After meeting Arigon Starr as WonderCon, Anaheim and discovering Super Indian, I had a chance to talk with Arigon about her life, comics, American Indians and everything Super Indian related. She was nice enough to share her thoughts with our readers.
First Comics News: You’re an enrolled member of the Kickapoo Tribe, what is enrolled membership?
Arigon Starr: I’m actually descended from four different tribes, thanks to my Mom and Dad. My father was a full-blood Kickapoo, my Mom an enrolled Muscogee Creek with Cherokee and Seneca heritage. Enrolled membership is given by tribal nations based on either blood quantum or census rolls like the Dawes Commission Rollback in the early 1900s. Because I’m tribally enrolled, I don’t get hassled about not being a “real” Indian, but the truth is, there are varying rules from each of the over 500 Native nations about who can call themselves “Indian” and who can’t. Sadly, many Native people don’t even have the opportunity to be “Indian” because the government abolished their tribe. Some groups have come back to regain their nation-to-nation status, some are still working to come back. Very often who can call themselves “Indian” and who can’t is a huge controversy in Indian Country that serves to divide and conquer.
Arigon: The one constant in my life was driving cross-country for holidays and vacations in Oklahoma. My Mom and Dad are both from different parts of Oklahoma and there were many holidays spent in the back of a station wagon driving from far-away places like New Jersey or Gallup, New Mexico to Oklahoma. Once home in Tulsa or Shawnee, we would reconnect with family and just enjoy being ourselves. Oddly enough, the only time I would feel “Indian” was in school when well-meaning teachers would make me stand up and tell the class about what it was like to be “Indian.” It’s a challenge to provide facts, stats, cultural heritage and history when you’re only nine! Most of the time, the question was, “Do you live in a teepee?”
1st: You worked in the entertainment industry, at Viacom and Showtime, how did you break into entertainment?
Arigon: Working in entertainment was an eye-opening experience. I saw corporate workings from the inside, plus I saw what a difference being a professional actor/writer/director made in producing television shows for big networks. I initially broke in as a temporary secretary/assistant by signing up with a temp agency that hired for the studios and networks. It helps to be organized, work hard, show up on time and have the ability to type. I went from the Legal department (where being able to see Hollywood contracts was a plus!) to working on set as a publicist. Believe me, I got an education in how to treat people and how to behave like an artist. I also received invaluable training from some long-time veteran publicists on drafting log lines, press releases and understanding press deadlines. Nothing like the school of hard knocks for an education!
Arigon: During my long hours in the corporate world, I was also performing my original songs at open mike nights in Hollywood. After one exhausting stint at the Television Critics Association meeting, I finally realized that it had never been my dream to come to Hollywood to make sure some star actor’s limo arrived on time. Fortunately for me, I had a friend who worked for the Disney Stores who took me on as a freelance artist. I was able to do my work creating t-shirt and pocket designs for Disney at home, fax them in and get paid. After a few months, I had enough money saved to record my first music CD.
1st: So far you have produced four CDs that have been pretty well received.
Arigon: All of those long nights at coffee shops paid off in droves! I recorded my first CD, “Meet the Diva” in 1997 and it received the “Best Independent CD” from the Native American Music Awards. I also formed a band and we toured everywhere from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in England. I put out three other music CDs that have received more awards from the Native American Music Awards (including “Song of the Year,” and “Songwriter of the Year”), First Americans in the Arts Awards and nominations from the Aboriginal Music Awards in Canada.
Arigon: The best way to get your music and acting together is to write a show that includes them both. I was so happy to be commissioned to write a one-person show called “The Red Road” (nothing to do with the TV show on Sundance Channel) that had comedy and music. I’ve also stripped down my music show and do most of them solo acoustic, much like my hero Garth Brooks has been doing at the Wynn in Vegas. There’s nothing like telling a good story, singing a good song and connecting one-on-one with an audience.
1st: What show have we seen you in?
Arigon: Well, it’s been a while! I did a small stint on ABC’s “General Hospital,” and a guest appearance on Showtime’s “Barbershop: The Series.” I’ve done a lot more stage work, mostly in Los Angeles.
