Native American Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 24
Edited by Tom Pomplun, John Smelcer, and Joseph Bruchac
Eureka Productions 2013
Reviewed by Bob Wake
Publisher/editor Tom Pomplun’s Graphic Classics, now on their 24th volume, have always had more in mind than merely giving literature the comic book treatment. At their best, which is most of the time, these anthologies bring together brilliant artists and adapters who have seemingly invented their own genre: recontextualing marginalized literary works and bringing them to life in a manner that feels both mythic and vitally relevant.
For Native American Classics, Pomplun has been joined by two co-editors of Native heritage, John Smelcer (Ahtna, an Alaskan tribe) and Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki). Both notable authors in their own right, Smelcer and Bruchac have assisted Pomplun in curating a treasure trove of undersung literary history, much of it from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and matched these eighteen stories and poems with contemporary artists, many of whom are themselves of Native ancestry.
Some of this literature has only in recent decades been reclaimed by scholars and critics. Take the case of E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), a Canadian writer and stage performer of Mohawk heritage, whose 1894 dramatic poem “The Cattle Thief” is strikingly illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (“a Tongva/Scots-Gaelic illustrator” according to her Graphic Classics bio). Although Margaret Atwood has championed Johnson and even written the libretto for an upcoming chamber opera based on Johnson’s final days (scheduled for a May 2014 premiere at City Opera Vancouver), Atwood nevertheless failed to include Johnson in her landmark 1972 study, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.
“The Cattle Thief” is told from the perspective of white vigilantes tracking and gunning down an aged and malnourished Cree Indian chief. The chief’s traumatized daughter righteously curses the trackers:
“Go back with your new religion, we never have understood
Your robbing an Indian’s body, and mocking his soul with food!
Go back with your new religion, and find—if you can—
The honest man you have ever made from a starving man!”
A good deal of the excitement readers will undoubtedly share upon cracking open Native American Classics is the sense of experiencing earlier writers on the front lines of clashing civilizations. Christianity does not fare well in these skirmishes. But neither is the white man’s religion unfairly demonized. This could be in part because the authors were themselves sometimes conflicted by warring cultural sentiments.
“The Soft-Hearted Sioux” by Zitkala-Ša (1876–1938), adapted here by Benjamin Truman and rendered in gorgeous painterly style by the triumvirate of Jim McMunn, Timothy Truman and Mark A. Nelson, tells of a young man with Bible in hand returning to his tribe after graduating from a missionary school. His naive attempt at proselytizing to save the soul of his dying father leads to a rite of passage that turns the biblical tale of the Prodigal Son on its head. The story ends with the kind of multicultural ambiguity that would satisfy even the most hardened postmodernist. It’s one of the highlights of an anthology that seems chockablock with highlights both literary and artistic.