Who Are The Native American Heroes of the DC Universe?
DC has their fair share of native Americans
Did you ever have real disappointment? No, I mean real disappointment.
I had just finished writing the counterpart to this article for Marvel and started doing the research for DC. With the way that DC has treated many of its characters after 1986, I would have thought for sure that there would be some really excellent character development with some of their Native American characters.
Really! Given the plethora of mysticism from that culture and their proud history, you would have thought that Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, or even Frank Miller would have found something brilliant to begin a new storyline for any of the characters that have been part of this publication.
Well, that sad part was that there weren’t many characters to draw from. I was leery from the start that DC could invent a good Native American character after coming up with embarrassing concepts like ”Pow Wow” Smith (who I will briefly touch upon).
And it’s not like DC can’t write a good Western.
The Vertico line of comics, for more mature audiences, wrote a great Jonah Hex story and threw in a great tale of reanimated corpses. They have the talent and they have the tools. All they need now is a couple of good characters and a good story.
This is who they have in their arsenal.
Arak, Son of Thunder
This Native American version of Conan the Barbarian had plenty of potential for good stories. While Conan had the benefit of a rich history of pulp novels going as far back as the early thirties and had to do battle with monsters that could have only come from the mind of H.P. Lovecraft, the writers of Arak settled for the myths of every other culture outside of Native American folklore.
Arak’s mother was attacked by an Indian serpent god and was rescued from certain poisoning by He-No the Indian Thunder God. He-No heals Arak’s mother and conceives his child. Naming him, Bright-Sky-After-Storm (as an allusion to his father, a storm god – the sun (son) follows the storm (father)), Arak’s tribe was attacked by the serpent god tribe and all are wiped out except Arak – who is safely away from the battle in a boat going out to sea.
Arak is found by Vikings and raised as one of their own. He is renamed “Arak” (mispronounced as “Eric”) and is taught how to fight as a Viking warrior. Arak’s main fighting weapon is an axe – which he uses as a blade, shield, and club.
As far as powers go, he really doesn’t have any. You’d think that if he had the power of a demigod, he’d have something. He has the typical “really good fighter” and the obligatory “shamanic training” (although where he gets this in his origin is not quite known) that comes with almost every Native American character that they churn out.
I do find it interesting that the writers of this character decided to use the Leif Ericson piece of history of the Vikings making it over to this country prior to Columbus. It would stand to reason that there may be some kind of Norse influence within the Native American culture.
This one is just painful.
Black Bison is a man from Queens, New York born Black-Cloud-in-Morning. He was raised as a typical Anglican and changed his name to John Ravenhair.
His grandfather, however, was an extreme Native American who was part of a cult called the Black Bison Cult and he detested the fact that Ravenhair had changed his name, ignoring his heritage. When John started dating a white woman, his grandfather found it intolerable. The grandfather gives John a mystic talisman as a gift.
John’s grandfather is killed in a mugging (while doing a mystic ritual in Central Park), before dying he transfers his spirit into the talisman and then takes possession of John. John becomes a Native American vigilante who is out to avenge all the crimes perpetrated against his kin.
He’s a supervillain who’s more a nuisance than anything else. He heads up the Black Bison Cult that his grandfather was part of and really doesn’t have control over his own actions.
He doesn’t have any powers, personally. He derives all of his abilities from his talisman and his coup-stick. The talisman along with the coup-stick can control the weather and animate inanimate objects. He is limited by the fact that he can’t affect organic biological matter (living things).
Hawk, Son of Tomahawk
DC had their own version of Davy Crockett. Tomahawk (Tom Haukins) was an expert trapper and guide who lived in the 18th Century. He’s complete with the coonskin hat.
Back in the day when writing a story about the wild frontier was actually marketable, a character like Tomahawk could attract a good audience. Tomahawk had his adventures keeping the peace between the new expansionist population of this country and the Iraquois. His preferred weapon – you guessed it – a tamahaac axe.
Well, Tomahawk fell in love with a Native American and married Moon Fawn. The union produced many children, among which was Hawk (Hawk Haukins).