Arigon: There is a distinct lack of sleep happening at the moment! I’ve been able to fit in a few acting jobs and musical gigs around my comic book work. I am having a challenge finding the time to adequately do all the artistic things I love.
1st: Super Indian started as a radio show?
Arigon: In 2006, I submitted a ten-minute radio script to Native Voices at the Autry and the National Radio Theater Project. The two organizations had teamed with the National Audio Theater Festival in West Plains, Missouri to tutor and mentor Native American radio artists in the development and production of live radio theater. My script laid out the situation of an ordinary Reservation boy eating tainted commodity cheese and gaining superpowers in an audio format. Along with a host of other talented Native folks from across the country, I went to West Plains where I had hands-on training from people who had worked with folks like radio and audio theater legends like Norman Corwin and Garrison Keillor. The play was part of a larger program that was broadcast live on National Public Radio at the end of the festival.
“Super Indian” was a real hit and Native Voices at the Autry and the Native Radio Theater Project asked me to develop a ten-episode series. We went into production in 2007 and recorded the scripts before a live audience at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. For those of your younger readers who may have never experienced this – the taping included actors with scripts in front of several microphones, plus a team of live sound effects artists (lead by the legendary Tony Palermo who’s worked with Monty Python’s Eric Idle) who provided the ‘sounds’ of the show using some very interesting objects!
The show was directed by William Dufris, who’s also known as the voice of “Bob The Builder” on PBS. “Super Indian” became a one-hour radio special that was broadcast nationally on the Native Voice One radio network and the American Indian Radio on Satellite. The program is also now archived on PRX.org.
1st: What made you decide to turn it into a webcomic?
When I first suggested this idea, I was on a train to a beautiful beach in Australia with other Native American theater artists. We laughed about the absurdity of superheroes, but it was always my intention to have something Native audiences could relate to and be proud of. When I was growing up, I had always wanted to see a Native superhero who had not only strength but humor. A lot of the non-Indian world has no idea the laughter that goes on in our families and community. Some call it “survival humor,” but it sure makes all the baloney we have to put up with as Native people a bit easier to take.
With the “Super Indian” radio scripts collecting dust on the shelf, I decided to find out first hand what it took to be a ‘real’ comic book artist. I picked up lots of ‘how-to’ books and started drawing. (Huge props to Brian & Kristy Miller of Hi-Fi Color and digital artists Freddie E. Williams and Brian Haberlin for sharing their knowledge with the world!)
One conversation I had with J.G. Roshell of Comicraft at the APE Convention in San Francisco was key. He told me, “Know your audience!” and suggested that I delay publishing a full graphic novel until I established a following. “Do a webcomic,” he said. I also had a great discussion with Mike Dawson (“Freddie & Me”) who told me I should go forward and create the entire novel before trying to find a publisher. I heard it again and again at various panels in San Diego and San Francisco – “No one is going to take you seriously unless you publish your own book first.”
Armed with all of this information, I started publishing “Super Indian” as a webcomic one half-page at a time in April 2011. There has always been fresh content on the site every Monday since then.
In May 2012, I published “Super Indian Volume One,” and I’m currently working to finish Volume Two!
1st: Clearly no relation to the Super Indian published by Raj Comics, have there been any issues with both of you using the same title?
Arigon: No issues so far. The only confusion has been on “Super Indian’s” Facebook page. But isn’t there always confusion on Facebook?
Arigon: Hubert is Super Indian….and Super Indian is Hubert! Hubert is a young Native man who works by day as a janitor at the Leaning Oak Bingo Hall and dons his superhero spandex when evil threatens the Reservation. Hubert himself is rather bookish, nerdy and soft-spoken.
1st: What is Rezium?
Arigon: Developed in a secret government lab, Rezium was created by Dr. Eaton Crowe as a nutritional additive to help build stronger and healthier people. The additive was part of a commodity/government cheese that ended up at Hubert Logan’s boyhood birthday party.
Arigon: Much like those meteor rocks in Smallville igniting superpowers, Rezium can bestow powers to those who ingest it! At the birthday party, Hubert, his friend Derek Thunder and his then-pet dog, Diogi ate the tainted cheese. Derek Thunder emerged as a supervillain in Issue #4, “Technoskin.”
