By Kara Sievewright
Painter, printmaker, illustrator, writer, and comics artist, Tania Willard is also the editor of Redwire Magazine, an Indigenous youth magazine and website out of Vancouver, and one of the only forums for independent aboriginal culture, art, and politics in Canada. Willard is also a member of the Secwepemc Nation, and a very vocal defender of Native rights. She is also doing a comic strip series on Native working class history called “Red Flags Red Skin” for Our Times, an independent labour magazine. The following is a result of an interview conducted via e-mail.
Recently you published an amazing all Native comics issue of Redwire Magazine. What was your inspiration for this issue?
“I have been interested in comics for a while, and in the imagery of Natives used in the media and popular culture. We had a copy of Everett Soop’s book of single-panel comics. Soop was this really brilliant Indian political cartoonist in the ’60s and ’70s. Another influence and inspiration is Gord Hill’s Zig Zag comics. He has been doing these amazing form-line design comic fusion illustrations and stories for a long time. I have seen a lot of the Indian characters in comic books and they are all so stereotypical — we wanted to frame our own Indian characters as more than a shaman, a pretty Indian princess, or vicious warrior. I also think comics are a great way to tell history. There is a comic book called The Illustrated History of the Chippewas of Nawash, and although I think it’s not the greatest artistically, the idea is amazing. I guess I always thought that comics are a good way to retell traditional stories, for example The Little Girl and Grizzly Bear story I did for the Redwire comic issue. Our oral tradition for these stories is less and less with the passing of the older generations; so many Native people are seeking to portray these stories in new ways.”
I think your comics do a good job of illustrating and connecting stories and issues that otherwise would be forgotten or never told. Why do you draw comics?
“I draw comics because I like them. I think it’s a really intimate thing, creating comics; I like the solitude and the hours of drawing. And, again, I think they are a better way sometimes to tell a story than a long boring essay or position paper. In reality, especially in the Native community and other poverty-affected communities, who is going to sit down and read a whole academic revision of history? It’s great and needs to be out there, but it also needs to be represented in popular mediums and popular culture.”
Recently Terminal City, a weekly alternative newspaper in Vancouver, published a racist Maakies comic that said cockroaches are more “indigenous” than indigenous people and talked about “featherheaded douchebags.” How did you respond to this?
“We contacted Terminal City (TC) as soon as we saw the comic. The editor didn’t get why we thought it was a big deal. We sent out the text and the cartoon on our listserve to hundreds of Native — rights activists, youths, and journalists. They wrote back just as insulted and hurt that TC would think this comic was okay to print. TC then brought the artist, Tony Millionaire, into the debate to explain what he was getting at.”
What was Tony Millionaire’s defence?
“His position was to show how racist behaviour is ridiculous, but in my view no Native person I know got that out of it — in fact they were all just like, ‘This is racist.’ (He just didn’t think there were any Indians around to complain.) The strip ran in 13 other papers across America and he hadn’t heard anything until us lippy Indians in Vancouver saw it. The e-mail debate went on with the TC editor and Tony basically saying that I was too uptight and PC. Finally I got sick of these two white men telling me why I should be OK with the cartoon and said, ‘Well, gee, let’s make a cartoon from our perspective in the same vein as Tony’s.’ So then I set about creating Kill Whitey, the Maakie’s rebuttal cartoon. TC agreed to print it along with a letter and other responses to the cartoon. They loved it and Tony really liked it too. He wanted to run it as a rebuttal to his cartoon, so it was printed everywhere the ‘douchebag’ cartoon was. That was great for us. All in all it was a pretty typical run-in with non-Native attitudes to Native people but it was satisfying to do something about that and really shatter those stereotypes that make Native people invisible.”
What are you working on next?
“Right now for Redwire we are just getting our new mag, with a free CD, launched. It’s titled ‘Our Voice is Our Weapon and Our Bullets are the Truth,’ which is a quote by John Rampanen of the West coast Warrior Society whose family was harassed by the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team for allegedly stockpiling weapons. They were harassing him because of his involvement in Native issues. We thought it really summed up Redwire and why we are involved in media — it is the power of the voice and honouring our ancestors’ stories and his/herstories and our own experiences. So the CD is a compilation of Native hip hop, spoken word by established and emerging Native poets — like Chrystos and novelist Richard Van Camp, along with Native youth poets like Skeena Reece and Larry Nicholson — and some traditional music.”
For more info: Redwire Magazine, PO Box 34097, Station D, Vancouver, BC V6J 4M1, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.redwiremag.com
An Interview with Native Comics Artist Tania Willard