Tag Archives: Idle No More

Talking with Educator, Writer & Comics Creator, David Robertson

There is a story dating back in time and region to the Roman Empire, in which a raven is observed dropping stones into a pitcher to raise the height of the water inside. From this, the raven drinks, and from this tale comes the notable phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

There is a terrible need in North America today for education about the history of colonization. As settlers advanced notions of Euro-centric “progress” for centuries, the catastrophic effects upon the first peoples of the land–from outright war to enduring forms of cultural genocide–were hardly noted, even by those claiming to possess a conscience. Now, like the raven, indigenous people and settlers alike are thirsting for this knowledge, and creative minds are coming up with new, innovative ways to bring generations of stories from the margins to the mainstream.

A strong indicator of the demand has been the public’s reception to the work of David Robertson, a Cree writer, comics creator, and educator in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In just a few short years, Robertson has developed his storytelling abilities to produce a number of works to great acclaim. This year alone, he has been nominated in three categories of the Manitoba Book Awards, including ‘Aboriginal Writer of the Year’, and ‘Most Promising Manitoba Writer’. Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noted that his graphic novels “take advantage of an important means of communicating that history to Canada’s youth, especially Aboriginal youth, who have gravitated toward this genre.”

We were honoured to chat with David about his vision, his work, and his plans for the future. All illustrations are courtesy of artist Scott Henderson and Highwater Press.

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Ad Astra: Looking over the stack of comics in front of me, first and foremost, I see the work of a storyteller. What brought you to this line of work? And secondly, what brought you to comics to tell many of those stories?

RobertsonSigning a bookDave Robertson: I suppose it’s a combination of three things: education, personal history, and writing. I grew up disconnected from the side of my heritage that is Cree. My parents were separated when I was very young, and I was raised by my mom in an upper-middle class neighbourhood. She raised me and my brothers well, but because my dad wasn’t around a lot, I wasn’t exposed to First Nations culture or history. So, I grew up exposed to the kind of ignorance we still see today. A lot of racism, either experienced directly or indirectly. I ended up having a low sense of self-worth. I saw myself how others saw indigenous people.

Then, when my parents reconciled, and my dad moved back in with us (this was over a decade later), I finally began to learn more about who I was as a First Nations person. So, it’s been a long journey, learning about myself in that way, and growing a strong sense of pride through knowledge.

Now, nine years ago, I wanted to do something so that other kids could be exposed to real history and real culture. I felt like, if I could bring something into schools that would engage kids with truth, it would help in some way to fight back against the difficulties we still see in our country. Education is knowledge. My parents are both educators, that’s probably where that came from. Now, I’d written since I was in grade three, so I knew I wanted to write something. And because all I ever read when I was growing up was comic books, I thought it would be an amazing way to get kids engaged and excited with history and culture. That’s how I got into writing graphic novels.

My thought was: if you gave a kid a comic book and gave a kid a text book, which one would they choose to learn from? Always the comic book. The thing is, after they read the comic book, they want to read more about the subject. So they read the text book afterwards.

AA: That’s an excellent point. There is an accessibility with comics that I find is really unrivaled. And unlike film or TV, it can move at the reader’s pace…

DR: They call that “Visual Permanence”. See, at first it was: ‘Comics are cool; let’s do this.’ After that, I realized all the technical ways they are so effective.

For example: reading comics connects with us in an almost primal way. And that’s because we used to communicate through pictures, not words. It’s the most ancient way to story tell.

