The Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection & The Politics of Public Knowledge

sir arthur            Outside of the Library and Archives of Canada, there is a statue of Sir Arthur Doughty, the country’s first National Archivist. In a city of thousands, he is one only of two civil servants who has been honoured with his own statue – the other died a hero while saving a drowning woman. While Sir Arthur never dove into a frozen river, he is a hero of a very different kind to Canada. There is a plaque at the base of his statue inscribed with the following quotation:

“Of all national assets, archives are the most precious: they are the gift of one generation to another, and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.”

Our idea of nation and civilization are very different from Sir Arthur’s, and I don’t mind saying better. I grew up taking the idea of a national archives for granted – my mother worked for it, and my father worked in it. The archives is the glacial melt from which so much of the river of history flows. But in recent years it has been under attack.

Who would attack such an apparently non-partisan body? The Conservatives, we are not surprised to discover. But why? Surely nothing could be more stale, more status quo, than the National Archives, one might think. You’d be wrong.
The National Archives are a knife held to the throat of the government. Records held there were instrumental to building the case against the protracted cultural genocide waged by the Canadian state against indigenous peoples. There is information enough in the archives to lay bare proof of crimes past and present. Archives are a vital resource in the fight against colonialism. They are a weapon in many struggles for justice.

camille_callisonAll of which may seem like a strange way to introduce our feature on Camille Callison, the Indigenous Services Librarian at the University of Manitoba. But doing so sets the stage to help understand just how important – and potentially threatening to colonialism – her work at U of M is. Camille has recently coordinated the assembly of Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection (‘Mazinbiige’ is an Anishinaabe word meaning “beautiful images and writing”), of more than 200 titles written by and about indigenous people.

The collection not only captures the best of the genre but also the worst. It includes the most racist, stereotypical depictions of indigenous people as well as the most authentic ones. The reasoning for doing so is that these racist depictions are often far more visible and it is important to understand how settler culture portrays indigenous people.

It’s one of the very first such collections available at a Canadian university. Callison describes the increasing literary credibility of comics and graphic novels in society as well as the increased recognition of the medium as an educational tool. She sees comics as a way to engage youth with topics that they might find too try if they were presented with conventional writing on the subject.   Based on the buzz around the collection, it looks like she’s right. Not only the university but the student paper and even CTV have taken notice of the launch of the collection. Given the ongoing interest in innovative teaching methods, this is hardly surprising. Callison’s work will create a resource for critical discussion on the depictions of indigenous people, as well as greatly simplifying research for comics scholars interested in the subject. Accessibility is a major consideration for librarians and archivists, and indigenous peoples often find that their efforts to access residential school records at the Library and Archives of Canada was obstructed by bureaucratic obstacles.

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Photos from the launch of the Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection, November 2013
Photos from the launch of the Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection, November 2013

Callison notes the role of her son in interesting her in graphic novels as a medium; they were one of the first kinds of reading he became interested in doing. She says that they read them together and had critical discussions of the way women were depicted in the media so that he could enjoy them without absorbing sexist stereotypes. This is very much in line with her emphasis on critical reading as a way of understanding depictions of indigenous people in mainstream comics.

She also acknowledges the importance of working with Blue Corn Comics and discussions with Professor Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, an Assistant Professor in Department of Native Studies who teaches a course on graphic novels. In an article for the Manitoban, Niigaan Sinclair is quoted as describing graphic novels as a vehicle for self-determination.

There are a lot of great discussions going on about how mainstream comics reinforce sexism, racism and other toxic ideologies. Alas, these discussions seldom get beyond the politics of representation in terms of what comics can do. It’s great to see indigenous authors producing comics about indigenous superheroes. But The Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection includes more than good and bad portrayals of indigenous heroes – it includes diverse narratives of indigenous experience that can help to communicate trauma, share traditional knowledge, and help us decolonize ourselves.

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