« Return to this article

Know the West

Indigenous zines elevate authenticity

The craft’s lack of limitation allows for powerful storytelling.


When Raven Two Feathers entered middle school, little guidance was available for adolescents grappling with gender and sexuality. Later, Two Feathers — who uses both he/they pronouns and identifies as Two Spirit, an Indigenous non-binary gender identity — started considering “top surgery,” a procedure used to remove most breast tissue to make the chest look and feel more masculine that is sometimes part of transitioning. But they couldn’t find any fellow Two Spirit people for advice. “There’s plenty of information on top surgery, but it’s mainly from white guys,” said Two Feathers, who lives in Seattle.

In response, like Indigenous do-it-yourselfers before them, Two Feathers and illustrator Jonny Cechony are self-publishing a 32-page autobiographical comic book zine, designed to raise the visibility of Two Spirit people who are seeking to make sense of themselves. The creative exercise of zine-making astonished Two Feathers: It encouraged them to be open about their transitioning and affirm their own existence.

“I knew that if I had had the resources, like the zine, when I was little or even a teenager, my life would be very different,” said Two Feathers, who is Cherokee, Comanche, Seneca and Cayuga.

Indigenous zinesters have been producing booklets since at least the 1980s, many focused on activism, history, art and poetry. The term “zine” is derived from the science fiction “fan magazines” of the late 1920s and early ’30s. Today, zines run the gamut of genres. They’re often photocopied and passed hand-to-hand, distributed by mail order or sold in alternative bookstores, usually the counterculture kind associated with punk, grunge and radical politics. “The ability to tell stories without limitation or an editor saying, ‘You can’t say this’ or ‘Tone this down’ — zines help people to be authentic,” said Chris Wilde, co-founder of the Queer Zine Archive Project in Milwaukee. “And that is one of the biggest things that I know for myself and others I’ve spoken to over the years, that zines change lives.” Many Indigenous zines dig into history, providing a space for exclusively Indigenous narratives. For Two Feathers, they are filling the vacuum where the Two Spirit experience should be.

“To be able to craft your own nature without white interpretation of history and a colonial gaze — that’s where I find the power of Indigenous zines, whether they are queer or not. That power is there for a direct statement,” said Wilde, who is non-Native. 

With its vibrant collage artwork, hand-drawn illustrations and edgy cropped text, the zine series Atrocities against Indigenous Canadians for Dummies: A zine series created out of emotional exhaustion offers a punchy, raw look at Canada’s gruesome colonial history — a history often left out of class curriculums. Jenna Rose Sands, a Nehiyaw, Anishinaabe and Lenape woman living in Ontario, explores Indigenous issues, ranging from powwow etiquette — do not touch dancers’ regalia without their consent, for example — to the residential schools that stole a generation of Indigenous children and the missing and murdered Indigenous women along the notorious “Highway of Tears.” Sands writes, “If the government wishes to continue a practice of ignoring history (and current problems, let's be honest) then we need to get rage-y and educate others, right?”

In a stark 40-page black-and-white booklet, John Redhouse details the complex history behind the so-called land dispute involving Navajo and Hopi people. Redhouse, known for his scholarship and Indigenous rights activism in the Southwest during the Red Power movement, published his zine Geopolitics of the Navajo-Hopi ‘Land Dispute in the mid-’80s. He was writing in response to the U.S. government’s relocation of Navajo and Hopi people, beginning in 1974, from a former joint-use area on ancestral land in northeastern Arizona. Redhouse begins his account with an early history of Navajo-Hopi relations, describing how the two tribes lived side-by-side in the supposedly “disputed area” before the U.S. plundered title to their homelands. In returning land to the Navajo by executive order in 1882 to create the Navajo Nation Reservation, Redhouse writes, the U.S. government “partitioned along arbitrarily drawn lines on a range management map and forcibly segregated the two tribal neighbors.”

Courtesy of d3ék’w

In Seattle, the art collective yəhaw̓ packs a serious anthology of work into its limited zine series d3ék’w: An Indigenous Art Zine, which was created to accompany art installations, performances, workshops curated by Tracy Rector (Choctaw Seminole), Asia Tail (Cherokee) and Satpreet Kahlon. The work includes literature, poetry, paintings, graphics, interviews and more. The title d3ék’w means “to travel, to wonder,” which makes sense, because the work feels like a walkabout, beginning with a land acknowledgement for living and producing this zine in the traditional Coast Salish people’s territory. Among the featured artists, as it happens, is Raven Two Feathers, whose own zineQualifications of Being — will be released on Valentine’s Day.

Indigenous zines harness personal and historical accounts, artistic and poetic techniques, in a world that has traditionally erased them. Perhaps most important, they seek to create human connections, showing that we aren’t as alone as we might think. “If there's someone who's like me, or if I could almost help a younger version of me, that's really where the spirit of this piece came out of,” said Two Feathers.

Courtesy of d3ék’w

Note: This story has been changed to reflect that Two Feathers received a surgical procedure used to look and feel more masculine, which is more than simply breast reduction surgery.

Kalen Goodluck is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.