As Marvel proudly unveils the first Native American to become Captain America, I’m of two minds on the subject.
This week, Marvel revealed a new shield-bearing hero taking on the Captain America mantle, with a Native American donning the red, white, and blue. Considering the history of America and Natives, this feels like a very interesting choice that I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it.
Though I’ve talked about it a couple times, many might not be aware that I myself, am a bonafide, card-carrying, Native (hailing from the Ponca tribe). As such, I had some thoughts about the newly announced character of Joe Gomez. On one hand it feels, wrong, but on the other there’s an importance to the act that shouldn’t be overlooked. Clearly, the best way to sort through the complicated thoughts are to do so publicly online…
If you missed the announcement, Marvel has a new comic series called The United States of Captain America. In the series, Steve Rogers’ original shield has been stolen for nefarious purposes. This results in Steve, Bucky, Sam Wilson, and John Walker coming together to track the thief down. As they travel the country, they encounter others who’ve taken on the Captain America mantle; inspired by the superhero to protect their own communities.
The third issue of the series will introduce Joe Gomez of the Kickapoo tribe who lives in Kansas, and chronicle his Captain America origins. Thankfully, the creation of Gomez comes from the talent of actual indigenous people. Darcie Little Badger (a geoscientist and Lipan Apache) is the writer, while David Cutler (Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation) is handling the art duties.
It’s always nice when the voices behind these diverse characters are representative as well, and the duo are genuinely thrilled to be able to partner a Native character with a character who’s been so iconic and around for 80 years. And yet, my first reaction upon seeing Gomez is more along the lines of, “why on Earth would a Native want to wear the Red, White, and Blue?”
A Tragic Past
The history of Natives with the United States government is one of genocide, relocation, broken treaties, and force assimilation. In short, it’s not exactly great. We’re talking entire tribes wiped, not only from the map, but history all together. Hell, my own tribe is struggling to keep our language alive. The same is true of many tribes, as so many of us were forced to no longer speak our native tongue, oftentimes under severe penalty.
In 1879, we had to go to the Supreme Court (Ponca’s own Chief Standing Bear) to prove that we were, in fact, “a person” and thus allowed the same freedoms and rights under the Constitution. It’s not exactly like these struggles are ancient history either. Just over the last few years we’ve seen Tribes actively work to protect their sacred lands from Government contracts and further destruction.
Looking at this rough history of Natives and the US, it is really hard to reconcile how any Native would feel comfortable taking on the moniker of Captain America.
A History of Patriotism
By no means does this imply that Native Americans can’t also feel a sense of pride/patriotism to the United States. Throughout the nation’s history, Tribes have been part of pretty much every major conflict in defending our Country. While most know about the crucial efforts of the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II, Natives enlisting goes all the way back to the Revolutionary war.
Hell, during World War I over 15,000 Natives joined the fight, along with several Native women (who served as nurses). And that was BEFORE Native Americans were even considered United States’ citizens; that wouldn’t happen until 1924. There are plenty of examples throughout the history of the United States, so it’s not exactly such a crazy thing to consider. A lot of it boils down to our culture and way of thinking.
This is “our” land. Natives have long revered the Earth as something to be cherished and taken care of. Yeah, real circle of life stuff, I know, but that’s the reality. Despite being forced onto reservations, most of the time nowhere near our actual lands (fuck you Trail of Tears!), Natives have continued to fight for this land. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s hard to turn our back on the land of our ancestors. We’re always looking out for one another and the space we share with others.
Based on how the creators have discussed the idea behind Joe Gomez, this sentiment seems to be a guiding principle:
“See, Joe Gomez is a construction worker, a builder in a world plagued by destruction.” Little Badger explains. “Every time a spaceship crashes into a bridge or a supervillain transforms a whole city block into rubble, people like Joe make things whole again.
“…He won’t charge elders for home repair services (the Joe Gomez senior discount is 100%). That’s also why he’s willing to risk his life to save others. I know lots of people like Joe – many of them my Indigenous relatives – so it was wonderful to help develop a character with his values, strength, and extreme crane-operating skills.”
A Chance For Something Bigger
There’s no denying the cultural impact of Captain America. Marvel’s most recent big budget TV show, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, spent six episodes dealing with the complicated nature of the hero’s name and heritage.
In many ways, seeing the iconic hero be an inspiration for others, of any ethnicity is an important thing. America is made up of a multitude of cultures/peoples and there should be no singular symbol that serves as a representative for everyone. By taking on the name Captain America, Joe Gomez is making it clear that AMERICA also incorporates indigenous people.
Despite the hardships, this is still very much our land and our people still need help. Looked at this way, I can see how making a Native Captain America is a monumental thing. It has the potential to open up a bigger discussion about what it means to be an “American Hero” and the ways in which other cultures should be apart of that.
As Sam Wilson so recently said, “The legacy of that shield [Captain America] is complicated.” It won’t get uncomplicated if storytellers don’t continue to push the boundaries of what we expect and open conversations.
Of course, that greatly depends on where the story goes and I sincerely hope they address some of these problems. Don’t get me wrong, I’m eager to see what they do with Joe Gomez’s Captain America, but it’s hard to overcome my initial reaction. It feels weird to see him in the Stars and Stripes. There’s potential for great story, but who knows if they’ll go for it or simply play off the novel idea of seeing a Native as Captain America.
I can’t tell you how to feel. I think this article makes it clear I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this. I’m not a monolith for Natives (not even close to speaking for everyone in my specific Tribe!), so don’t go taking any of this as gospel. I think it’s important to know, however, that there are plenty of Native Americans who feel, understandably, conflicted about it and that’s okay.
The United States of Captain America kicks off this June, with Joe Gomez appearing in August’s issue.