After the final proofs were okayed and I was waiting on the publication of “Dominant/recessive,” I found myself feeling peculiarly uncomfortable. I couldn’t explain the emotion to myself: after all, I worked really hard on the piece, through more sets of revisions than I can count, considering new perspectives as they were suggested and reconsidering what I was trying to say with it. This was the first fully-considered piece of graphic memoir I ever produced, and while it’s no excuse, I was unfamiliar with the process and the inherent politics of images.
My nerves were the result of something so simple I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before: when I first presented this piece to my graphic memoir class, I got to include an artist’s statement. My statement was three pages long, and it explained my process, my specific decisions about color choice and image inclusion, and how I was intentionally appropriating the image of the medicine wheel and overlaying it with “found” meaning (meaning: I looked up what the colors could traditionally represent on WEBSITES—trying to use websites affiliated with tribes but learning, along the way, that different tribes ascribe different meanings to the colors and in fact present them differently—and deciding to create my title page with all of those meanings literally placed inside the colors of the wheel; colors whose “meanings” I tried very hard to use throughout the piece to provide a visual continuity of meaning [black as insight, white as intellect, red as innocence, yellow as illumination, etc]). I explained that I deliberately used the term “Chippewa” rather than “Ojibwe” to underscore the non-native perspective from which my family came.
The point is that, in my artist’s statement, I had the chance to explain the places where I intentionally appropriated images and what I hoped the implication for the reader would be. I wanted to hint at the idea that ascribing a specific “meaning” to native imagery is, for some reason, a fluid gesture for non-natives—that non-natives have historically used the most convenient explanations and codified them into “fact.”
I didn’t get to share an artist’s statement with the publication of this piece, and I find myself unsettled because I consider myself a writer and an over-explainer.
I also got to include a list of Sources Used when I originally presented my project. I offered my list to Sweet but they didn’t use it, which is fine, but in that list of sources, it showed that not only did I reappropriate family photos and screenshots of Google Maps and emails in my piece, but I also used four images (the Mohawk men, the Cherokee “princess,” and the Chippewa woman—supposed to look like the Land o’Lakes character) that my husband drew. I did not draw everything on this piece. I drew most of it, and I wrote all of it, but I didn’t draw all of it. It’s a collaged piece.
Where does one draw the line with credit in a graphic collaged memoir? Do I credit the photographer who posed Monroe and his sibling and printed the picture I would later scan and use? Do I credit the mapmakers of Google? The arbiters of Ancestry.com? Surely I owe credit somewhere.
I wanted to indicate that, for my line of non-native ancestors, living on native land has been a generational history. I wondered about what attitudes and behavioral patterns have been cultivated over those twelve generations, and what I can control. What will be left of my OWN behaviors in twelve generations? And further, what can be assumed? That’s always a tricky question—should I be ASSUMING the Mohawks and Ojibwe my family lived near were even interested in the affairs of my family? Surely my family owed some level of interest in them, what with squatting on their land and all.
In any case, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I intended to compose a piece about dominance and discomfort, about family lore and family lies, about the unknowable history of individuals and their intentions. I did compose a piece about those questions, but I’m left with more questions about appropriation.