AA: I feel like your first answer really knocks out several of my introductory questions, and you’re now moving into some of the deeper questions…

DR: I’m efficient. (LOL)

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AA: Regarding oral traditions and visual narratives… Dr Sheena Howard makes an interesting note in her new book “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation,” connecting the comic medium to traditional African storytelling. Griots would memorize a lifetime of stories about the community or nation, heroes, gods and tricksters, and for many former slaves in the United States, there was no black-controlled medium of storytelling between these two (a bit mind-boggling to contemplate). I feel as though your comics are bridging the gap for indigenous narratives, in a similar way…

DR: I don’t disagree with that. At the launch of my first graphic novel, ‘The Life of Helen Betty Osborne’, Murray Sinclair said that while we have an oral tradition, we now are finding new ways to pass down our stories to future generations. One of those ways is through the sequential art medium. It’s also through art, dance, music, and other forms of writing. But I think graphic novels and comics are the most effective. And I think that’s due to the format itself, and the visual nature of the medium. And it goes back, again, to how ancient this form of communication is. It’s taking it all the way back to wall paintings, the first way we communicated with each other and passed down stories. The old always becomes new again.

AA: You mentioned presentations in the classroom. What age groups do you work with?

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DR: That’s the other thing with comics. For the same book, I’ve been to visit a grade four classroom, a junior high classroom, a high school classroom, and I’ve guest-lectured in university classrooms. They are the universal medium. There are reasons for this, too. Because of their visual nature, they connect with struggling readers or readers at lower skill levels. But because [the good ones] often have complex narrative structures and character development and so on, they connect with sophisticated readers as well. What novel can do that?

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AA: There is, understandably, a real sense of loss and despair in a lot of the characters you depict in your work. A few colleagues, indigenous and settler, have noted that the work is a difficult read emotionally, sometimes almost paralysing. What do you see as the goal of bringing these uncomfortable, even triggering histories to comics? Do they present any difficulties in groups, or working with people who have experience similar forms of trauma?

DR: Sure, they are hard to read. I remember passing by two teachers who were shocked by the scenes in Ends/Begins, for example. But they were shocked in a good way, because they recognized the value in bringing history to students in such a real way. But, I should add, in a way that is sensitive and respectful. But these stories need to be told. People need to know the history, and the uncensored history. That is the only way there will be an understanding of the historical impacts on First Nations people in this country. In terms of how to deal with that pain, some of that is in the hands of the educators who are sharing the work. If you are sharing it with kids who are second generation survivors, or survivors themselves, you need to ensure you have supports in place to deal with trauma. If you are showing this to non-indigenous people, you need to prepare to continue the dialogue the book begins, bring in a speaker, bring in supplementary texts, etc. Teachers often say: how can I bring this into the classroom? The content is too difficult. I say to them, consider what your students are inundated with today through media. The violence we see on television. The Walking Dead, for example (which I love, by the way). Yet what you are bringing them in these works is reality, history, and things we all, as Canadians, need to know. There is just too much ignorance out there not to find the best ways possible to educate.

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AA: Can comics and cartoons be problematic or trivializing when exploring violent and traumatic histories? How do you feel about settlers attempting to tackle these subjects? Is this part of a larger legacy of settlers dismissing the need for consultation in their “indigenous solidarity” activism?

DR: Well, settlers need to ensure they are doing things right if they are addressing histories of First Nations people. They need to consult with elders, indigenous peoples, and do the research, and research from the right resources. You know, Scott Henderson is white. But he has done the work to ensure that he is depicting things accurately, and we run our work through the proper channels to ensure we are being accurate and respectful. I think comics can trivialize violence, or show gratuitous violence. But they can also explore violence properly when it’s within the context of reality. The violence in my work is purposeful because it has its place within the story and within true history. Nothing is gratuitous. So, again, educators and readers need to choose properly.

Do I like settlers telling our stories? Not really. I think there is a growing movement of reclamation that needs to stay within the hands of the indigenous peoples. We just need to encourage youth to continue to get involved in telling stories. Our stories need to be reclaimed by our people, as long as those stories can be held to the right standards of excellence.

AA: You mentioned you were a comics fan growing up… comics is a strange medium, where indigenous people have been very *present* in comic representations, but almost exclusively created by white settlers for a white audiences, and very much from the white imagination of ‘manifest destiny’ and other white supremacist outlooks. Did you have any native comic role models? Which characters did you like growing up, and why?

