When the Indigenous Comic Con first launched in 2016, it followed a pretty standard model for a comic book convention. Fans were able to gather and converse with artists, writers, illustrators, and other creatives. There were panels and performances and places where vendors could sell their geeky wares. The difference, though, was that the convention centered around contemporary Native nerd culture. It was a hit, and around 1,100 people attended.
Over the next few years, the convention expanded, eventually spawning others like it in Denver and Melbourne, Australia.
Now, like a Pokemon, the Indigenous Comic Con has reached its next stage of evolution: Indigipop X, happening March 25 through 29 in Albuquerque. If the old event was the indigenous version of a comic con, the new one is the indigenous equivalent of South by Southwest.
Expanding the spotlightAfter the first year of the Indigenous Comic Con, organizers began to add more eclectic events while still spotlighting Native representation. For instance, last year's convention featured both a wrestling event and a fashion show. This year sees the return of the fashion show, the addition of a dance performance, and sections on indigenous futurism and food.
“It gives us a chance to welcome in more people and really explore a number of other areas where Native and indigenous people aren't quite represented in mainstream pop culture,” Lee Francis, whose company, Native Realities, produces the event, said.
When it comes to food, the organizers partnered with Three Sisters Kitchen, a non-profit community food space in Albuquerque, to host three nights of cooking by Native chefs, including Brian Yazzie, who cooks indigenous foods on his YouTube channel.
“They're going to showcase what they've got, they're going to tell stories. We're going to tape it, and we're going to post it online,” Francis said. “Part of that is wanting to, again, not only showcase that there's Native chefs that are doing really cool native chef stuff – because we know that there's a ton of Native chefs that are out there, doing incredible cuisine locally, nationally, internationally – but that part of breaking through the pop culture is that we want to start building.”
While that part of the convention caters to attendees' senses of taste and smell, most others work with sight and sound, including the festival's film elements, which will showcase the work of indigenous youth, Francis said. It's not all super-serious, though. Navajo comedy duo James & Ernie will also be doing their own Mystery Science Theater 3000-esque riff on a film.
“I guess it's 'Native Science Theater 1492,'” Francis said.
A gaming alley will feature games of both the tabletop and video varieties, and Twitch streamers The Baker Twins will also be on hand to talk about what they do.
Northern exposureOne of Indigipop X's biggest guests this year is Tahmoh Penikett, whose credits include Supernatural and Altered Carbon, but who is probably best known for playing Karl “Helo” Agathon on the 2004 version of Battlestar Galactica.
Penikett belongs to the White River First Nation in Canada's Yukon Territory and Alaska, and he credits his Dené heritage with pushing him towards his career as an actor and filmmaker.
He says he was surrounded by fantastic storytellers growing up, especially his grandmother, who was a well-known matriarch, elder, teacher, and storyteller, and was celebrated at the Yukon International Storytelling Festival in Whitehorse. That territory in the northwestern part of North America is so harsh and isolated that Penikett's people didn't have much contact with Europeans until as recently as 100 years ago. As a result, his grandmother spoke only broken English but could tell stories in the many other languages she knew.
“She always held the attention of the crowd in a captivating way. She was funny, she was focused, she was proud and strong – and growing up with people like that around, it definitely encouraged me to try and continue that tradition in whatever capacity I could,” he said. “Movies and film is something I've always been fascinated by as a small-town Northern boy, and I always imagined that I could be on the on the big screen one day.”
Penikett acknowledges that indigenous representation in the film and television industry is getting better, even if it's far from where it should be, citing recent events such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences giving Wes Studi an honorary Oscar last year.
“What I want to see and what I'm trying to do myself is just more indigenous made stories ... at all levels – indigenous storytellers, indigenous creators, indigenous filmmakers at every level,” he said.
Penikett's mother, Lulla Sierra Johns, is a residential school survivor, and he is currently focusing is adapting a short story that she wrote about the experience into a feature length film.
He also has a few movies coming out in the near future, including “The Devil has a Name,” directed by and staring Edward James Olmos (aka Commander William Adama, BSG fans).
Indigenous FuturismsAt past Indigenous Comic Cons, there has been only a panel or two devoted to indigenous futurism. This year, there are two days.
What is indigenous futurism? As Lee Francis describes it, “It's really about our past, present, and future existence – and when I say the future existence, it's because within our philosophies, we're not bound by time. Time is cyclical; time is repeating; time is, you know, it's always omnipresent. We exist in all times.”
