Representation, especially Native American representation, has always been a sticky subject for graphic novels. While their presence does add much-needed diversity, Indigenous characters often times rely heavily on stereotypes. In the words of Arigon Starr, a Native American graphic novelist, indigenous comic book characters are “either shamans, mystic boogeyman, or pocahotties (Pocahontas hotties).” Sometimes, though, there are creators that utilize stereotypes and usurp them in order to create engaging characters — characters such as Dani Moonstar, a fierce Cheyenne teen and a staple of the NEW MUTANTS. Her stories, like that of the “Demon Bear Saga,” show how effective the comic book medium is at deeper narratives while still maintaining a tight, character-focused story.

Who is Dani Moonstar?

On paper, it seems like Dani falls into the same traps most Indigenous characters have before her. Her everyday style borders on stereotypical. This, of course, being the inclusion of her pigtails and turquoise belt — instant signifiers of her Cheyenne descent. Her powers also show signs of stereotyping. They focus on being in tune with other animals, a common Native American trope. Yet, as James Leask aptly put it in his analysis of the character, her design and powers merged her cultural origins and independent personality exquisitely.

Dani Moonstar
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Dani grew up in Boulder, Colorado. She lived there fairly peacefully until the deaths of her parents at the hands of the Demon Bear. From there, she lived with her grandfather, Black Eagle, until her powers began to manifest. Once they did, Dani had no choice but to leave and join the New Mutants or risk capture by the Hellfire Club. The Club already successfully killed her grandfather, and she wasn’t about to let his death be in vain.

READ: Native American representation is extremely important. See why here!

From there, Dani proved herself as one of the strongest members of the group. Her psychic powers allowed her to create visual images of people’s greatest fears. This power alienated her back home but made her a valuable asset to the New Mutants. She had a hard time trusting her white teammates given the tensions between the racial groups. However, as time wore on, it became clear that she saw them as close friends.

Combining Culture with Character

The best way for someone to learn about a different culture is to sympathize with it. That’s why MS. MARVEL became such a big deal in 2014. The comic showed Americans that Muslim citizens went beyond stereotypical media portrayals. Dani Moonstar does the same for native communities. She refused to wear the classic uniform of the X-Men. She modified her outfit to show that while she was a member of the team, she still valued where she came from. This is not unlike Kamala Khan’s inclusion of her family’s bracelet in her costume.

Dani’s not just some Pocahontas wannabe — far from it. She’s tough, smart, and knows who she is and what she’s about. Her inherent strength made her one of the greatest leaders of the New Mutants and showed that Native American characters don’t have to rely on stereotypes to be meaningful. They can be hotheaded and stubborn. They could question the decisions of their teachers and march to the beat of their own drum. Dani’s notable for her strength and also for a very sympathetic inner turmoil: her worry that she’ll hurt others with her powers.

Dani Moonstar

Dani saw how her psychic abilities alienate her back home. At first, when she seemed distrustful of her New Mutant teammates, she refused to fight in the Danger Room with them. Though she claims not to care for these individuals at first, she really fears harming them. In a way, her actions parallel those of anyone who preserves a dark secret within them. It might not be quite as severe as psychically manifesting their greatest fear, but it’s still poignant nonetheless. Dani’s a teenager after all: even if she proudly wears her heritage, she still wants to fit in with her peers.

Dani and the Demon Bear

It’s almost impossible to talk about Dani Moonstar without at least mentioning the epic “Demon Bear Saga.” The three-issue story follows the New Mutants as they battle the entity Demon Bear. Everyone believed that the Demon Bear killed Dani’s parents. Thus, it’s a being that continues to haunt her. When she starts having dreams of the bear returning, she decides to go alone and hunt it down, arming herself with a bow and arrow. Unfortunately, she lacks the strength to defeat this mighty beast. Once she is gravely wounded, the other New Mutants come to fight the bear, only to find that the bear is merely Dani’s parents all along, trapped inside the creature.

On the surface, the story appears simple enough: Dani needs to go out and fight the bear on her own because her friends don’t believe her, and ultimately, the power of friendship restores order. Yet, as discussed by Ramzi Fawaz in his book The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics, the Demon Bear holds itself up to indigenous identity interpretation. Rather, Dani struggles with reconciling what’s happened to her people and the generational trauma she cannot escape. Even if she identifies as a New Mutant, even if she leaves her home, her people’s history remains close. While none of the authors explicitly state this in the three-issue run, it’s hard not to see her Native identity playing a huge role in the anxiety of the Demon Bear. This alone makes Dani worth talking about.

Is She Enough?

I am not Cheyenne. I am a white girl talking about how I think the creators did a good job in the 80s representing a Native American character. I’m stating this because I acknowledge that I don’t know a lot about the nuances of good representation. This is especially true of indigenous cultures. I think where the creators do well is in portraying how Dani’s culture is important to her, but it does not define her. She’s still angry, she still holds insecurities and has anxieties about her origins.

Visually, you can tell she’s not like the other New Mutants. Her outfits showcase her culture while still being easily identifiable as one of the X-Men’s. She’s not wearing classic indigenous dress as her hero outfit. She maintains aspects of her background, but she’s still an X-Men through and through. All in all, she’s a strong Cheyenne woman who any little girl coming from Dani’s background could easily see themselves in.

However, while all of this is wonderful, it can’t go without saying that Dani Moonstar was created by white men for a comic book. The creators, at the time, didn’t appear to understand the deeper nuances of the culture. They relied too much on the preconceived stereotypes of Indigenous cultures instead of really trying to find Dani as her own person. Bob McLeod himself finds fault with how they handled the unique cultures of the New Mutants cast, with Dani Moonstar being no exception. While I don’t believe creators need to come from the same background as their characters, a shared background does help. It makes the characters feel more realistic and true to their origins. Plus, it adds some much-needed diversity to the comic book industry.

Representation Forces More Representation

When people ask why a good chunk of superhero movies are so whitewashed, it really begs the question: where are characters like Dani Moonstar? As it turns out, Fox Studios has been working on a movie for the New Mutants. They even cast Blu Hunt, an Indigenous person, as Dani. Which honestly shouldn’t be as big of a deal as it is. However, this is the same country that cast an Italian man as a weeping Native in the past.

READ: Interested in Native culture in comics? Check out our review of MOONSHOT: THE INDIGENOUS COMICS COLLECTION!

Without Dani Moonstar’s character, this actress might never have gotten the press she now has. Even if the comic book industry desperately needs more Native writers and artists, the Indigenous characters created open a door for actors hoping to snag a role. Native Americans deserve to see themselves as heroes — not costumes brought out during Thanksgiving. They’re just as much people as anyone else, and it’s time they were treated that way.

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