DR: Honestly, I didn’t have any First Nations comic role models growing up and I still don’t. Part of the reason is that it’s still a growing medium within the First Nations community. There just aren’t a lot of First Nations comic book writers out there. But, that’s changing too. You know, Richard Van Camp just did one through my publisher. The Healthy Aboriginal Network does some amazing work. There’s Red, too, which you mentioned. So, I feel encouraged by all of this. In terms of characters. I’m not sure, really. There weren’t and aren’t a lot of great indigenous comic characters either. It’s so hard to create characters without perpetuating stereotypes or appropriating culture, I guess. But I think it’s doable. I loved Elfquest growing up, that’s as indigenous as I got when I was young! Other than that, I was typically into Spider-Man and Batman. I’d like to see work done for our culture that has been done so effectively for others, like King or Maus. Riel is a great one, too. I’d put it up there.

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AA: Helen Betty Osborne: What compelled you to choose Helen’s story as one to tell?

DR: Well, it was the first one I did. I suppose I saw in her story the opportunity to tackle several issues that were important to me, and that I felt should be important to many. Through her story, you learn about the residential school system, segregation, racism, sexism, indifference, the justice system’s treatment of indigenous people, and missing and murdered indigenous women. So, it was really a story that embodied so much of what I love about graphic novels: it’s this incredible foundation in education that allows teachers to jump off into a variety of important subjects. And, today, her story is more relevant than ever. Sharing her story allows us to talk about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in ways that effect people powerfully. When it’s real, it’s effective. Her story becomes so real through the graphic novel medium. And we suffer with her and learn from her.

AA: I love the way the story is framed around grassroots activism as well. I find myself noting the misfortune of many of your characters, but they’re almost always complimented with characters that represent empowerment and agency–characteristics that are difficult to portray within the victim or survivor identity.

DR: Thanks! I think, too, empowerment so often comes from knowledge.

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AA: What’s next for you? a) upcoming projects? b) more broadly, where do you see your work going?

DR: I always have projects on the go. As you know, Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story is coming out in May 2015. I think it’s my best graphic novel yet, and I am excited to see what it can do to raise awareness for Betty and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women across Canada. I have another graphic novel coming out in my Tales From Big Spirit series called The Runner: Joseph B. Keeper. That’ll be out in the Fall, hopefully. We have a bunch of names on the docket for future graphic novels but no firm plans yet on who/what they’ll be about. The Tales From Big Spirit series is envisioned as an ongoing series, so we’ll keep it going forever if we can. I’m also working away at my follow-up to The Evolution of Alice (a book with no pictures!!!). I’m about 1/4 of the way through that novel. It’s about a man who plans to commit suicide but how his life changes as he gets to know his father for the first time, and how his father’s experience at residential school affected his life, and his decision to end it.

In terms of where I see my work going… First of all, I want to constantly improve. I want to learn and get better and become the best storyteller I can become. That comes through writing and reading and learning from the best. I want to continue to do graphic novels, but I want to do more with them in the future. Tell stories that concentrate not just on history but on the amazing legends and myths in indigenous culture, and maybe tell some contemporary stories, create a super-hero we can be proud of and look up to. I’d love to do some mainstream work on my own terms, too. I’d love to, for example, take a crack at Spider-Man. He was my comic hero growing up.

That’s in the “out there” realm, but I don’t think any dream is too big. I’d like to continue to write novels, as well. And all of that work, graphic novels and novels, all, will try to educate in some way, shape, or form. That’s important to me.

Aside from that, I’d like to get into doing more work in television. I had a taste of it with my show called The Reckoner, that is currently in limbo but might see the light of day. I worked with some great writers for that show as well, like Jordan Wheeler and Sara Snow. I’d also like to write movies one day, when I have time. So, that’s what I hope for my work going forward. I just want to continue to evolve, continue to get better, and continue to challenge myself.

We do all of that by taking risks. For me, those risks involve stepping outside what I might be known for, and trying new things.

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Many thanks to Dave Robertson for making himself available for this interview! Questions and comments to David are welcome below, through the WordPress commenting form.