Hawk was costumed much like the King in his “Elvis Apache Tour”. I really don’t know what the DC artists were thinking with this one. I include this entry as Hawk is fifty per cent Native American. While Tomahawk was a wild frontiersman who would not shy from a bareknuckle brawler, Hawk was a bit of a pacifist. However, like most children, the apple does not fall far from the tree and he can fight, use firearms, track, hunt, and survive in the wilderness.
He eventually teamed up with another almost Native American, Firehair (see entry below). Hawk became a contemporary of Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, El Diablo, Madame .44, and Superchief (see entry below).
I’ve read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book as well as The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. (And if anyone asks you if you enjoy Kipling, say, “I don't know. How do you kipple?”) So, the concept of being raised by ghosts or wolves is not unfamiliar to me. As a matter of fact, it was a concept that Terry Pratchett used in his creation of Carrot Ironfounderson, the six foot six inch dwarf.
And then we have Firehair – the almost Native American.
In the early 1800’s, Firehair was the lone survivor of an attack by a Blackfoot Indian raid. The baby who would become Firehair was found by the Blackfoot Chief Grey Cloud. Firehair got his name from his long mane of red hair and his fair skin and freckles. He was also better than any of his peers at horse riding, weapons, hand to hand combat, and hunting.
Firehair eventually became the protector of that region while being despised by the whites and his own tribe as he belonged to both yet neither world. Later in life, he became the partner of Hawk. His last days of adventuring have not been recorded.
On a personal note, I find this character somewhat hackneyed and slightly offensive as it is implied that in the heredity versus environment debate that all a Caucasian would need is an equal upbringing to be better than any of the Native American peers. At the same time, this character did have some potential for more sophisticated stories.
There have been a few Superchiefs that have made their marks within the DC Universe.
The original Superchief was a hero in the 15th Century and part of the Wolf Clan. He was exposed to the Manitou stone which gave him powers for an hour at a time. In essence, he’s the Native American version of Hour Man. All he needed was a bit of Miraclo and he’d be in business. The stone would give super strength, super speed, and flight for one hour. Prolonged use has been known to give beneficial longevity to its wearer, however later recipients have gotten poetic over the levels of their strength – strength of a thousand bears, the speed of a thousand running deer, the keen senses of a thousand wolves, and the power to leap over the tallest of trees.
One of the recipients named Saganowahna was a villain of the Justice League.
Currently, the latest Superchief is John Standingbear who has the lofty poetic version of the powers.
What is necessary for any of them is that they wear the Manitou stone for their powers.
Native Americans on Amazon
I highly recommend this. This is Manitou Raven and Manitou Dawn in action. Great art, great writing.
Manitou Raven and Manitou Dawn
I am truly a product of my time.
When I was a kid, I got to watch Challenge of the Superfriends. Okay, it was a bit lame compared to today’s superhero cartoons because a board of standards and practices didn’t want kids to see violence in cartoons. So there was a gap between the violent fighting cartoons of the sixties and the reemergence of cartoons that showed real fighting. The Superfriends were part of that middle generation.
But I digress.
One of the Superfriends was a character called Apache Chief. His power? He could grow to be a giant – which was a pretty cool power to have. All he had to do was yell, “Inukchuk!” and he’d grow. Still he was a bit of a one trick pony who was placed in this cartoon to show racial diversity and to have someone go up against Giganta.
We took what we could get.
Unfortunately, he never really made it to the comic books. That is until we got to meet Manitou Raven and his wife, Manitou Dawn. Incidentally, ”Manitou Raven” translates out to “Raven God”.
In comparison with everyone else here, his origin seems kind of trite. Shaman, medicine man, magician, using Indian powers… yadda, yadda, yadda… superhero. In this case, not so much as he was taken from Atlantis 1000 BCE. He was part of the heroes of that time in the Obsidian Age and had helped the time displaced JLA back home.
And, yes, he can grow into a giant.
