Broad audience captured with wide range of formats
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — In her latest projects, Native artist Arigon Starr has moved from her fictional superhero ‘Super Indian’ to tell fictional stories based on actual events.
Her latest comic venture has her exploring real heroes in the graphic novel ‘Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers,’ based on Native American soldiers who used their languages to help guard U.S. transmissions from enemies during war.
She also took back the narrative about the 1950s Indian relocation program Starr said is negatively portrayed in ‘The Exiles’ documentary through her play ‘Round Dance.’
“Because we’re still here. You’re here on the radio; I’m out here doing comic books, there is still a lot of joy and humor and fun in our communities that never gets reflected in the popular media,” she said in an interview with ‘Mvskoke Radio’ host Gary Fife.
Starr said ‘Code Talkers’ developed out of some promotional art she did for her booth at the Denver Comic-Con, which featured a grandfather reading the comic to his granddaughter, which caught the eye of her copublisher.
“But Lee said, ‘can I have the image you made in that comic book?’ and he blew it up to larger size and whenever people came by our booth at Denver Comic-Con they stopped in their tracks and said, ‘I want that book now,’ ” Starr said.
She said the novel was a collaborative effort of several short stories by different artists.
“A little snapshot in eight to 12 pages and that was a real challenge because we tackle a lot of different tribes, a lot of different theaters of war,” Starr said. “Everything from World War II, World War I, Korea and hopefully we’ll generate another book in the next couple of years that talks about what happened after they came back.”
Starr said she tried to make the stories appropriate for a broad audience, which paid off by making the short list for best graphic novels from the American Indian Library Association and the top 100 best graphic novels of the year by the American Library Association.
“So that book has really gone far and wide and has really kind of put a lot of the artists and the people that were in the book on the map as far as artists and getting a lot of work,” she said.
She said the graphic novel has also helped teach a broader audience about the Code Talkers.
“So it’s really a way to get a place in those schools, in those libraries to share the stories of our people and the sacrifices they made because again, a lot of people you know outside our community don’t understand how many veterans we had, how important our veterans are to our community,” she said.
Starr said she focused on the Choctaw Code Talkers and did research through the work of the tribe’s scholars, on the internet and in libraries for her fictional narrative.
“As far as I know and the vets that I know that have looked at the book, they’re very, very happy with them and especially happy because they do reach a wider audience,” she said.
Starr’s original play ‘Round Dance’ is set around the American Indian Urban Relocation efforts, which were started by Congress in 1953 in an attempt at further assimilation.
“This initiative to take Native people from their reservations or from their communities and move them to larger metropolises like Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland, and have them start lives with promises of jobs, bus ticket, a place to live and a lot of times people would come into town and go, ‘what the heck?’ ” she said.
She said information about the program is hard to find and a documentary called ‘The Exiles’ that focuses on the Native community in a portion of Los Angeles called Bunker Hill, is a slanted and negative portrayal of this community respected by the city’s academics.
“It was a non-Indian person who definitely had an agenda and of course that agenda at the time and still today it seems like is the vanishing Indian and all of the woes,” she said “You know the drunkenness, the loneliness and everything about a vanquished people.”
Starr said some of her family participated in the program and she drew on those experiences for ‘Round Dance’ to retell the story with humor and romance.
She said the play focuses on a man, played by Mvskoke Media Reporter Darren DeLaune in the staged reading, who moves from Okmulgee to Los Angeles in 1956 and convinces his mom and sister to follow him.
Starr said like many families who relocated, the protagonist works at a gas station.
She said he gets a chance to buyout the owner and heads to a known Native bar in Los Angeles called The Ritz, which was featured in ‘The Exiles’ when, “as they say in Hollywood, ‘hijinks ensue.’ ”
“We get to meet a group of Native nurses that come to the bar and other people that are in the bar and it figures centrally to what happens in the second act,” she said. “There’s all kinds of craziness that happens in that bar and afterwards when they return to the gas station at daylight.”
Starr said the play is set the day after Elvis’ notorious appearance on ‘The Milton Berle Show,’ “where he did the full-frontal gyration and the ripple effect it had.”
She said a lot of the Native cast was familiar with the relocation period from their own family in this self-described fish-out-of-water story.
The play was held June 8-17, Thursday-Saturday during the New Native American Play Festival in Oklahoma City after an audience nominated it for the event during an earlier staged reading.
“So they are in their ninth year and I had written this play for the first year they came out that was staged, read but it didn’t make it to the final cut,” she said.
Starr said the name comes from the most community-oriented style of dance at intertribal events in Los Angeles and that she needs a Native audience at her plays so they can make non-Native attendees comfortable with laughing.
“Because I’ll be honest, sometimes they’re hesitant to laugh at us and the things that we do, even if they find it kind of funny it’s like, ‘is it OK to laugh at that?’ Yes it’s OK to laugh at that,” she said.