, Bahe Whitethorne Jr., Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Zitkala-Sa, Timothy Truman, Benjamin Truman, Jim McMunn, Mark A. Nelson, Charles Alexander Eastman, Simon-Pokagon, Murv Jacob, E. Pauline Johnson, Weshoyot Alvitre, Elias Johnson, Andrea Grant, Toby Cypress, James Harris Guy, David Kanietakeron Fadden, Handsome Lake, Arthur C. Parker, Roy Boney Jr., Bertrand N.O. Walker, Tara Audibert, Alex Posey, Marty Two Bulls Sr., George Copway, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, Jay Odjick, Israel Folsom, Larry Vienneau, Buffalo Bird Woman, Gilbert L. Wilson, Pat N. Lewis, William Jones, Afua Richardson, John Rollin Ridge, Daryl Talbot, Kevin Atkinson, Royal Roger Eubanks, Jon Proudstar, Terry Laban, Carlos Montezuma, Arigon Starr, Richard Van Camp, John Findley, David Dawangyumptewa, John E. Smelcer, Joseph Bruhac, and Tom Pomplun
Eureka Productions; $17.95
I should start by saying that I’m a bit nervous to be writing about Native American Classics, the twenty-fourth volume in Eureka’s excellent Graphic Classics series of anthologies. Though I have good friends in the native community and consider myself an ally, I’m one of the most non-indigenous people I know and feel completely unqualified to critique these stories in any kind of objective way. That’s why I’m not going to do that. I need to take a different approach.
Eureka’s equally sensitive to the owners of these stories. Native American Classics doesn’t include most of the regular contributors to Eureka’s books. Instead, publisher/editor Tom Pomplun recruited associate editors from the native community to help create the book from the conceptual stage all the way through creator selection and final proofing. I didn’t read every single bio, but most (if not all) of the writers and artists who adapted these stories have indigenous heritage. These are stories about the experience of native people in the United States, so by definition, it takes that perspective to tell them.
It doesn’t however take an indigenous perspective to read or appreciate them. In fact, it’s especially important for non-indigenous people to hear these stories and take in their point of view as a counter-balance to the version of history we hear most often. That’s the approach I took to reading the anthology and if I don’t feel equipped to judge it as a work of art, I can at least talk about what I learned from it.
The first thing I learned from the collection is the extraordinary amount of hurt felt by members of the native community. I mean, I’ve always known that native people have a number of excellent reasons to be angry and upset, but the very order of the stories in Native American Classics helps to communicate just how deeply that goes. Had I been in charge of organizing the stories, I would have taken a logical, probably historical approach, starting with life before the Europeans arrived and working my way up to the injustice and horror. Shows what I know. Native American Classics leads with John E. Smeker’s poem, “After a Sermon at the Church of Infinite Confusion” and moves directly into “The Soft-Hearted Sioux,” a story about the emotional as well as physical subjugation of a young, native man. These stories are painful to read, because they reveal a deeper wound than simply the appropriation of land. They’re about the theft of religion and culture – souls, really – and in opening with them, the anthology sets a heartbreaking tone that permeates the whole book.
That means that when native characters fight back against the whites – like they do in “On Wolf Mountain” and “The Cattle Thief” – the victories (while sweet) feel smaller. For one thing, they’re temporary, but also, stealing some livestock or even wiping out a regiment of soldiers is an insect bite compared to the damage coming from the other direction.
The emotion behind these stories builds as the anthology continues, so that when native folklore and legends begin to appear, they’re bittersweet. It’s pleasant to read about talking animals in stories like “The Hunter and Medicine Legend,” “A Prehistoric Race,” and “The Story of Itsikamahidish and the Wild Potato.” Taken on their own, they’re a lot of fun, with art that would feel at home in a Nickelodeon or Looney Tunes cartoon. But placed where they are in the volume, I couldn’t forget that these were stories that European invaders tried to suppress and destroy.
That they weren’t destroyed is the triumph of the book. For all the defeats depicted in it, Native American Classics is proof that these tales live on, and that’s a victory. It’s not a big enough victory, but it’s a start.