Indigenous People in Their Own Words Part II: Redrawing History

By Mariam Williams

Artist Weshoyot Alvitre (L) and author Lee Francis stand beside the historical marker commemorating what was Conestoga Indian Town during a research trip in August, 2018. Photo courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia.

I ended part I of this two-part blog series with the question, ““[I]n 25 to 100 years, what will hold more weight to people looking back at this moment—viral, instantaneous postings, the next-day regrets of experienced journalists, or Nathan Phillips, an indigenous man, in his own words?” I wondered this because as I saw the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial unfolding last month and thinking about how the acts of resistance and counter-resistance would be preserved and remembered, I was also thinking about Digital Paxton. 

Launched in 2017, Digital Paxton is an online collection of nearly 20 institutions’ materials related to the massacre of the Conestoga Native American tribe in Lancaster, Pa., in December 1763. A mob of white settlers who came to be known as the “Paxton Boys” descended upon the Conestoga and murdered 20 unarmed Susquehannock Indians.

Though Digital Paxton boasts nearly 3,000 documents, “materials that give voice to Conestoga, Lenape, or Moravian Indians … are almost always mediated through colonial sources,” said Will Fenton, Director of Scholarly Innovation at Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP) and founder of Digital Paxton. For example, the Quakers often quote Lenape leaders verbatim in their minutes from conferences with the tribe.

We live in a time when historians understand representation matters to people of color, social studies teachers know the point-of-view of the winner isn’t an accurate overview of history, and when the most marginalized groups in U.S. history are exerting more control over the telling of their own stories. But how do Native peoples relay that history if the kind of primary sources archivists have put a premium on weren’t written by Native Americans?

Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America attempts to step into that gap. Managed by LCP and funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Redrawing History is a collaboration among scholars, artists, and tribal leaders that reinterprets the story of the Paxton massacre from the perspective of Native peoples and spreads the knowledge of it to a wider audience. 

Cover, “Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers: Volume One.”

The project’s main method of sharing will be a graphic novel written by Lee Francis and illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre, both of whom are Native American artists who have worked together previously on historicized fiction projects, such as Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, a graphic novel that received the American Indian Library Association’s (AILA) 2018 American Indian Youth Literature Award for Best Middle Grade Book. Lee’s publishing company, Native Realities, published Mighty Code Talkers. He is also the founder of Indigenous Comic Con and owner of Red Planet Books and Comics.

The process of creating a graphic novel that’s also historicized fiction can be summed up this way: research, write, draw, revise, print. But the research step is complex, important, and detailed.

“I’m working with tribes that aren’t my own tribe,” said Weshoyot (pronounced Weh-shoy-o). Weshoyot is a member of the Tongva tribe, a nation whose land base was the greater Los Angeles area. She lives in California. Lee is Pueblo of Laguna and lives near Albuquerque, NM. Weshoyot feels some additional pressure to accurately represent the story of another nation, though she and Lee see parallels with many Native tribes’ respective histories.

Lee pointed to the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in 1864, when the U.S. Army killed 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians along Sand Creek. The Tongva, Weshoyot’s tribe, is not federally recognized, but was also the victim of genocide—initially by Spanish colonists (the land was part of Mexico until the Mexican-American War) and then by white settlers pushing into the West. The Tongva’s population dropped exponentially from an estimated 5,000-10,000 people in the late 1400s to 700 at the turn of the twentieth century. 

“I think this [history of genocide] gives me a level playing field for handling [another tribe’s history] respectfully but also doing it with a backbone, giving a a voice that hasn’t been presented before,” said Weshoyot.

Genocide, however, is not the end of the indigenous American story. Weshoyot and Lee want to show a story of survival.

“Despite the massacres that tried to eliminate us, we still exist,” said Lee.

Creative director Will Fenton curates historical materials at LancasterHistory.org during a research trip in August 2018. Photo courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia.

After Will Fenton reached out to Weshoyot and Lee, he connected them withmembers of the Native community in Lancaster and the Circle Legacy Center, a Native American nonprofit organization there. Redrawing History’s advisory board also includes prominent scholars (Daniel Richter at Penn), curatorial experts (e.g. Vilma Ortiz-Sanchez at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian), and indigenous ambassadors (Curtis Zunigha, co-director of the Lenape Center and member of the Delaware Tribe in Oklahoma).

With the input of the local indigenous community, historians of the Paxton massacre, and people whose ancestors survived it, Lee and Weshoyot “have worked backwards from the sense that Native people still exist. These were people who had agency, who stood up, who were heroes in their own right,” said Lee.

The murdered Conestoga men and women were also human. “The extent of their representation has been their names in history books, but I really want to flesh that out a little more,” said Weshoyot.

