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Decolonizing the Classroom: Teaching With Indigenous Comics

Bring Native cultures, stories and perspectives out of the margins of your curriculum with comics by and about Native people.

When I first started teaching with Indigenous comics, my goal was to lighten the mood of my Native American Rhetorics class. Little did I know at the time, but these comics and comic collections—Indigenous stories told by Indigenous peoples today—would become one of my students’ favorite mediums for learning about contemporary Native American peoples, their stories, traditions and struggles for cultural continuance in a deafening American landscape that continues to ignore Indigenous presence.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou) writes about storytelling, celebrating survival and centering Indigenous voices as three decolonization strategies or “projects” in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (2005). Teaching with comics created by Indigenous artists, writers, designers and editors employs these three strategies. It’s also more accessible, heading off potential defensiveness and generating more discussion and enthusiastic engagement for high school and college students.

Centering Indigenous stories means doing more than just teaching about Native peoples of the past during certain times of the year (e.g., Thanksgiving, Columbus, Trail of Tears). Centering means incorporating Native stories throughout the quarter, semester or academic year, alongside settler colonial texts and voices, regardless of subject. It means bringing these stories out of the margins of the curriculum.

These Indigenous-created comics can be incorporated at any point during the school year and will show students alternate Indigenous stories about a wide variety of subjects and themes.

 

Sovereign Traces Volume 1: Not (Just) (An)Other (Michigan State University, 2018)

Potential connected subjects: literature, reading, visual art, North American Indigenous culture, history, social studies

Themes: family, women, resistance, memory, the environment, capitalism, cultural practices

Incorporating poetry and fiction from such Native writers as Joy Harjo (“Deer Dancer”), Louise Erdrich (“The Strange People”) and Gerald Vizenor (“Ice Tricksters”), with illustrations from such Indigenous artists as Delicia Williams, Weshoyot Alvitre and Elizabeth LaPensée, Sovereign Traces will help students understand how stories and traditions are present for Indigenous storytellers. 

This collection is as much a meditation on language—“decolonization,” “intersectionality,” “resistance,” and “sovereignty”—as it is a celebration of the contemporary presence of Indigenous peoples and timeworn stories familiar to Native communities. This collection invites others to witness, learn and enjoy these stories, as the introduction opens the door: “During the journey of experiencing these comics, through the grit of tribulations and darkness and to the brilliant splashes of realizations and color, this collection asserts itself as not just another. It shares the kind of stories that parallel our communities, the stories Auntie tells when no one else is around, the ones that keep it real.”

Recommended for high school and college students for mature and direct writing and visuals.

 

Deer Woman: An Anthology (Native Realities Press, 2017)

Potential connected subjects: literature, reading, visual art, psychology, North American Indigenous culture, women’s history

Themes: sexual assault, healing and survival, empowerment

Sexual assault is more than just a story in a news cycle, and Deer Woman offers a collection of stories written by Indigenous women who fully humanize the experience. Patty Stonefish, co-founder of Arming Sisters Reawakening Warriors, writes in the introduction, “This is a group of powerful Indigenous women sharing their power with others. These stories are medicine.” The title story, “Deer Woman: A Vignette,” written by Elizabeth LaPensée, is “a brutal, beautiful, and unrelenting story that shows a glimpse of the serene chaos that deer woman is,” according to LaPensée. Survival is the central theme of this first vignette as the black-and-white pen and ink line drawings unfold block by block, introducing us to Deer Woman and taking the reader’s breath away. This imaginative and beautifully designed collection is healing for anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of the personal and communal impact of sexual assault and can introduce students to using art and writing as a way forward through trauma.

Recommended for high school and college students for mature and direct writing and visuals.

 

Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volumes One and Two (AH Comics, 2015 and 2017)

Potential connected subjects: literature, reading, visual art, North American indigenous culture, history, social studies, science

Themes: a broad range

If you teach students younger than high school, you will find stories here that are safe to share with them. These two collections are perfect examples of Smith’s decolonizing projects of storytelling and celebrating survival. She writes in Decolonizing Methodologies, “Celebrating survival accentuates not so much our demise but the degree to which indigenous peoples and communities have successfully retained cultural and spiritual values and authenticity.” Each carefully crafted narrative combines words, art, design, layout and color in an intense celebration of indigeneity. Some images are so beautiful and so powerful that students often linger over them the way one might linger in front of a stunning painting in a museum. The artwork in this collection is as moving as the imaginative stories that grapple with past and present, real and fantastical. 

Hope Nicholson, editor for both collections, writes in the foreword to the first volume, “This is an anthology of stories about identity, culture, and spirituality told by writers and artists from a range of communities across North America including many creators that identify as Métis, Inuit, Dené, Anishnaabe [sic], Cree, Mi’kmaq, Caddo, Haida, Sioux and Suquamish, among others.” Highlighting the diversity of Native experiences and voices, she continues, “There is no single, homogenous native identity and Moonshot is an extensive exploration of indigenous storytelling … the comic book medium, which breaks boundaries in its marriage of text and image, is an amazing way to showcase this diversity.”

By the time they reach high school, students are already quite familiar with the traditional literary “canon.” As you plan for fall 2018, consider centering Indigenous voices, experiences and stories in your classroom by leading your instruction with one of these Indigenous comic collections; bring Native stories out of the margins. Contact the publishers directly to arrange for bulk purchases, and follow them on social media to learn about the latest releases. 

We can change the narrative about Native peoples in the United States from one of erasure and absence to one of continuance and presence—one classroom, one teacher and one student at a time. Adopting one of these texts is a good start. 

Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.