1st: What are the issues Hubert deals with as Super Indian?
Arigon: Hubert is enjoying the spotlight as Super Indian, but often feels hidden in the shadow of his super-self. In Issue #3, “Hubert’s Blog,” Hubert established an anonymous online identity that made hasty judgments and spread rumors within the Leaning Oak Community. As the series continues, we’ll meet more of the villains that are members of “The Circle of Evil,” who intend to gain control of Native America and the world by harnessing the power of Rezium. Super Indian’s powers are emerging. We’ll see him jump-start another superhero, Laguna Woman in Issue #6, “The Curse of Blud Kwan’Tum.”
Arigon: Mega Bear is the super alter ego of Hubert/Super Indian’s best friend, General Bear. Probably the sweetest, nicest guy on the Leaning Oak Reservation, some see him as simple or unambitious. He’s devoted to helping his community and has no problems donning his spandex uniform to help Super Indian defeat the bad guys.
1st: Who is Diogi?
Arigon: Diogi (pronounced dee-OH-jee) is Hubert/Super Indian’s trusted canine companion. Diogi also ate the Rezium-tainted cheese and has become intelligent with the power of speech. He spends many hours at the Leaning Oak Public Library studying theoretical physics. He can communicate using a subsonic yowl that only Super Indian can hear.
Arigon: Laguna Woman, also known as Ka’waika Woman, was introduced in Super Indian Issue #5, “The Curse of Blud Kwan’Tum, Part I.” Her alter-ego is Phoebe Francis, a young woman who works with an Eco-Tourism group that leads treks through the jungles of Mexico. Phoebe enters the story at a trade show where she meets Leaning Oak’s Bingo Hall Boss, Lena Marie and the mysterious villain, Blud Kwan’Tum. In Issue #6, Phoebe/Laguna Woman will meet Super Indian. Shayai Lucero, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a former Miss Indian World, worked with me as a consultant and tribal liaison to make sure that Laguna Woman’s “outfit” was drawn correctly and with respect. In Native America, we never call our tribal clothes “costumes,” but regalia. That’s why you see Native people upset when they see non-Native people wearing warbonnets or other faux Native items! It’s just not right.
Arigon: The Indigenous Narratives Collective or INC is a group of Native American comic book writers and artists. We decided to band together to present a united front to represent the breadth and diversity of Native American talent to the bigger comic industry.
One of the key reasons we decided it was time to have an organization like INC is the persistently poor and inaccurate depictions of Native Americans in comics. Michael Sheyahshe, the author of “Native Americans in Comics: A Critical Study” (McFarland Publishers) expertly outlined the stereotypes we continue to see in mainstream comics. The tracker, the shaman, the ‘more-Indian-than-Thou’ white Indian, the savage – you’ll see these characters again and again in the pages of big-time comics. We all decided now was the right time to tell our own stories and create art that reflected who we are today and how we see ourselves.
Arigon: The world at large knows the movie “Windtalkers” starring Nicholas Cage that featured the Navajo Code Talkers. However, using tribal languages as secret communication started in World War I with groups of Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, and other tribes. Part of the problem here is that Native Americans continue to be marginalized in mainstream media and entertainment, so our stories have not been told. The Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I were highlighted in a documentary on PBS 2010 – and that was the first time I heard about them!
As time continues to pass and we lose the people who lived these stories, it’s important to bring projects like “Tales of The Mighty Code Talkers” to life.
1st: How did this come about with Native Americans being soldiers but not being citizens?
Arigon: World War I brought many changes to America – and certainly to my Native ancestors. Many people aren’t aware of this – but Native Americans to this day continue to enlist in every military branch in greater numbers than our percentage of the total population. A lot of this has to do with the honor warriors receive and the duty they feel to protect their land.
In 1917 when America declared war on Germany, Native men flocked to recruiting centers. For many Natives, this was also the first time they’d been around other Native people besides members of their own tribes and families.
