I love Victorian novels and storytelling. As a grad student specializing in Victorian Literature, it kind of comes with the territory. However, that doesn’t mean that all I read is Victorian Literature. I grew up an avid reader; a habit that has carried over into adulthood. I read a wide range of genres and forms – that is, I read when I can find the time to outside of coursework and research.! One of my favourite forms to read, most recently, is comics and graphic novels. My first few interactions with the form had been during my undergrad: profs included it on their syllabi or dedicated courses to teaching about the form. Ultimately what I gathered from my undergrad experience working with comics is the non-traditional storytelling engaged by comics and graphic novels, make the form a significant addition to literary studies: providing us with new ways of expressing, representing, and communicating – ways that allow us to begin moving away from fraught literary traditions and canon.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about Lee Francis IV and Weshoyot Alvitre’s Sixkiller: an Indigenous graphic retelling of the Victorian children’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There are so many things about this comic that are fascinating, and I could not stop thinking about it after the first time I encountered it. As someone who loves (as mentioned) both Victorian literature and alternative forms of storytelling, Sixkiller is right up my alley.
Sixkiller is one of the texts I am analyzing in a paper I’m writing on Indigenous Gothic Comics. I have had a lot of time to think about the comic itself, and throughout the writing process, I have found myself questioning: how do colonial texts like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when appropriated and translated into an Indigenous worldview function as an act of resistance? Further, how do non-traditional forms assist in these acts of resistance?
Let’s begin by unpacking Sixkiller: what about Francis’s retelling makes it a fundamentally Indigenous text, and how does that act of indigenization ultimately align our understanding of an Indigenous text as an act of resistance?
Sixkiller retells Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by resituating it in contemporary times and an Indigenous worldview. However, it also makes direct reference to Carroll’s work within the text itself. In the Preface the narrator, who we come to know as Alice, is speaking in narratives boxes that overlay images of what appears to be the scene of a struggle, and later, murder. The narrative boxes state: “My sister used to read to me at night. There’s one poem I memorized. The end went like this… A childish story take… And with gentle hand… Lay it where childhood’s dream are twined… In memory’s mystic band… Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers… Pluck’d in a far off land… Yup, I used to love that one.”
The text notifies the reader through Carroll’s poem that this text has direct connections to the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. However, by situating the poem over such a harrowing scene, the text is flipping the reader’s expectations. This story is not one of a young girl stumbling her way through a magic world: in fact, it is one that forces the reader to face the realities of what it can mean to live in a society that seeks to destroy you, your culture, and your people.
In this retelling, Alice is a young Indigenous woman, mourning the very recent loss of her older sister, and dealing with pre-existing mental illness.
Alice has been living in a “sanitary home,” having been confined there by her sister’s boyfriend – yes, the same one that the text implies has killed Alice’s sister.
Alice’s character is fundamental to the indigenization of Carroll’s narrative: primarily through her language and the expression of her beliefs. Alice demonstrates and embodies resilience. She exists in a system that seeks to undermine everything she is, as an Indigenous feminine identifying person with a mental illness (schizophrenia), and yet she remains steadfast in her beliefs and seeks to piece back together the identity that seems to have been shattered with the loss of her sister. As the reader follows Alice through her narrative, much like in the original Carroll story there are moments where we are faced with events and interactions that don’t seem possible, and things just continue to get curiouser and curiouser.
In Sixkiller, the role of the rabbit from Carroll’s story shifts and takes up new meaning. Not only is Rabbit a catalyst in Alice’s decision-making process to embark on her journey to seek revenge, but they also take up the Cherokee identity of Trickster – manifesting that identity physically through an uncanny expression of the double: tying in the duplicitous nature of the trickster figure of Rabbit.
By having the rabbit from the original tale take on a role from Indigenous beliefs of rabbit as trickster provides an extra layer to the story through the analogous association. We are all familiar with the rabbit from Carroll’s story – the “White Rabbit” with his pocket watch and his concerns about punctuality. This is not that creature. Instead we get an uncanny representation of what appears to be a jackrabbit. Physically representing a duality that does not exist within the original White Rabbit’s character. The depth forces the reader to acknowledge the background that is at play with casting the trickster in such a significant role in the story. By casting such a pivotal and familiar character as one with deeper connections to Cherokee legend, forces a centring of Indigenous understandings and worldviews, reminding the reader that this is an Indigenous story.
