Original 'Captain America' an 800-year-old Native?

December 04, 2009

Original 'Captain America' an 800-year-old Native?

By American Indian News Service

NOTE: The National Museum of the American Indian is a Tanka retail partner and offers Tanka products in all of its gift shops and cafes.

Washington, D.C. -- In 1940, two young Jewish Americans who were outraged about Nazi atrocities created a comic-book icon, Captain America.

Captain America carries a red-white-and-blue shield, but there is an older heroic figure who carried those colors first.

This hero, also bearing a red-white-and-blue shield with stripes reminiscent of the American flag, was drawn 800 years ago by an unknown Pueblo artist on the wall of a cave in what is now Utah.

"The first time I saw that pictograph, I immediately drew that comparison between it and Captain America," said Tony Chavarria, Santa Clara Pueblo and the curator of ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, N.M. "It comes from a time of drought and mass exodus of the Pueblo peoples from the Four Corners region. Like Captain America, it became an icon."

Comic book heroes often have secret origins

The art of comic books, or newspaper funny pages, combines pictures and words to tell a story. Like ancient rock art or 19th century ledger art from the Great Plains tribes, it uses symbols like thunderbolts or feathers to convey a plot. Comic book heroes, like the Pueblo pictograph known as All American Man, often have secret origins.

Through the mid-20th century, comic art -- bold, graphic and colorful -- grew in popularity. Its form was dictated by the medium of newspapers, which would shrink the art and print it on low-quality paper. An overly detailed drawing would turn to visual mush. Yet this streamlined form of storytelling became art for the masses, for the disenfranchised, and for the American Indians.

"For me, because of my anthropology background, it's not only art that interests me," Chavarria said. "It's how art informs culture, and culture informs art. Today, we call it pop art."

Many Native artists started as children

Many Native comic artists came to the field as children. Marty Two Bulls, editorial cartoonist, remembers, "My older uncles and cousin, they were always doing cartoons of one another."

Others, like Ryan Huna Smith and Jolene Nenibah Yazzie, grew up reading comics books.

For Smith, superheroes provided inspiration for "Frybread Man," a pudgy anti-hero, who was transformed when he ate radioactive frybread. Although "Frybread Man" was rejected by the publication of the Institute of American Indian Arts, for which it was created in 2003, the print remains Smith's biggest seller.

"I am basically a Star Wars generation kid," said Smith, who is Chemehuevi and Navajo. "Growing up looking at comics, watching cartoons, I was so influenced that as I progressed with my art, it became a part of what I do."

In 1996, he worked with a partner on what has become something of a classic comic book, "Tribal Force." Although there was only one edition, Chavarria said, it was influential for its attempt to present a superhero without insulting the image of Native people.

"I wanted to give insight into what it's like living on the reservation, being Native," Smith said. "I wanted someone who became a hero for the people of the earth."

Yazzie, who is Navajo, loved Wonder Woman and her streaming black hair, but longed for a genuinely Native superhero. In recent years, she has created a series of Native women warriors on skateboard decks. Ko' Asdzaa, Navajo for "fire woman," was among her first.

Jason Garcia's "Behold... Po'Pay" from "Tewa Tales of Suspense" features the historic hero of the 1680 Pueblo revolt against Spanish colonizers. The comic is drawn by the Santa Clara artist in the stance of the superheroes featured in the 1964 Avengers comic book, who "found themselves united against a common threat."

G.I. Gertie documented the travails of war

Not all Native comic art is about superheroes. Eva Mirabal of Taos Pueblo honed her cartooning in newspapers even before Marty Two Bulls.

Mirabal, a formally trained artist who died in 1968, joined the Women's Army Corps during World War II and was assigned to create a cartoon for WAC publications. Her character G.I. Gertie, who was not Indian, experienced the sometimes comic travails of wartime duty.

Two Bulls, who is Oglala Lakota and now freelances for Indian Country Today, likes his cartoons to make people think a different way about a subject.

"Cartooning is storytelling," Two Bulls said. "It was invented here in the United States. For some reason, we always look down on it, think it is childish. But I think it is a very mature medium that can tell a lot of different stories."

NOTE: Following are the full captions for the images in the slideshow at top:

PHOTO 1: Known as "All American Man," this pictograph was drawn by an unknown Pueblo artist 800 years ago in what is now Utah. Like iconic heroes from 20th-century comic books, "All American Man" was drawn during a time of profound change. His red-white-and-blue shield is reminiscent of Captain America's shield. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture

PHOTO 2: In "Behold... Po'Pay" from "Tewa Tales of Suspense," cartoonist Jason Garcia depicts the historic hero of the 1680 Pueblo revolt against Spanish colonizers like a superhero from a 1964 Avengers comic. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture

PHOTO 3: Jolene Nenibah Yazzie's "Ko' Asdzaa," or "fire woman," is one in a series of her Native interpretations of female heroes. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture

PHOTO 4: "Frybread Man" (2003) is a best seller for Ryan Huna Smith, a Chemehuevi and Navajo artist. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture

For more information on Native American culture: National Museum of the American Indian

Posted with permission from the National Museum of the American Indian.

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