The “Inukchuk!” shout works with all of his other magical skills, too. He comes to the present day and is recruited by Vera Black’s JLE (Justice League Elite) along with his wife. The JLE was the JLA’s black ops team that skidded along the very edge of the whole good/bad thing.
Unfortunately, Manitou Raven gets killed absorbing the brunt of a bomb. However, you can’t keep a good Native American mystic down and his ghost is now working with his wife, Manitou Dawn and tutoring her in the use of magic.
If you get a chance and can pick up the JLE limited series (twelve issues) by Joe Kelly, I recommend it highly.
A group of unknown aliens were busy tinkering around in America’s past. Back in the 13th Century some took a whole bunch of the Anasazi Indian tribe and transplanted the Starhaven planet and then did their own special brand of genetic engineering on them… just because.
The former Native Americans that are now in the 30th Century and have developed wings. So they all look like angels.
In his quest to create an interstellar justice force, R.J. Brand (the guy who organized the Legion of Superheroes) recruits Dawnstar for the Legion Academy. Incidentally, “Dawnstar” is her real name – it’s not a code name. She’s accepted to the Legion at age 16.
She’s got two powers that are nothing to really write home about. She has a tracking sense (which I guess comes with every Native American in the DC Universe, apparently) and she can fly with her wings – which given the Legion issued flight ring makes that redundant. But then again, that’s typical of the Legions characters when you look at Ultra Boy.
I don’t know what to make of this character as it seemed the writers wanted to have a Native American without her being an actual Native American. Was the message they wanted to convey that the white man has pushed the Indians past Alcatraz and got them all the way off planet? Why aren’t there reservations in the future?!!
To make matters worse, one of the sources that I use to do some research on these characters didn’t even give her an entry within the DC Comics Encyclopedia. She not even listed within the Legion’s role sheet within that book.
Pow Wow Smith
In one of my other articles about obscure comic book characters I mentioned Pow Wow Smith. So, I’ll just summarize here.
He’s a Native American Sioux with a badge. He’s a detective of old western stories. A good solid politically correct character that had a lot of potential.
The townsfolks nicknamed him “Pow Wow”. Isn’t that nice? What did you expect? These were the common clay of the new frontier.
You know… morons.
Out of the frying pan and right into the fire.
It’s one thing to have a character like Firehair, it’s another when you repeat the tale.
Brian Savage (Scalphunter) was the son of Mathew Savage and was kidnapped by Kiowa Indians and raised as one of them. They renamed him Ke-Woh-No-Tay ('He Who Is Less Than Human'). He is trained by the Indians to hunt, track,… blah, blah, blah… you’ve heard this story before. He finds out about his real roots and returns to the white civilization where he becomes a lawman.
Are you sensing a theme here?
Well, to make the story complete, after he dies he’s reincarnated to an Irish Redheaded family as Mathew O’Dare, one of the cops of Opal City.
He’s an expert horseman, tracker, gunfighter, hand to hand combatant.
A real honest to God Native American.
Prior to Columbus’ landing, Strong Bow, real name “Strong Bow”, lived on the continental North American land in the land beyond the misty mountains. He is a dead shot with the bow and arrow and had a keen intellect. He travelled everywhere by walking (as horses hadn’t been introduced to America yet).
Interesting character, lots of potential, and went completely nowhere.
When were they active?
Hero or Villain
Hawk, Son of Tomahawk
Early 19th Century
15th Century, Present Day
Hero, Villain, Hero
Manitou Raven and Manitou Dawn
Obsidian Age and Present Day
Future (30th Century)
Pow Wow Smith
Late 19th Century
Late 19th Century, Reincarnated Present Day
Hero Quiz DC
Don’t get me wrong about this, I really like DC.
Nowadays, buying comic books is a tossup between DC and Marvel. After 1985, DC’s writing underwent a quantum change in quality and plausibility. I’m certain the publishers could see a marked difference in sales after they published their maxi-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths”. After DC cleaned house, all of the hokey stupid unbelievable plotlines and premises were going away.
