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August 22, 2011

Feature Story: Going Native: Frank Frazetta’s White Indian and the Dynamics of Playing Indian, Part 1


The name Frazetta is nearly synonymous with comics illustration in the realms of fantasy fine art and masculine heroism. Recently, Vanguard Classics published a collection of Frank Frazetta's earliest sequential art beyond his more widely known oil painting renditions of sword and sorcery tales. Spanning 16 issues between 1949 and 1952, Frazetta's White Indian stories constitute the longest ongoing comic series in the artist's life. As a backup feature for the Durango Kid and other Western titles, White Indian focuses upon a non-Indian, Anglo colonist who abandons the life of a Philadelphia socialite for the vast American frontier to hunt down the murderer of his fiancée.

To readers of Golden Age comics and the dawn of the Silver Age in the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of a white Indian should not surprise anyone. In fact, as a literary trope, one could argue that the idea has become a popular culture genre that has cut across mediums since its inception in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. From the first contact between native peoples and Europeans, non-Indian explorers and settlers have created, shaped, and re-created a series of cultural expectations or stereotypes for natives that filtered down through generations and influenced the early architects of a classifiable, independent American literature. Based largely on a shared cultural history of dispossession and violence, the creation of a nationalist, American mythology during the Revolutionary era was constructed at the expense of the Indian.
At the forefront of this mythology was the establishment of an identifiable Anglo hero in the guise of Daniel Boone for the Revolutionary generation or Davy Crockett in the later Jacksonian period. Embodied in these two distinctive yet highly similar heroes was the forging of an American myth rooted firmly on subduing and conquering the natural environment. Often called a "Virgin Land" that was ripe for American settlement, the frontier attracted early Americans who could not ignore the warnings of their Puritan forefathers that an "Errand into the Wilderness" carried with it grave and dire threats in the figure of the savage, the animal, the Indian. In part, this conflict gave birth to the historical paradigm of the American frontier as a dividing line between "savagery" and "civilization," reinforcing beliefs of the native as "other" and the genesis of popular beliefs about them. Although colonial tracts and accounts of the "savage" nature of Indian peoples, explorer journals about Indian ''barbarism,'' and even captivity narratives shaped early public perceptions, popular widespread beliefs of Indians came from the pen of James Fenimore Cooper.
Boone and Crockett were the familiar, the comfortable heroes of early American popular culture because they were safe in many aspects. As symbols of the new nation in either the Age of Reason following the Revolution or of later Westward Expansion and American Democracy in the 1820s, Boone and Crockett could spend ample time among the "savages" without succumbing to the dire effects of going truly native. Into this racially charged environment of pseudo-science, Cooper entered and echoed sentiments first espoused by poet Philip Freneau in the 1780s. Although a nation secured by war, America could not appear as land thirsty and exploitative in its interior expansion. During the Revolution, the Indian became a political weapon against perceived English tyranny and imagined threats to colonial liberties. A symbol of nature, the ''Indian'' could represent an Eden and idyllic goal in theory, while in practice, according to Freneau, vanish as the last of his tribe in the wake of American growth and prosperity. In the 1820s and 1830s, Cooper's drama unfolded on the frontier, on the boundaries between "savagery" and "civilization'' where his own misinformed studies of tribal diversities, languages, and cultures provided Americans with a cultural rubber stamp, cigar store, stock Indian character, both good and bad. While Cooper had his "good" Indians in the form of Uncas or Chingachgook, they were guides and aides for the true hero, Hawkeye, Deerslayer, or Natty Bumppo. Imagine how different Michael Mann's politically correct 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans would have been if Daniel Day Lewis had been called Natty Bumppo instead of Nathaniel? All joking aside, Cooper's noble Indians aided the Euroamerican hero and then vanished, stepped aside into history to make way for American encroachment. Hawkeye, readers learned, was better at being an Indian than the Indians themselves; not only could he master their ways, fighting, and skills, he ultimately could rejoice in the "civilization" afforded his race.
Whereas Cooper envisioned a slightly more negotiated frontier, the threat of frontier degeneration was the focus of Robert Montgomery Bird's 1837 Nick of the Woods. Instead of white Indians, Bird wrote about Indianized Whites, frontiersman who had experienced some violent trauma in defending their homes and thus became brutal Indian haters and social pariahs. For Bird, Nathan Slaughter, a peaceful Quaker, was transformed into a brutal Indian fighter after Natives massacred his family. Gone are Cooper's noble virtues or paragons of nature who assist Euroamericans. They are replaced by ignorant, ignoble ''savages'' who speak through a series of grunts or with broken English pidgin dialect that have been reinforced time again in film and television, and into many comic books (Tonto anyone?). And while an assessment of George Catlin, increased literacy rates in the early 19th century, and the role of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Shows all deserve exploration, Cooper and Bird are the two most significant historical forces affecting Frazetta's White Indian.
While White Indian has several notable and memorable features, particularly Frazetta's line work and its heavy debt to Hal Foster, two of the most critical are in his representation of native peoples. First, against the larger context of what DC and Marvel were publishing during the period, Frazetta is an anomaly for many reasons discussed below. Second, Frazetta's depictions reinforce cultural expectations regarding natives while simultaneously challenging other stereotypical aspects.
When compared to mainstream Marvel or DC comics in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Frazetta's White Indian, upon first glances, would seem to fit nicely with the overt transformation of the medium away from superhero titles and into Western-themed books. Yet, surprisingly, this was the same period where DC and Marvel defied convention in their representations of American Indians. While there were many Western genre titles with the stereotyped Indian villain, both publishers, DC more so than Marvel, also captured the historical context of the era for federal Indian policy. Unlike film or television with their stock cowboy hero who conquers the defiant and violent Indian, comics actually were the cultural innovators rather than imitators during the period due in large part to their embracement of Termination and Relocation policies.
