New role models to empower the youth

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For countless kids around the world, comic books are the gateway to reading for pleasure and an opportunity to project themselves into imaginative stories of powerful heroes. Naturally, they look for characters they can relate to.

Finding accurate depictions in works of fiction hasn’t often been easy for Indigenous readers, whose cultures have long been misrepresented or stereotyped throughout mass media – when they appear at all. That’s why the new Inuk superhero from Marvel Comics is such a big deal.

Amka Aliyak – aka Snowguard – is the newest recruit to the Marvel comic book universe. She joins the Champions, a diverse group of teenaged superheroes that includes Spiderman, Iron Man, Ms. Marvel and the Hulk.

She’s described as an independent and courageous 16-year-old from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, a scenic village of 1500 located 50 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island.

Amka first appears in the story investigating a mysterious new factory near her community, where she discovers a villain using the land’s spiritual energy to fuel his plans for conquest. In attempting to release the captured spirits, she becomes empowered by the Inuit spirit-force “Sila”, which allows her to shape-shift and harness powerful animal traits.

When Toronto-based writer Jim Zub took over the Champions series, he proposed adding a new hero to the team, one who showed a side of Canada that hasn’t had much representation in superhero stories.

He turned to Inuit myths as a base for character development and was put in touch with Nyla Innuksuk, a producer of film and virtual-reality content who grew up in Igloolik and Iqaluit.

“I was really excited to hear that there would be an Inuk superhero in the Marvel Universe,” Innuksuk told the CBC. “Inuit are oral storytellers and our myths and legends are full of spirits and characters that take both human and animal forms, so I was excited to see how those elements could be interpreted within the structure of a graphic novel.”

Her background in traditional Inuit mythology informed the creation of Snowguard’s tattoos and the costume’s amauti design, as well as general details about daily life in the Arctic.

“Nyla continues to read scripts as they’re completed and gives feedback to myself and the Marvel editorial team on an ongoing basis when it comes to Snowguard,” Zub said.

These efforts for authenticity are admirable not only for giving the character greater complexity but also because accurate representation is important. The cultural impact and identity discussions resulting from the Black Panther feature film are evidence of that.

“There is a certain amount of hesitancy that I feel when I hear about a non-Indigenous organization interpreting Inuit culture for a commercial project,” said Innuksuk. “What I valued with Champions was that Jim and the team at Marvel had reached out early in the process to have input from an Inuk collaborator.”

Previous Indigenous characters in comics have generally consisted of generic sidekicks like Tonto, caricatured shamans like Marvel’s Shaman, or anachronistic relics of a colonially imagined past.

Notable Inuit superheroes include Nelvana, one of the first female superheroines, preceding even Wonder Woman. Inspired by Group of Seven painter Franz Johnston’s experiences in the Arctic, she’s described as a demi-goddess who is the protector of the Inuit people and can harness the powers of the Northern Lights.

Although Nelvana was sometimes portrayed insensitively, perhaps unsurprising with white-guy writers in the 1940s, it’s her fictional descendent Snowbird who has proven more offensive for Indigenous readers. A member of 1980s Marvel team Alpha Flight, Snowbird is supposedly an Inuit superhuman yet inexplicably white, blond and blue-eyed.

Marvel’s newest creation Snowguard has similar animalistic abilities to previous Indigenous superheroes but she’s also a modern teen who cares about real issues and is trying to reconcile her new mystical powers with previous scepticism about her family’s traditions.

“To see a young woman fighting for her community is the kind of story that needs to be told,” said Innuksuk. “Indigenous women are often represented in mainstream media as victims, and to see a powerful young person who is fighting back against what she sees as wrong has the potential to make a real difference.”

Snowguard’s creation story may remind readers of another female Indigenous teen superhero, Equinox. Inspired by late Attawapiskat activist Shannen Koostachin and visits with students in Moosonee and Moose Factory, including Miyapin Cheechoo, Equinox is a uniquely Cree hero with powers derived from the Earth that change with the seasons.

Introduced by DC Comics and prominent creators Jeff Lemire and Mike McKone four years ago, she made a big media splash initially but then seemed to vanish after a few issues in Justice League United.

It’s notoriously difficult to launch a new character in the crowded comic universe, with the preorder-based business model hindering the chances of books that might reach new audiences. Despite superhero film franchises dominating pop culture, print sales have been falling for decades.

While the mainstream industry is increasingly offering socially conscious books, featuring diverse and interesting characters, it’s still mostly white males who are creating these stories.

Cree filmmaker Sonya Ballantyne was drawn to superhero stories from a young age, noticing how the experiences of characters like Superman, who lost his family and was raised in another culture, mirrored her own people.

Annoyed by media’s common portrayal of Native women as victims, Ballantyne now creates short films that feature First Nations characters with superpowers.

“I created a character that I based around the question, what would Superman be like if he was a Cree girl?”

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