Every now and then you’ll see a reference to an old pre-crisis storyline and think, “What were they thinking?” Within the last three days I came across a few things that helped me articulate the necessity to read some of these old stories.
The first came with one of the earlier episodes of Hannibal. Sometimes, in order to see a hidden picture more clearly, you need to see what it isn’t. Will Graham couldn’t see the true killer’s face until he saw the work of a false positive copycat. It wasn’t until Hannibal Lecter did the copycat killing that he could identify what the real killer was like. Whenever you read through the original stories and compare them to the new style of writing of these comic book heroes you can see the difference.
To support this, I’d also read Neil Gaiman’s Brief Lives from his Sandman series. Here, we look at the Endless. The Endless are seven anthropomorphic entities that encapsulate their intangible aspects of Dream, Death, Destiny, Destruction, Delirium, and Despair. In each of these aspects, the very presence of each of these characters helps define not only what they are… but also what they are not. How else can you see what reality is when you see unreality? When you see death, isn’t easier to know life? When you see destruction, doesn’t creation become better to envision? A clear aspect of an opposite brings the counterpart into fine relief.
Lastly, I read some of the older Garner Fox stories of the Justice League that were built on so many ridiculous premises that only a ten year old could appreciate them. Clearly, he was writing to a younger audience. At the same time, he unleashed some great premises in physics. From his story, Flash of Two Worlds, we see that he has defined the existence of parallel universes that can be transcended via different vibrational frequencies. In doing so, he created the premise of infinite Earths. This theory actually has some teeth in it from a view of quantum physics – a concept that few ten year olds can understand.
So what does this have to do with Native Americans?
In doing my research and examining DC’s treatment of Native Americans you can plainly see a Caucasian’s view of what they perceive one to be. It really wasn’t until I read my last entry on Strongbow that I saw a flicker of honesty in one of those characters. While it is true that when you have a group of people who live off of the land and revere nature and the land as eloquently verbalized by Chief Seattle’s Speech of 1852, you would understand more of a necessity to bring forth the skills of hunting, tracking, and survival.
While I find the two characters of Firehair and Scalphunter abhorrent upon first inspection as that first level of racial arrogance (“Indians are good at what they do, but you need a Caucasian to really do it right”), when you look a little bit deeper you can see that this is a matter of heredity versus environment and the total immersion of a man in a natural culture. When you look at it that way, you can actually hear Chief Seattle’s words of, “The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.”
Where I think Marvel gets it right and DC gets it wrong is in genetics and stereotyping. Marvel takes the premise of “Yes, they’re Native Americans by birth. Does that mean we have to write hokey powers that represent their race? No.” Given that, they can write a character like Forge or Mirage and not need to fall back on the skills of tracking, hunting, horseback riding, and being a medicine man/shaman. And while there is something to that, it is secondary to powers and abilities that have nothing to do with the stereotype whatsoever. When I think of a character like Marvel’s Forge, I see a mutant inventor who is a Native American. He honors his roots one way or another, but like all modern Americans in this melting pot, we have what we do from nine to five.
I’ve cut some amount of slack to characters like Firehair, Scalphunter, Pow Wow Smith, Strongbow, Hawk, Manitou Raven and Manitou Dawn as their stereotypes are products of the time they lived in. Arak, Son of Thunder, is almost a departure from the stereotype entirely and more of a throwback to Norse mythology than anything else. These heroes lived in the past.
Dawnstar, Superchief and Black Bison, on the otherhand, could have been carved out of a cigar store relic. And how DC treated the character of Dawnstar is just shameful. At one point in her history, they had her wings torn off – so all she had left was her tracking ability. And what did they do with it? They made her into an interstellar bounty hunter of sorts.
Over the last two decades, DC Comics has undergone a revolution in Paganism and alternative religions. These plots have been rich in very sophisticated stories as well as a mature writing style that is on par with the early writings of Stephen King. When a reader can sit back and think, “That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought of that before”, he’s left the generation of hokey plotlines and imps from the fifth dimension and has opened his eyes to a larger world.
© 2013 Christopher Peruzzi