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Show and tell

Graphic novels are just the latest example of the sequential art aboriginals have been using for thousands of years

Posted: 12/22/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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As a child, Niigaanwewidam Sinclair remembers watching an animated clip of Superman battling an aboriginal man.

The "villain" was trying to blow up New York because it was built on his traditional land, said Sinclair, now a professor in the department of native studies at the University of Manitoba.

The image, which stuck with him, has served as the foundation of a lifelong interest in how aboriginal people are represented and how aboriginal people represent themselves and their communities.

Sinclair, who began collecting comic books before he could even read them, was a driving force behind the new permanent Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection at the University of Manitoba's Elizabeth Dafoe Library. Right now, there are 200 titles, a number of which were contributed by Sinclair himself. He expects it will grow.

Throughout history, aboriginal people have been almost exclusively portrayed in mainstream fiction and non-fiction as dangerous, violent savages or as simplistic fools, Sinclair said, but they have also been keeping records of their own.

Aboriginal people have been using sequential art for tens of thousands of years, carving images in rocks and trees and sketching them in dirt, on birchbark and on animal hide.

"They documented history. They told creative and critical stories. They explained about the connections between things in the world, much in the way newspapers do today, much in the way that novels do today as well," Sinclair said.

Mazinbiige -- an Anishinabe word that means beautiful images and writing -- includes both types of representations.

"Every image tells a story and tells a history, so every image is relatively useful," Sinclair said. "We have to talk about what they mean and what they're gesturing to."

One of the most well-known images of an aboriginal person is of a shirtless Sioux warrior, Sinclair said.

"Every image has a politic behind it. Every lens is controlled," he said.

"There's a reason why it's sexualized. There's a reason why the guy's holding a weapon. There's a reason why the guy is a solitary figure. There's a reason why he might be capturing a non-native woman."

One of the books in the collection, Firehair, created in 1971 by DC Comics, is about a red-haired, non-aboriginal boy captured by aboriginal people depicted as savages and raised in the community to behave that way as well.

It oversimplifies and generalizes the complex cultural symbols and practices of various aboriginal communities, Sinclair said, and makes aboriginal people seem very one-dimensional.

"People... in the end, all they really get out of it is, 'Here's these savage, pre-contact practices that are totally useless to the present,' " Sinclair said.

The Stories of our People series from the Gabriel Dumont Institute, an anthology of five Métis stories from Saskatchewan that's also part of the collection, is, in contrast, about the intersection between creation and everyday life.

"Every discussion within a community is always specific to the needs and interests of that community, the lands they stand on, the time that they're within," Sinclair said. "The easiest way to see this is within their own symbols and within their own language."

Sinclair said he hopes the graphic-novel collection prompts discussion in aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities about the lives of aboriginal people living on- and off-reserve today dealing with the same issues everyone else in the world does.

Kiss Me Deadly, for example, is a sexual-health comic book created by aboriginal author Richard Van Camp.

"It's critically important to have indigenous peoples within all of those conversations because that's what they're really doing today," Sinclair said.

He said while aboriginal people face specific issues related to their cultural and political history, the rest of the population is not unaffected.

"Reading a comic by an indigenous person that talks about residential schools will inevitably explain to Canadians who they are," Sinclair said.

"Every single Canadian is a residential school survivor from that experience."

Sinclair taught a course on aboriginal depictions in graphic novels in 2011 and will be teaching it again next summer.

The course will deal with images of aboriginal people and images by aboriginal people. A colleague asked Sinclair whether Mazingiibe could describe the more violent, inaccurate representations of aboriginals as well as the graphic depictions of some of the serious issues aboriginal communities face today.

"I said absolutely, because every story that belongs within this collection is an interesting and provocative story, which can lead to beauty," Sinclair said.

roberta.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2013 A4

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