However, Francis’s Rabbit also seems to have concerns around time – although, these concerns tend more to warning Alice to be prepared when the time comes for Justice – foreshadowing the role that Alice is about to begin to play in seeking out revenge for her sister and herself. This concern for the timing of Justice, especially in terms of justice for Indigenous Women who were murdered, calls up present day ongoing issues of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit persons, rooting the story in a fundamentally Indigenous issue. By calling forth the MMIWG2S crisis, the text is bringing attention to the issue itself, but also adding another layer to the Indigenization of the narrative. Again, this story is not one of a young girl stumbling her way through a magic world: by fore-fronting such an issue the reader must face the reality of the constant threat of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and two spirit peoples. This is a constant everyday reality. There is no potion labelled “drink me” that can make the threat just shrink away. Making this issue a part of the narrative infuses the text with Indigenous experience, further Indigenizing the story.
Legacies of Colonialism:
I want to take a moment to return to Alice’s living situation that we see that the beginning of the comic. The reader is told that the boyfriend of Alice’s older sister was the one who had Alice placed in the sanitary home, Rose Creek. The boyfriend is unable to “deal” with what Alice refers to as her “dreams,” something we are never really given much more of an explanation for, but ultimately, the ‘dreams’ give the boyfriend the excuse to separate Alice and her sister, ultimately echoing the destruction of Indigenous families through acts of colonization, ‘education,’ and ‘health care,’ from the 19th and 20th century, onward. Alice ends up managing to escape the facility, washed away in an unexpected flood that seems to be an overwhelming demonstration of pathetic fallacy.
The grief that Alice is experiencing at the loss of her sister is mirrored in the natural world. Alice being removed from Rose Creek by a physical manifestation of that grief (the flood) seems to imply, or at least echo the resistance that Indigenous peoples have and continue to exercise against colonization. Even when Alice seems to be faced with impossible situations she withstands and resists – her resilience is a major driving force of the story’s narrative.
The legacy of the Church in the genocide of the Indigenous peoples of North America is ongoing and significant. The choice to have Alice enter a church and take the items she needs for her journey acknowledges the history of the church in harming Indigenous peoples and communities, but centres the power with Alice.
She is in control of the way she interacts and moves through the space, she dictates her relationship with the landscape. Further, her internal monologue acknowledging her Creator: invoking her belief system, one not structured or influenced by the colonizer, further evacuates the symbolic power that might have remained in the landscape of the church.
The Comics Form and Language Revival:
Something that I wish that I had a bit more time and space in my paper on Indigenous Gothic Comics, is to consider how the comic/graphic form lends itself to an actively resistant form of storytelling in a colonial society. I will admit, I haven’t done the most research on this topic, however I think one of the easiest ways to begin thinking about this particular topic, especially with Sixkiller, is through the use of Creek language throughout the text. Alice as a young Cherokee woman is depicted throughout the first volume of the comic intermingling both English and Creek, the language of the Cherokee peoples. Because the text itself can quite literally rely on the concept of “show don’t tell” through the image portions of the text, we don’t necessarily have to be able to read the language to follow what Alice is saying when she slips into using Creek words or phrases. The visual aspects of the text provide clues and opportunities for the reader to infer what is being said by Alice, even if it isn’t immediately recognizable.
I wanted to point to this use of Creek in the text because not only does it add to the Indigenization of the text, it actually also brings into play conversations of Indigenous Language Revival! Indigenous language revival is an act of resistance against Colonialism and acts of cultural genocide that were employed through colonial tools such as residential schools. Indigenous language revival is exactly as it sounds – the effort to reconstruct and revive Indigenous languages that were ‘dying out’, for lack of a better term. Language revival moments crop up in order to preserve and revive Indigenous languages and provide opportunities to document and teach the languages to the younger generations of Indigenous communities.
The visual aspects of the text allow for storytelling to move away from ‘traditional’ narrative structures that are part of the western literary canon – a concept that has been and continues to be very influenced by settler colonial ideology. Traditionally, literary canon has been made up of mainly novels, poetry, prose writing. Heavy text pieces that are, in many ways, very different objects than a graphic and visual texts. The English language is and continues to play a role in colonialism, and thus more traditionally ‘acceptable’ text forms are overtly colonialist, pushing the expectation that narratives and ideas are being expressed through “civilized” languages. Furthermore, traditionally storytelling in Indigenous communities was not done through written documents, rather there is the Oral Tradition – a very dynamic and holistic way of passing knowledge, history, and cultural beliefs. The comics form provides a level of interaction with the narrative or information being passed along that is not found in a traditional settler-text. The form asks the reader to take a much more active role in the text, they have to read not only the text, but the images and the gutter spaces, and translate each of those pieces in order to make meaning. There is a level of responsibility that is placed with the reader when engaging with a narrative in comics form that, I think, provides opportunity for the reader to take into account what it is they are engaging with, and what it means to them.
