This year, we are celebrating Native American Heritage Month and Native American Heritage Day with a blog series called Celebrating the Firsts: Shining a Light on Trailblazing Artwork by Native Artists. In this four-part series, we are recognizing five indigenous creators who have participated in the copyright system and enriched our culture. Join us on a journey of exploring the following dynamic works and the Native American authors behind them: Wynema: A Child of the Forest by S. Alice Callahan (1891), I See Red: Target by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (1992), Tribal Force by Jon Proudstar (writer) and Ryan Huna Smith (artist) (1996), and House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1968).
This blog post is the third in the series (read part one and part two), and focuses on Tribal Force, a comic book by writer Jon Proudstar (Yaqui/Mayan) and artist Ryan Huna Smith (Chemehuevi/Navajo). Published in 1996, this work was America’s first comic to feature a team of Native American superheroes.
Proudstar, who describes himself in part as an “Actor, Cinephile, [and] Father,” was born on January 3, 1967, in Tucson, Arizona. Proudstar is known for his acting, writing, and directing roles in the film So Close to Perfect (2009), and his acting in other films including Young Guns II (1990), and Wastelander (2018).
The Tribal Force comic tells the story of five Native superheroes who band together to protect their land from high-tech enemies. The comic’s heroes received their powers from the god Thunderbird, a Native symbol representative of strength and protection. The authentic narrative sheds light on the sometimes dark realities of life on a reservation, including addressing abuse and alcoholism. But as Proudstar puts it, “. . . for the most part, it’s a comic book. There’s action and aliens, and weird stuff.” (Smithsonian)
While previous comic books included individual Native superheroes, the team in Tribal Force notably aims to counter racist and stereotypical depictions of indigenous peoples. When creating Tribal Force, Proudstar and Smith set out to portray positive role models for Native youth and share Native cultural histories with new audiences.
Cartoons, comic strips, and comic books typically contain pictorial expression or a combination of pictorial and written expression and may be registered with the Copyright Office as visual art works or literary works. In 1995, the creators of Tribal Force registered the work as a joint work, which is defined as “a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” Learn more about registering works that contain more than one type of authorship on our website.
As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month this year, we hope this series celebrating “firsts” will help broaden our collective understanding of what the copyright system encompasses and how to participate in it. Earlier this year, the Copyright Office published its 2022–2026 Strategic Plan, which sets out the Office’s key strategic goals; first among them is copyright for all. This means working to make the copyright system as understandable and accessible to as many members of the public as possible, including individuals and small entities as well as historically underserved communities. We are committed to this goal and are excited to see how Native American artists continue to contribute to copyright in the years to come.