In a historical nutshell, Termination advocated the ending of special relationships between Indian Nations and the federal government. Tribes that were found to be "advanced" and ready were terminated and left to the devices of their own tribal governments and the states in which they resided. Relocation, however, was the other end of this cultural Cold War against native peoples as the notions of consensus, containment, and conformity influenced federal policy makers. In order to decimate the reservation and the source of tribal authority, Relocation promised transportation, housing, and a job in one of several major U.S. cities. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that these were horrible failures in a long line of failed Indian policies—yet, one positive outcome was the coalescence and creation of an identifiable, urban Indian youth culture that would advocate for Indian civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s.
Comics of the 1940s and 1950s had a peculiar relationship with these policies due to the fact that both DC and Marvel presented modern, contemporary, 20th-century Indian story lines in several key titles. In fact, when compared to film or television of the same decades, comics were far more socially aware of the political realities facing native peoples than they would be in the late 1960s and 1970s. Debuting in 1949, DC Comics' Pow-Wow Smith, also known as Chief Ohiyesa Smith in an obvious allusion to the real Ohiyesa, Charles Eastman, was a lawman of a modern Western town outside Gotham City. Educated in eastern schools and returning to his tribe to instruct them in the ways of 20th-century life, Smith and his adventures center around the conflict between reservation and city life, and the subtle negotiations of modernity and tradition. Between 1949 and 1953, Smith appeared alongside Batman in Detective Comics for over 50 issues. Yet his move to Western Comics and the subsequent alteration of his storyline from the present to the 19th century, alongside the vast misrepresentations of Indian cultures, cannot be overlooked in the portrayal; nor can the appearances of fictional characters such as Marvel's Apache Kid, an Anglo raised by Indians, in 1950, or DC's colonial hero Tom Hawk in 1947, or even fictionalized historical figures such as Daniel Boone in 1955. Despite these conflicting and conflicted representations, depictions of modern Indians persisted in the 1950s. Readers of Grant Morrison's various Batman titles will know of Chief Man-of-Bats, first introduced in 1954 as a contemporary, Indian Batman. Many may not, however, recall Batman adorning himself with red berry juice to pass as Indian in a subsequent adventure. Meanwhile, viewers in 1955 saw Superman on television attempt to help an educated, modern Indian fight off the treacherous plots of an evil, traditionalist in The Adventures of Superman.
Frazetta's connection to these forebears and contemporaries is awkward as he neither embodies Termination and Relocation nor challenges the dominant paradigm of Western-themed comics. At the same time, however, his depiction of natives is significant for its differences. Of course, there are elements to White Indian that betray the culturally offensive notions of natives or cultural misappropriations. At first, Dan Brand, the future "White Indian," lives during Revolutionary-era Philadelphia. After his fiancée is murdered and he flees into the frontier in search of her killer, he kills a wild bear (Crockett legend redone) and awakes to find himself living among English-speaking Catawba. Reflecting the influence of more 19th- and 20th-century depictions, Frazetta relies upon cowboy iconography for Brand as he travels West and accordingly gives the Catawba the appearance of Plains Indian warriors with their adorned headdresses despite their true geographic locale, ethnic and cultural lineage, and linguistic stock. Embodying the noble savage, Great Deer invites Brand to live with him, learn "ways of the forest, the Indian lore," and become an adopted brother to his son, Tipi. While authentic tribal names are incorporated into the stories, they are largely historically and culturally inaccurate, misrepresentations of native cultures. Yet, in the end, Brand succeeds, kills his fiancée's murderer, avenges Great Deer's death, and becomes the best and most popular "Indian" known to Euroamericans and natives alike. While subsequent stories altered the time frame back to the French and Indian War, the same pattern followed. Time and again, Indians are shown as seeking vengeance against Anglos, spurned into war by non-Indian agitators, and only learn tolerance and peace when Brand intervenes on their behalf.
Despite the notion of contemporary audiences to write such depictions off as the failures of history or the misinformed nature of older generations not accustomed to more politically correct representations, this belief falls short with native peoples when the same images have continually been reinforced again and again in popular culture for generations. Forging a disconnect between Indians of fiction and real Indian peoples, American popular culture has largely divorced natives from any narrative of modernity or contemporary society where they do not automatically conform to a prescribed role as warrior, tracker, healer, or mystic. Over the centuries, such depictions have informed policy makers and the general public about "Indians" and the purported Indian problem. Removal, wars, forced relocations, and forced assimilation and education have been hallmarks of Federal Indian policies since the arrival of Europeans, and have often been based on misinformation perpetuated by the cultural expectations and stereotypes that have been built up over centuries. What other ethnic or racial group is the subject of child's play where the villain is identified racially as Indian and the hero an Anglo American cowboy? What other cultures have been misappropriated as acceptable Halloween costumes for children? Unfortunately, Frazetta's representation cannot be written off as yet another misinformed error of history, but rather an earmarked page in a tome of culturally hostile portrayals. And for comics, Frazetta's work is but one in a long line of continually degrading images.
In Part Two, Wilson will examine the comics that came after Frazetta and contextualize them against the backdrop of changing values in American culture, as well as alterations in Federal Indian policy and notions of White Indianness.