I want to just take a moment and return to the questions I was asking, in order to better bring all of the different thoughts together.
I think I read somewhere, or perhaps heard someone say something along these lines before: being Indigenous in a colonial society is in itself an act of resistance. The continued existence of Indigenous peoples, cultures, and communities is an act of resistance against the ongoing efforts of settler-centric colonial society to destroy Indigenous peoples and culture. I haven’t for the life of me been able to find the quote – I am going to keep looking because I know it exists somewhere, and I am almost certain it was said by an Indigenous writer or scholar, and I would hate for such a powerful thought not receive its proper acknowledgement. The point of me referring to this sentiment, of Indigenous people existing as an act of resistance, is that if Indigenous peoples continuing to exist is already an act of resistance against colonialism, then creators reframing and destabilizing settler controlled narratives would also be an act of resistance, and an arguably active one at that: taking back the narrative and resituating it within an Indigenous worldview is a powerful act of resistance. Then, thinking about the way Sixkiller takes up a settler narrative and reframes it in Indigenous worldviews and experiences, the comic itself is an act of resistance by its both active and passive role as an Indigenous text.
By appropriating and resituating a settler text in an Indigenous worldview with Indigenous characters at the centre of it, not only speaks back to settler-created Indigenous characters, but further complicates understandings of storytelling and ideas. This act of appropriation is a reminder: we are being reminded that Indigenous peoples, communities, and cultures are still here. The persist even as settler-colonial society attempted and continues to attempt to destroy them. By using a settler text such as Alice to discuss Indigenous experiences and issues there is a destabilizing of our concepts of what makes a text Indigenous and flips the reader’s expectations. This encourages the reader to think about rewriting and cultural perspectives in new ways. What is particularly compelling about cultural perspectives with Sixkiller is the way that Francis even states that there are parallels and analogues of Indigenous culture and mythology, and how he is drawing on these similarities on purpose – allows for entry points of cultural appreciation for readers outside of the cultural group, and like my own experience with the Creek language in the text, opportunities to seek out information and to learn more about Indigenous culture in respectful ways. That isn’t to say that educating the not-indigenous reader is the intent of Sixkiller. It is not meant to educate people, but it does provide an opening of conversations to address Indigenous issues and topics.
As for the comics form assisting Indigenous acts of resistance, using a non-traditional form allows for a much smaller emphasis of the use of English language. Comics provide a space for unique and non-traditional styles of story telling creating opportunities to tell stories that do not have such a heavy or fraught connection to settler-colonialism. Narratives that rely on alternative ways of thinking and understanding in order to engage with and understand the texts, engender the ability to tell stories in a less euro-centric manner.
Francis and Alvitre’s Sixkiller is just an altogether fascinating comic book. It provides interesting opportunities to think about the way that indigenous texts can both be active and passive resistance in a settler-colonial society, and brings forth questions relating to how we think about indigenous literature and the forms that we receive it in. I will definitely keep thinking about these topics and questions as I continue working with Indigenous literature/comics, because even now I feel as though there are so many more ideas and questions that I want to explore and think about further.
If you’re interested I am including some likes for further reading on some of the topics I talked about in this post!
Thanks for reading!
The Comic? You can find and purchase the digital copy Here!
Want to read more Indigenous Comics? Or Perhaps scholarship about them? This annotated bibliography by Taylor Daigneault (Métis), Amy Mazowita, Candida Rifkind, and Camille Callison (Tahltan) is an incredibly useful and important resource! You can find it, Here
Ariel Baska put together a comprehensive list of Indigenous written and created comics, Here.
Indigenous Language Revival:
Want to learn more about efforts in Indigenous language revival and don’t know where to begin? Here are a few sources that are informative and are run by or have Indigenous folks involved in them.
The Native Languages of the Americas Website
The Canadian Encyclopedia is a great source to start looking more into specifically Canadian efforts in Indigenous language revitalization.
Language Revival Planning Program Grant