In practical terms, the indigenous futurisms section of the convention provides indigenous people an outlet in which to speculate about what their future will look like. On the dystopian side, Francis said, this can look like a world in which everybody is dead except for the Native folks, who have survived because they've been figuring out how to survive throughout their entire history. On the brighter, more classic science fiction side, this can also look like a world in which indigenous ingenuity has elevated everybody else by passing along secrets they've held onto.
Indigenous futurism isn't just about race, though.
“A central component of settler colonialism has been has been the forced imposition of this hetero patriarchy on our communities, and part of enforcing that patriarchy means that Native women have been the targets of violence, and queer, two spirited, non-gender-conforming Native peoples are the target of violence as well – anything that defies or challenges hetero-patriarchal norms,” said Kimberly Robertson, a women's, gender, and sexuality studies professor from California State University, who will be a guest at the convention.
“I think particularly for indigenous women and queer, non-binary, two-spirited indigenous folks, this is a very important space for us to re-empower and to sort of rewrite these narratives that erase us and exclude us. ... I think certainly when we're imagining an indigenous future, we are imagining a future that outside of the hetero patriarchy,” Robertson said.
Not all the futuristic hypotheticals at Indigipop X are of a serious nature ... at least at surface level. One of the most popular discussions every year since the first Indigenous Comic Con has been “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse,” led by Johnnie Jae, founder of A Tribe Called Geek, a website and podcast dedicated to acknowledging and advancing the visibility of indigenous contributions to pop culture and STEM fields.
“It kind of serves as a two for one special,” Jae says. “It allows us to talk about indigenous survival and resiliency through a medium that people are very familiar with, which is a zombie apocalypse. They see people's entire lives being destroyed and then what they have to do to survive and come back from that, and the struggles that it presents. ... I also use it as a way to as a metaphor for mental health advocacy because in a lot of Native communities, they don't want you to say words like suicide or depression or mention these things because they believe by speaking it, you speak it into existence. And so it's kind of a way for me to talk about survival, mental health advocacy and communication.”
The Year of Baby YodaUnless you've somehow avoided the internet entirely since mid-November, you're likely aware how much of a sensation The Child, colloquially referred to as Baby Yoda, has become. The character from Star Wars TV show The Mandalorian has invaded social media, showing up in countless memes.
The Mandalorian, with its Western-like storytelling and thoughtful portrayal of indigenous groups within the Star Wars universe, has been a hit among real-life indigenous peoples. But a number of Native American fans see their cultures reflected in the diminutive Force-user.
Robertson, a women's, gender, and sexuality studies professor from California State University will be co-hosting (with Jenell Navarro) a couple workshops titled “For the Love of Baby Yoda: Native Bead Artists Making Kin with The Child,” in which participants will have the chance to create beadwork representations of the it. She is also putting together a zine collecting some of the ways in which indigenous artists and communities have embraced Baby Yoda.
“There's already a longer history of Native folks sort of thinking through Star Wars as a place where we can express indigeneity. ... at the very basic level, I mean, it's a story about resisting imperialism and colonialism,” she said. “In The Mandalorian, Baby Yoda is being hunted by multiple bounty hunters that are trying to capture him, kidnap him, exploit his knowledge, et cetera – and this is a very familiar story to Native people. Our children are very central to indigenous communities, but they have been targeted under colonialism, whether it was the boarding school era or whether it was the forced adoptions and the forced removal of indigenous children from their homes. ... We have a long history of children being targeted and forcibly removed from Native cultures in an effort to aid in the erasure and the genocide of native peoples.”
Jae will also be conducting a panel called “The Good, The Bad, and the Baby Yoda: Indigenous Representation within the Star Wars Universe,” adds that The Child's plight mirrors current events.
“Even now in modern times, we're still having to fight for the Indian Child Welfare Act, which is there to protect our children from being taken from our community,” she said. “So there's a lot of parts of his story that really resonate.”
Who can go?One thing about Indigipop X and its predecessors that Lee Francis wants to note is that the convention is for everyone.
“A lot of people get this misconception that – because everybody's really woke these days – whenever 'indigenous' comes in the front, everyone's like, 'Oh, I don't think I'm allowed to attend,'” he said. “That's not the point. The point is to showcase native and indigenous creatives, so everyone is welcome to come on down and see all the cool stuff that we're doing.”
Indigipop X takes place from March 25 through March 29 at several venues in downtown Albuquerque. The first two days are the Indigenous Futurisms days, while the second three reprise the Indigenous Comic Cons of previous years. For more information and for tickets, visit indigipopx.com.