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Make the GAMES You Want to See in the World: Talking with Gamer and Comic Creator Elizabeth LaPensée

lapenseeAs we write this for Indigenous Comix Month 2015, Elizabeth LaPensée (Anishinaabeg/Métis/Irish) is fast becoming a household name across a number of communities: from academics promoting indigenous methodologies, to tech gurus taking to all avenues of social media to promote diversity in pop culture. From comics to video games, feminism to decolonization, Elizabeth LaPensée is a leading voice suggesting that, if we don’t see the kind of cultural tools we need for ourselves and our communities, we damn-well should have the right –and the joy—of making them.

Ad Astra: Your biography is… impressive! I feel as though your education and credentials read like a natural progression of someone really following their dreams. How did you get involved in gaming and interactive arts and media?

Elizabeth LaPensée: I grew up playing games like King’s Quest, Street Fighter, Turok, and many more. I was looking for characters to identify with and I was always hoping for something more than characters who were just “the keeper of their people” or the “protector of their people.” Who are their people? There were no Anishinaabeg or Métis characters, that’s for sure. I recognized that the games I wanted to play myself, I’d have to make myself, so I started on a journey to be able to help that happen.

AA: I feel like Ad Astra Comix began under similar circumstances. I guess that means you went into school and the gaming industry with a political mindset? Or is that presumptuous?

EL: I don’t consider myself political, but as Anishinaabekwe and Métis, it seems there’s no way to not be political. I do my best to focus on my own work and to help others in their work, and whatever that means to other people is about their experiences. I definitely feel like I’m a hacker from the inside when it comes to academia. I went for a Ph.D. to provide the research side for getting support for indigenous games and game development education for indigenous communities. I’m more recently taking space for myself to work on purely my own games, but intend to jump hardcore into the academic world. The more indigenous voices are published, the more “validity” we have as far as the academic system goes, which leads to being able to reference other indigenous scholars and continue our work.

AA: As an indigenous woman, which environment felt more alienating – academia or gaming?


EL
: Ha ha! Academia’s rough because I had to create safe spaces and it’s something I just had to survive through to continue contributing to a system that’s already not working for me. I don’t know, day to day, readings or projects might come up in a class that demean my communities, especially in technology. The worst is the thinking that indigenous people are all only about oral storytelling and had no written language. Uhh, not true. It’s just that our birch bark scrolls were taken and burned.

To get through it, I was involved in a weekly gathering of indigenous women in school that was held at my home. We could talk openly there and support one another.

With gaming, I’ve felt community because I got directly involved in making community. My first job was running the text role playing community Advocates for Collaborative Writing on America Online, where I created Story Line Role Playing (SL RP) to encourage people to, ya know, write out some sentences for our sparring matches. Ha ha! I was also a member of the Shadowclan Orcs in Ultima Online. We spoke our own Orc language and stood by very strict rules that required us to really work together or we’d just get killed. I stayed away from the problems that come up, for example, in chat during first person shooters (FPS) and found ways to again have fun, creative spaces. I always kept an eye on indigenous representations and there are definitely missteps, but I’m glad to see more recent efforts in industry to listen to indigenous people when it comes to representing them.

AA: From a mainstream perspective, with very few exceptions (I’m thinking of work like Never Alone) indigenous gaming is an unknown world. In 2015, from your perspective, what does that world look like? How would you compare it to when you first entered the gaming industry?

EL: There’s a lot happening and I feel we’re on the very edge of a rise in indigenous games. Never Alone from E-Line Media has made a strong path. Games like Spirits of Spring from Minority Media show how indigenous art can influence game design down to mechanics. Forthcoming games like Renee Nejo’s Blood Quantum promise to further expand the indie game scene. I’m working on a few games right now, some of which are mainly for passing on teachings, some of which are just games I am compelled to make. I’m excited to see games from more developers, like Manuel Marcano as he continues his path stepping away from AAA development into indie development.

I am constantly meeting new people who have either made a game, are in the process of making a game, or are in school to make games. It’s all underway!

