Tribal Force, the First Comic to Feature a Team of Native American Superheroes, Is Returning

Superheroes have always had a diversity problem, which is sort of ironic, really. In a world where people can fly, shoot lasers, sling webs, change shape or wield any other of a seemingly endless string of powers, the representation of actual human diversity—physical, cultural, racial, sexual—is often left out of the mix.

Since the chiseled white jaws of Superman and Captain America first started gracing comics, the industry has made some efforts to address this. Starting in the 1960s, the formation of the X-Men brought issues of racism to the comics, while other series have dealt with issues of sexuality. But there still were (and are) gaps.

In 1996, writer Jon Proudstar and artist Ryan Huna Smith created Tribal Force, a comic centered on the first band of superheroes made up entirely of Native Americans. The comic charted the path of five people who used the powers granted to them by the god Thunderbird to protect native land from a powerful, high-tech government, and was incredibly well received. (Its accolades include a slot in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian's Comic Art Indigène exhibit.) But it had only a short run. Proudstar and Smith split, and the comic went dark.

After nearly two decades Tribal Force is coming back, says High County News. In an interview, Proudstar explores his goals for Tribal Force, including exploring Native American cultural histories and stories, and tackling serious issues faced today by those living on reservations.

High Country News Why did you create Tribal Force?

Jon Proudstar I think Native children need to know who they are. They forget why we fought so hard in the beginning, and why we continue to fight: to fulfill the promise we made with our God to protect this land and take care of it. When you have that strength of knowing where you come from, the greatness your people once had, it's like you're Superman. You feel the power.

HCN Where did the idea come from?

Proudstar The superhero comic books that I was so into (as a kid) taught me the whole thing about good and evil. I saw the bad things that were going on, that gangs were doing, and … I know it sounds silly, man, but I was like: "Spider-Man wouldn't do that," or "Batman wouldn't do that."

HCN Traditionalism vs. modern life is a big theme, isn't it?

Proudstar That's definitely entrenched in Tribal Force. They're all traditional heroes – meaning that their powers come from Native tradition – but their enemies are all high-tech: guns, lasers, cannons, invisible ships. That's what they're up against.

It's hard to keep values and traditions when you're amalgamating with such an advanced society. You walk two roads: Failure in one world is success in the other, and vice versa.My dream is to give Native American kids heroes. I didn't have that.

HCN The members of Tribal Force aren't your typical superhero team.

Proudstar The characters are very young and flawed, and not into their culture. They're the last people you'd pick to have super powers in your community. They're the jerkoffs who are in jail every frickin' weekend.

Nita's a punk … and the gods won't take it from her any more. Spiderwoman – the Navajo goddess who taught her people how to weave – takes Nita to the past, and shows her what the Navajo have been through. When she sees the sacrifices that her people made, she starts to become more serious about learning. If she learns how to weave, she'll get more powers. If she goes through her Kinaaldá (a Navajo coming-of-age ceremony) she'll increase her powers.

HCN If the members of Tribal Force were here today, what would they be most upset with?

Proudstar Tribal Force looks at the same issues that rez kids have to deal with. When I was younger, I remember thinking, "We'll always be poor, struggling, seeing relatives being arrested." That was kind of crushing. But I educated myself by reading a lot, and in broadening my horizons, I realized that things will change – and that you can change them.

The first issue I'm dealing with in the book is the epidemic of child molestation on Indian reservations. Seven out of 10 girls – it's a huge cancer. Gabe has fetal alcohol syndrome … and he's into weed and drinking, and struggles with learning what it truly is to be a warrior. A lot of kids misinterpret what a warrior is. It has nothing to do with war. A warrior takes care of his village, makes sure the old ones are taken care of, and that the children are safe.

But for the most part, it's a comic book. There's action and aliens, and weird stuff.

HCN Given all the injustices Native Americans have experienced, what keeps you fighting the good fight?

Proudstar To know I have that blood running through me definitely gives me strength. That's what I'm hoping when kids pick up my book – that somewhere in there, they will find a window that opens up to them, too. We give kids the information in a non-threatening way. It's not like a textbook.

HCN Is it intended to be controversial?

Proudstar The books that influenced me, like X-Men, were very controversial at the time, because they talked about homosexuality, racism, suicide – topics that were taboo in comic books. If an educator reads (Tribal Force), they definitely would be worried. (It has) a lot of violence and controversial subject matter.

But I'm not writing it for adults. I'm writing it for young people, in a medium they're used to. It's the art of "fighting without fighting."

The last thing I want is teachers or organizations saying, "Children, you should read this." If anything, I want them to say, "Stay away from this book."

Tribal Force wasn't the first comic to include Native American heroes, but many of those early attempts, from the cringe-inducing Red Warrior to Marvel's Red Wolf suffer from ham-handed racial stereotyping.

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Rising Sun Comics (See pages from the new issue and order a print or digital version here)