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American Indians in French Comic Strips

Céline Planchou, PhD and Sandrine Baudry, PhD

Research Fellows, Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies

October 1, 2018

Following up on our last report, we wanted today to use our specific situation as European scholars within the CAIRNS team to reflect on the image of “the Indian” which has developed in France over the years, constantly being reshaped through different media and often producing an exotic, romantic and stereotyped vision. One medium that has been instrumental in defining this image in the last decades, and which is rarely tackled, is comic books known as the “bande dessinée” in French (or simply BD), which can be translated as “drawn strips”. The expression  mainly alludes to Franco-Belgian hardcover comic books, although recent creations would fit into the category of graphic novels. Referred to as the “ninth art” since the middle of the 1960s, when it became a legitimate form of art in the country, the bande desssinée holds a significant place within French popular culture and as such its influence is quite meaningful.

Native Americans, and especially Plains Indians, have always been familiar characters within the bande dessinée.[1] When French people are asked what they know about Native Americans, why they tend to be fascinated by them, one common denominator is our childhood experience with francophone comic books. The image it gave us, although often caricatural, tended to be positive and conjure up ideas of adventure, freedom, or a close relationship to nature. The series Oumpah pah, which was created by Uderzo and Goscinny in 1958, before they gained international fame with Asterix the Gaul, is worth mentioning here. Set at the moment of French colonization, the story follows the adventures of Oumpah pah (who became Ompa pa in English), a young warrior from an imaginary tribe, and a French officer named Hubert Brussels Sprout who ends up being called “Two Scalp” because of his whig. The series is usually associated with the humoristic genre within francophone comics, which heavily relies on caricature. Oumpah pah likes to eat pemmican, he is a good buffalo hunter and a trustworthy friend who lives in a tipi, surrounded by totem poles while supposedly living near the Atlantic Coast. He embodies the positive generic « Indian » whose simple heroism attracts sympathy and fosters identification. It is interesting to note that, a year later, the character of Asterix the Gaul, whose village resists Roman invasion, would be very much influenced by Oumpah pah.

Yakari is another series with which many French children grew up, all the more since it was adapted twice on television.[2] Created by Derib and Job in 1973, it tells the story of a young Sioux boy, Yakari, who has the ability to speak with animals. It is set in an uncertain time, before European contact, and follows the adventures of the little boy and his human and animal friends. The series was instrumental in shaping a positive image of Native Americans, here especially of Lakota people, in French children's minds. At the same time, it fixed this image to immemorial time, giving the impression that Yakari's people belong to the past.

Francophone comics are not always humoristic or written for a young audience. The realistic style (which mainly targets adult readership and is more realistic in terms of colors, lines or graphic details) was the perfect medium to transfer the western formula from the screen to graphic literature. In this way, western comics have always been a very popular and prolific field within the bande dessinée. Set in a shifting and moving “West”, from the Ontario River to the Sonora Desert or the Great Plains, they portray the encounter between different cultures and the ensuing conflicts. Although recently different series or albums reveal their authors' efforts towards more historical or ethnographic accuracy - Black Hills (1993), Carlisle (2013), Ulysse Wincoop (2015) about a child surviving the Wounded Knee massacre, Scalp (2017) telling the story of a real-life mercenary paid to kill Native Americans in the wake of the Mexican War, they all take place in the past, compounding a sense of romanticism by freezing Native Americans in time. This helps understand why French people's fascination for Native Americans is usually matched by their lack of knowledge of their contemporary ways of life. There are still very few exceptions which portray Native Americans in today's world - Red Road (1993), Lance Crow Dog (1998). In many of these western stories, Native Americans were rarely fleshed out. If in the last decades, different characters emerged as prominent figures, they are still much less put at the center of the intrigue than the white hero. Native American characters are usually the hero's wife or a close friend who helps reveal the hero to himself – Blueberry (1965), Buddy Longway (1974), Black Hills (1993).

The Wounded Knee Massacre shown in Festraëts and Bachelier, Ulysse Wincoop, Le dernier des Sioux, Gallimard, 2015

Hughes Micol, Scalp, Futuropolis, 2017

Edouard Chevais-Deighton, Laurent Seigneuret, Carlisle, Bamboo Edition, 2013

Perrotin, Séjourné, Lance Crow Dog, Tome 5, Soleil Productions, 2003

Derib, Red Road, Le Lombard, 1993

French historian Dominique Kalifa explained in a 2002 article on the origins of “Apachisme” in the country that images of the “Indian” in French literature have testified to a profound desire to still have a bit of France in America, [3] as if French authors' enthusiasm for Native Americans and the western genre participated in maintaining an imaginary link with a lost territory. The bande dessinée would thus be yet another literary medium to aesthetically express this fantasized connection. The fact that these narratives go on being published is a testimony to the continuing fascination for Native Americans while, as an echo to our last post, the fact there are very few, if any – and certainly not as widely known as some of the works cited here, bandes dessinées about French indigenous people, is highly revealing of our country’s politics and historical rewriting.

1. The following page gives a non-exhaustive list of the series or albums which portray Native Americans in Franco-Belgian comics. You can find the titles we give in the report.

2. Episodes in English can be found on YouTube:

3. Dominique Kalifa, « Archéologie de l'Apachisme. Les représentations des Peaux-Rouges dans la France du XIXème siècle », Revue d'histoire de l'enfance « irrégulière », 4, 2002. Access on line :