To reconstruct the humanity of the characters she’s drawing, Weshoyot reads and studies material culture “to find out what stresses people were under in colonialism. There’s a lot of psychological work, too, forensic work to flesh out who these people could have been. Their personalities, stresses in their lives with a culture coming in and pushing them out of their homeland, colonists coming in and building surrounding their hunting grounds.”

Screen shot of Weshoyot Alvitre’s Instagram page, taken 21 Feb 2019.

She’s also deep into research of Lancaster’s natural and physical environments so she can represent them correctly. “The trees are sky high—so different from what we have here,” she said, referring to the area of California where she resides. “I research how buildings are made architecturally, because I need to draw those in a 3-D environment. I have to tie in types of doors they would have used. There’s also the Native housing.”

In addition to setting, Weshoyot is considering costumes, props, clothing colors, prints on the fabric, and more. “It’s as detailed as making a film,” she said. “You may see one tenth of the research I’m putting into this right now.”

The details help solidify the fact that Native people had established a way of life prior to colonizers arriving—-a way that continues to be challenged today in situations like the fight over the Dakota Pipeline, when Native land is within the path of economic development. 

Screen shot of Weshoyot Alvitre’s Instagram page, taken 21 Feb 2019.

In the jailhouse where the massacre occurred, Weshoyot sees a striking metaphor for colonization and continued environmental threats. “In Native cultures, rocks and land are just as important as people are,” but “a foreign entity came in and drilled out the [existing] stone to make it a jailhouse,” an act that represents how society is broken apart and put back together for something else, Weshoyot said. Today, the building is, somewhat ironically, a theater. Weshoyot pointed out that something dramatic continues to happen there, but the history of the building and the previous importance of the stone is disconnected from the rest of the land and from the people.

For Weshoyot, the construction of the jailhouse has helped her emphasize Native folks’ humanity. 

“I try to imagine myself in the space. If you slow down time and put yourself in the perspective of anyone in this situation—it was in the wintertime. It was cold, it was snowing. They were already traumatized and were huddled together into the basement of a jail made of stone,” she said.

“I think the brilliance of what we can do with [a graphic novel] is to reconstruct how people would have reacted in those circumstances. … They died standing up. They faced their attackers eye to eye. That’s one of the things we can show with a little bit of historical amalgamation,” said Lee.

With regard to portraying a historical event in a fictive space, the Redrawing History team is inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s work on critical fabulation “as a means to creatively imagine what might have happened, ‘to imagine what cannot be verified … to reckon with the precarious lives which are visible only in the moment of their disappearance.’” For Lee, this means maintaining “a good, noble balance, a beautiful conflict to make sure we are telling the stories in a way that do honor [to those who were massacred] but project something positive into the world.” He and Weshoyot are also grateful to Will, LCP, and Pew for seeking out trends in Native pop and visual culture and for being open to finding new ways to represent Native voices.

An eighteenth-century political cartoon available on Digital Paxton, the inspiration for and basis of the graphic novel. Image courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia.

While the vast majority of materials in Digital Paxton are written from the perspective of whites who were either allies or Paxton sympathizers, Lee has preserved the Lenape language in the script whenever possible and also has quoted lines directly from some of the political cartoons in the collection. He noted that Native people likely saw themselves represented in mass media and spoke out about how they were portrayed. In the media, Lee said, Native people were used as props.

“We wanted to place Native people at the center, to show their agency and that they were still people. A group of people were used as political cartoons, props, propaganda. We want to focus on the experience, and that has resounding current-day parallels,” said Lee. He compared the way Native people were depicted in the 1870s with how refugees from Syria or asylum-seekers from Central America are being portrayed today. They’ve become political tools, “but what about the people who are actually there, the people who have the agency because they choose to walk, even though they are herded into a place and facing their extermination?” he said.

Author Lee Francis looks out at what was the site of Conestoga Indian Town during a research trip in August 2018. Photo courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia.

Lee sees agency and heroism in many of the same ways we’ve heard listening session participants express it—“not chiefs or plains riders,” but in people the media didn’t cover at Standing Rock, like “our grandmothers, people who were cleaning latrines, cooking every day.”

When people finish reading the graphic novel, Lee said he wants them to understand three main points: 1) that the Paxton mob failed in its attempt to wipe out the Conestoga people; 2) that “there is a lived truth to the Native existence and identity in colonial America that is not based on war but on survival” and that “allows for agency of the people who were exterminated but have a voice in the present; and 3) “that we tell the story of a people you may not have heard about.” 

For all the tragedy and sorrow in the American empire, America is a tapestry that is incredible in its depth, and that needs to be noticed and reconciled. … It’s truth and reconciliation that I can do in the way that I know how as an indigenous writer—through a comic book,” said Lee.