Jeffrey Veregge has a nearly life-long bond with the seminal sci-fi series Star Trek. "I wore Spock ears to school in junior high," says Veregge, who wryly notes that the experience made him a school outcast for years.
Veregge, who hails from the Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe on Washington State's Kitsap Peninsula, is just one of the Native American graphic artists who will be on hand alongside actors, producers and other pop culturistas at Indigenous Comic Con 2, which will be held November 10-12 in Albuquerque. The inaugural con attracted more than 1,500 attendees, and event organizers anticipate that number to double.
What attracts Native Americans to pop culture, science fiction and fantasy?
"I was born a geek," says Johnnie Jae, a member of the Otoe-Missouria and Choctaw tribes and the managing editor of Native Max Magazine and the mistress of atribecalledgeek.com, an indigenous pop culture news site. "I was blowing bubbles at birth." Jae coined the term 'Indigeneity' to describe herself and other pop culture-loving Natives.
Jae says that Native people traditionally have loved pop culture and all that goes with it. "Indigenous nerd culture is steeped in our existence as Native people, our tradition, our creativity. We know how to share our narratives and stories in a respectful way, without appropriation," she says. And she notes that pop culture loves indigenous culture in return.
For example, "There's a lot of indigenous influence in Star Wars," says Jae. "Some of the languages spoken are based on the Quechan language. The Ewoks are based on the Miwoks [a tribe that's native to George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch land in Northern California]. Princess Leia's hair style is based on that of Hopi maidens."
Lee Francis, ICC's director, is a member of the Laguna Pueblo and the owner of Native Realities, which deals in indigenous graphic novels and artwork. "We wanted to get everybody together in the same place," says Francis. "It's hard to put all that talent in one spot during a panel."
Francis says it's important for Native people to not lock themselves into becoming historic anachronisms. "We have to push the boundaries of spaces of art," he says. "That includes inserting pop culture into our framework."
Plus, "something happens when you create a space for Indigenous people in pop culture," says Francis, whose day job is serving as the national director of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. "We're covering more than comic books — we're providing a space for all ages so we could tell our own stories."
Jae says that the con also provides an opportunity to showcase the large number of Native people working in popular culture. "Nobody takes note of so many Natives in the field," she says. "The co-creator of DOOM was Native. There are so many indigenous people working in geek culture, yet we’re marginalized, and get stuck with tropes."
Indigenous Comic Con, on the other hand, celebrates the merging of geekdom with Native cultures. A panel at last year’s con concerned surviving the zombie apocalypse, 'rez' style. Native actors like Wonder Woman actor Eugene Braverock, Robopocalyse author Daniel Wilson and graphic artists like Superindian creator Arigon Starr and Jay Odjick will be on hand. And, Indigenous Comic Con does't charge for autographs.
Veregge, a graphic book and print artist who's created comic covers merging superheroes and Northwest Native design inspiration for IDW Publishing and Marvel among other work, encountered the real Spock, actor Leonard Nimoy, when he, his pregnant wife and six-year-old son were standing in a long autograph line at Norwestcon near Seattle in 2002.
"Caleb was fidgeting and bored," says Veregge. "Nimoy's assistant came over and asked Caleb to sit with him. After everything I endured as a teen, Nimoy saw us!"
After Nimoy's passing from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), Veregge wished to honor the beloved actor. "I contacted Shop LLAP and Dani, his granddaughter. I’m working pro bono to design some artwork, which will be printed as a donation, for LLAP. The proceeds from the prints will go to support COPD research at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research."
Jae notes that geek culture is truly universal. "You can be wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and somebody can come up to you and you start talking about your love for the universe. It just brings people together."