The citizenship movement for Native Americans didn’t start within our communities. It was another move (like Indian Boarding Schools) towards assimilation. One of the best quotes I’ve come across is from Dr. Joseph K. Dixon, who was adamant about bringing Indians into white society:
“The Indian, though a man without a country, the Indian who has suffered a thousand wrongs considered the white man’s burden and from mountains, plains and divides, the Indian threw himself into the struggle to help throttle the unthinkable tyranny of the Hun. The Indian helped to free Belgium, helped to free all the small nations, helped to give victory to the Stars and Stripes. The Indians went to France to help avenge the ravages of autocracy. Now, shall we not redeem ourselves by redeeming all the tribes?”
Because so many of our people were willing to protect their land and people, we were afforded the privilege of United States citizenship.
Arigon: One of the best places, according to my friend and INC member Roy Boney (“Dead Eyes Open,” “Trickster”), you can find many of these fonts at Languagegeek.com. Additionally, the Osage and Cree Nations are developing fonts based on their writing systems that will be available shortly.
1st: What else is planned from INC?
Arigon: Our first large scale project will be the release of the full “Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers” book in Fall 2014. The book will feature 64-pages of full color art and stories about the code talkers from many different Native tribes during all of the major US conflicts.
Additionally, Lee Francis IV, a Laguna Pueblo writer/poet/educator, has set up INC Comics, which will publish and distribute creator-owned graphic novels and comic books. Many of the artists and writers working with us, including Theo Tso (Paiute), Jonathan Nelson (Navajo), Kristina BadHand (Lakota), Michael Sheyahshe (Caddo), Roy Boney (Cherokee) are developing graphic novels that feature superheroes, science fiction, westerns and historical tales that will be part of INC Comics catalog.
INC will also be part of the programming at the upcoming Big Wow Comic Festival in San Jose, CA May 17-18; Phoenix Comic Con June 5-8; Denver Comic Con June 13-15; Sooner Con in Oklahoma City June 27-29; and we’ll be walking around San Diego Comic-Con July 24-27.
1st: What has the reaction been from the educational community?
Arigon: Rave reviews, high fives, and sighs of relief have come from all of our educator colleagues. Lee Francis IV, who’s INC Comic’s managing editor is now completing his doctorate in Education and has seen the need for comics and graphic novels in the classroom grow in the years he and I have been working to get INC Comics off the ground. Roy Boney, who works for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma in addition to his outstanding artistic work, is helping INC put together a workshop to incorporate Native languages into comic books created by Native youth. Michael Sheyahshe and Elizabeth LaPensee are experts in developing games and are working towards improving the images and stories of Native people in the gaming industry. Jonathan Nelson is an instructor at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico when he isn’t drawing his “Wool of Jonesy” comic book and exhibiting at the well-known Santa Fe Indian Market. Because we have these incredible talents adding their voices to the INC movement, we’ve been getting a lot of traction in the higher education world.
In the meantime, Theo Tso (creator of “Captain Pauite”) and I are the artists who are self-taught and educated. I’ve never been to college, but I know plenty of people who have and they’ve been so supportive of all my artistic work. This past year, Professor Susan Bernardin of SUNY College in New York used “Super Indian Volume One” as part of her Native American literature course. Other colleges and universities (like Haskell Indian Nations University, Cal State San Marcos and Dartmouth) have purchased “Super Indian Volume One” for their libraries and classrooms.
Another fantastic aspect of creating INC Comics has been having the opportunity to present “Natives in Comics” workshops all over the country. From the Tulsa City/County Libraries in Oklahoma; AIEP (Austin Indian Education Program) in Texas; Eastern Band Cherokee School in North Carolina; Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, California to the rural Skyline Gila River School in Arizona, we’ve been able to reach out to Native youth in our community to get them interested in creating comics and teaching them to tell their stories in sequential art.
Arigon: Right now, “Super Indian Volume One” can be ordered from Wacky Productions Unlimited/Rezium Studios directly, http://www.superindiancomics.com. INC Comics (“Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers #1) can be ordered online at ICNcomics.
1st: Where can readers find your comics now?
I’ll continue to update “Super Indian,” the single-issue comic online for the foreseeable future. Interested folks can look at our website and catch up on all the fun we’ve been having for a few years now. We’re now into Issue #6 and have our sights set on getting the print version out and taking Super Indian on some wild adventures in Issue #7.