AA: You have so much going on, as a voice for women and indigenous people in games. But you’re also a full-time Mom, yes? How has that effected your vision as a gamer / game developer / creator?

EL: I’m grateful for how my children have opened up my life. They really make priorities very clear. Ha! I’m a sole support single mom to my six year old son and three year old daughter, so I had to find ways to involve them in my work. We’re constantly doing things together. I have a kid-friendly game paper prototyping kit just for them that’s mobile so we can take it anywhere. My son, entirely on his own, makes comics and draws basic animation walk cycles. They see what I do and I’m able to do a lot of my work with them or around them. Some of my work is made for them, some is for me, some is for healing, and some is from freelance contracts. It’s true that I pull a lot of late-nighters when I work on more mature pieces, like the forthcoming comic “Deer Woman: A Vignette”! Soon they’ll be older though, and the more time I have to myself, the more I can put into this work, whether in games, comics, or otherwise.

deerwomanAA: That’s really incredible. So, you mentioned Deer Woman. Could you tell us more about this and any other comics you’ve worked on?

EL: Definitely! “Deer Woman: A Vignette” is a 16-page comic that will be printed and distributed online as a free PDF. It is with deep thanks to Anishinaabe artist Jonathan Thunder and my dear friend and editor Allie Vasquez that this comic is underway. It’s the first project I’ve had able able to have all indigenous collaborators and to truly lead myself. It’s based on true stories, both personal and shared by communities, and includes genuine self-defense teachings and advice by Patty Stonefish from Arming Sisters, a traveling self-defense workshop for Native women that helps us reclaim ourselves.

AA: …That sounds so very awesome. We would love to help promote that when it comes out. Do you have an expected release date?

EL: We are launching in Portland, Oregon at Space Monkey Coffee as well as distributing the link to the PDF on June 12, 2015!

And thank you!!! It’s a moment for me for sure, and I hope it will help people.

I’m also contributing as a writer of two comics to Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection. ‘Copper Heart’ reflects on a man’s childhood experience with the memegwesiwag (also known as little people or water spirits) who are seen by his sister before she becomes ill and he looks for a way to help her.

Copper-Heart-Art-Sample‘The Observing’, with art by G.M.B. Chomichuk, tells of an unexpected encounter while hunting. (It’s a secret but it’s a traditional story that warps space/time). Ha ha ha!

Moonshotfinal1redAA: Beautiful. I’m glad to see that your work is getting out there – and glad to know that projects like Moonshot are getting the attention and funding they deserve.

I want to thank you so much for your time. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about your work and your perspective. I hope I can pass on that impression with the interview

EL: Wonderful! Thank you for thinking of me and noticing my work.

…How could we not??

For more on Elizabeth’s work, check out her website and follow her exciting posts on Twitter. Open yourself up to the incredible world of indigenous gaming!

And, for folks in the Northwest, consider attending the launch party for ‘Deer Woman: a Vignette‘!

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Colonialism Bytes: A Review of “Idle No More: Blockade”

Here at Ad Astra, our focus is on comics. Hey, it’s in the name. But we are into political comics because we think they’re a great way to connect people with issues they might not otherwise have the time or the energy to learn about. We often have joking conversations around the office about what a social justice video game might look like. If we had the talent and resources to create one, we definitely would!

Without any formal training as a game designer, Chelsea Vowel has leveraged a simple set of game-­making tools to create a promising effort at social justice video games!

pipelines are the new buffaloIt is simplistic, lacking in skill progression, ridden with bugs and built using software that produces Super Nintendo era graphics. As a video game, the “Idle No More: Blockade” leaves much to be desired. But that’s not really the point, is it? “Idle No More” takes you on a journey to learn about indigenous culture, challenge racist European myths and fight to defend traditional land rights! Your aim as the player is to prevent the construction of the Enkoch Pipeline over your sun dance field by rallying land defenders to confront the company on site. In a medium where overt social justice objectives are rarer than uncooked sirloin, this is a welcome prelude to possibility.

be careful settlersFraming the battles as confrontations with racist settlers was an inspired stroke. The player is confronted by white people complaining about “free houses”, “drunk Indians” and “blocking economic development.” The last boss is an RCMP officer who asserts the death of indigenous nationhood and insists the treaties extinguished their titles. All the enemies are represented as monsters from traditional Cree stories, helping to connect cultural memory to contemporary struggle. But the able player responds with statistics, history lessons and a good measure of sass. If you don’t have to fight the hipster girl asking about wearing a headdress to a Coachella festival, you kind of wish you could.

