“Like many Native people, I was frustrated by how people’s assumptions about being American Indian didn’t match up to how I really was.”
Deviney Luchsinger/Multimedia Specialist
Jewish, Native American artist chronicles duel identities through comics
OKMULGEE, Okla. — Navigating cultural identity can be challenging, especially when the identities do not show up often together. For Los Angeles artist Emily Bowen Cohen, this journey maneuvering between both her Muscogee (Creek) and Jewish heritages has brought up unique obstacles that Cohen chronicles through her art.
Cohen was raised in Okemah, Okla., by her Muscogee (Creek) father and Jewish mother. After the tragic loss of her father at a young age, the family packed up and moved to New Jersey, saying goodbye to her home and father’s family.
“I lost him when I was nine and I feel like it took me a long time to confront how big of a loss that was. And I still feel it every day,” she said.
Devout in her Jewish faith and community, she has always felt disconnected to her Mvskoke heritage. She did not grow up around many other Native people, so she always felt like she had to assert her identity as Native American.
“The two sides of my identity have been complicated it feels like. They just don’t intersect that often in regular life,” she said. “Like many Native people, I was frustrated by how people’s assumptions about being American Indian didn’t match up to how I really was.”
In response to this frustration, she started what she calls memoir style comics. These comics depict life as a Jewish-Native American in an upfront and honest way.
She started off recording the memories of her father. It was a way to connect to her family, keep his memory alive and to remember where she came from before it disappeared.
Creating these comics drove her to the decision to reconnect with her father’s side of the family after 25 years. She learned about her culture, some of the traditions and her family.
“I feel like my Native American family has been really accepting of my Judaism and just very welcoming,” she said.
After returning for her trip, Cohen won the American Jewish University’s WORD Grant, Bruce Geller Memorial Prize in 2016 through the Institute of Jewish Creativity.
With the grant money, she created a comic book called, “An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement.” In this comic, Cohen recounts what it felt like to pray in synagogues after returning from her Native family.
She said she discovered that the Jewish community found her Native heritage very foreign. She wanted to gently introduce them to be a little more open-minded.
“I feel like it was a struggle to introduce them to being Native American as a contemporary person,” she said.
With three children of her own, she tries to keep her Mvskoke heritage a part of their lives as well. She often shares memories of her father with them as well as the history of her people.
She wants her Muscogee (Creek) family to be a part of her children’s family.
Cohen educates not only her own children on Mvskoke culture, but also the students at their school. She talks to the students about the history and customs of the tribe.
“I try to share it with their friends at school so that they’re more sensitive about it,” she said.
Cohen’s comic book is for sale at her website.