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This is the value of “Idle No More” as a game. By making you an indigenous protagonist struggling to defend your land rights, the game encourages players to identify with the struggles of indigenous people. The first time I died in “combat” while educating an ignorant settler, I paused and reflected on how exhausting such confrontations must be. Seeking allies and finding ignorance, appropriation and patronizing cluelessness, I grew increasing frustrated. I was particularly annoyed by a “book of aboriginal law”, left with the elders by Enkoch representatives. You can take the book, but [SPOILER ALERT] using it on enemies only heals them! Which makes perfect sense when you think about it.

racist shit demonOne of the most striking features of “Idle No More” is its emotional range. “I laughed, I cried” is the old cliché. In twenty minutes, the game had me doing both. I was all crystal tears, I don’t mind saying, at the prospect of a pipeline going through the sun dance field. And damned if I didn’t crack up when the character looked at a book shelf and exclaimed “Tom Flanagan? Yuck.” There is a whole vocabulary of non­-verbal expressions associated with the oppressed: the raised eyebrow, the ‘side-­eye’, the rolling eyes or the apathetic shrug. In between moments that are genuinely funny and those that are painfully sad, there is at once a piercing earnestness and a wry humour.

amaaaazing headdress“Idle No More” is not much of a video game, but it’s a hell of a story. It seeks to demonstrate the diversity and complexity of indigenous communities, their contributions to humanity and their determination in the face of an ongoing campaign of genocide. In a game peppered with indigenous language, culture and politics, the player grows to identify with a people whose very humanity has been eroded by the narrative of our civilization. In other words, it might just help people shed some prejudice. So why not make video games that teach radical and oppressed history and culture more interesting than Big Macs and MTV? We look forward to seeing this budding art form grow.

colonial acknowledgementsYou can download the Idle No More video game and play it for yourself HERE.

New DC Superhero Based on Indigenous Youth Activist Shannen Koostachin

In a recent posting on DC Women Kicking Ass, sources have confirmed that comic artist Jeff Lemire has followed through on his projection from last year that he would be creating a new superhero based on deceased Indigenous teen activist Shannen Koostachin. They will be appearing in Justice League United #1, which comes out this May.

Shannon DC Jeff Lemire

Who is Shannen Koostachin?

Shannen Koostachin was born in Attawapiskat First Nation on James Bay coast, Ontario, Canada. Most recently Attawapiskat has made headlines for its dire living conditions, from boiling orders to inadequate housing insulation, which has drawn increased attention nationally and internationally to the reality that the conditions of many Indigenous communities in Canada are more comparable to the Third World than an industrialized democracy like Canada.

She attended J.R. Nakogee elementary school, which had been housed in makeshift portables shipping containers since 2000, when it was condemned and closed due to a decades-old fuel leak. Then a teenager, Shannen learned that Canadian government was not giving proper funding to First Nation Aboriginal Schooling systems around Canada.

In 2007, the federal government had backed away from a third commitment to building a new school for Attawapiskat. Using the power of social media like Youtube and Facebook, Shannen and other Indigenous youth launched the Students Helping Students campaign for a school for Attawapiskat.Koostachin spoke out about the experiences of her community in newspapers, at conferences, and on the steps of Parliament Hill in 2008.  In 2009, at the age of 14, in 2009 she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

Tragically, Shannen died on May 30, 2010 in a car accident. Her legacy to improve the conditions of First Nations communities–particularly youth and students–lives on in a campaign called Shannen’s Dream.