Superman in “Superman, Indian Chief”

This isn’t a good one. It’s not a good Superman vs. Bigots story. Today I am once again diverting from my planned trajectory to examine something that isn’t what this series of articles was supposed to be about, but which is thematically connected, so I want to touch on it.

Superman, Indian Chief”

SUMMARY

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Henry Meecher is the last descendant of the Indigenous peoples who supposedly sold Metropolis Island to the white people who would go on to build a massive city there. Meecher reveals, with documents to prove it, that the sale was illegal because the man who sold it, Gray Wolf, was not actually chief at the the time of the sale. The documents are tested and proven to be genuine and, though the case still needs to go to a higher court, Meecher immediately begins acting as if he rules the city. He tells the owner of one skyscraper to pay a monthly rent of a hundred thousand dollars. The owner says he can’t afford it, so Meecher has his goons start smashing the building. Superman intervenes by creating a new island in the harbour, land Meecher doesn’t own, and carries the skyscraper there. Meecher isn’t bothered. There’s plenty of other building owners in town.

Superman realizes that the only way he can solve this problem is by investigating Meecher’s claim that the sale was fraudulent. Luckily for Superman, it is easy enough for him to go back in time and check it out in person.

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Arriving in the past to find Gray Wolf attempting to talk his people into starting a war, Superman almost instantly forgets his mission and tries to prevent Gray Wolf’s desired conquest. Gray Wolf and his accomplices have set up a number of fake omens intending to sway the tribe’s vote, so Superman performs various super-feats to undo them and promote peace. This ends with the tribe exiling Gray Wolf and beginning talks to choose their next leader.

Gray Wolf reasons that the white men won’t know he’s been deposed, so he goes through with the sale to get the guns anyway. After Superman stops Gray Wolfs attempted attack, he realizes that he failed to stop the fraudulent sale (in fact, he essentially caused it) and prepares to return to his own time. But before he leaves, the tribe dub him Flying Eagle and present him with a wampum belt to thank him for preventing a war. Superman can’t bring the belt with him through time, but thanks them and tells them to keep it in his memory.

Back in the present, Superman drops in on the court where a judge is preparing to rule on the matter. They have further examined Meecher’s documents and can confirm that Gray Wolf wasn’t entitled to make the sale because the tribe had elected Flying Eagle to be in charge at that time. Superman realizes that that was him and he goes to the museum to get the belt he’d been given to prove it, thus shutting down Meecher’s case. The story ends in the Daily Planet offices with Clark coming in wearing a feathered headdress, which counted as a punchline at the time.

Issue: Action Comics #148, September, 1950

WHY I’M COVERING THIS ONE

One of the reasons I want to focus on stories about Superman fighting racists throughout the years is to prove wrong the argument you’ll see on the internet that modern writers are shoehorning political content into modern stories and that superhero stories weren’t always like that. Obviously nobody who’d make that argument is likely to be reading this. And even then, that argument is rarely made in good faith. And even if it were, the arguer would just be admitting that they don’t pay close enough attention to the media in which they partake. But I still can’t help but try to argue against it.

Every story is political in some way. There’s no way around it. Even if you aren’t actively trying to make a statement, the assumptions you make about how the world works find their way into your stories and reinforce cultural beliefs. “Superman, Indian Chief” provides a history of America in which the natives peacefully sold land to the colonizers and everybody was happy. It casts the man who makes a claim to the land in the role of a greedy villain (and it also makes him short and “funny-looking”). There’s even a scene in which Superman scolds Grey Wolf about the importance of upholding treaties. At no point does the story mention how the white man treated the former inhabitants of the land, except to note that Meecher is their last descendant. An entire culture whittled down to a single man, and we supposed to side against him.

Some people do treat Superman as an upholder of the status quo and, as with any superhero, you can find plenty of stories in which that happens. In this series I don’t want to deny that those stories occurred, I just don’t want to focus on them. My preferred Man of Tomorrow is working to make Tomorrow better, not to make it the same as today.

BONUS CONTENT

“Electric Earthquake” released in May 1942:

An unnamed scientist wants Manhattan evacuated so his people can reclaim it, and causes destruction from his underwater lair until Superman puts and end to it.

STRAY THOUGHTS

  • Okay, Gray Wolf’s sale was fake and Flying Eagle was in charge, but Flying Eagle never actually made a sale at all, Clark. As far as I can tell, Meecher still has a point unless you go back in time again to complete the sale, Clark.
  • One saving grace of both of these stories is that both Meecher and his animated equivalent are depicted as modern, suit-wearing men. I could easily see stories in this era treating them as warpaint-wearing savages who speak in broken English. It may be a low bar, but at least they cleared it.
  • That said, I’m sure the depiction of Grey Wolf’s tribe in the past is full of stupid things and we should be happy that they are clearly to be a fictional people rather than a some real nation.
  • Once again Lois Lane is the only woman in these stories. In the comic she does nothing and in the cartoon she is a damsel in distress.

NEXT TIME

I plan to get back on track with a Silver Age, Comics Code Approved story in which Clark fights against bigotry, which, of course, means no persons of colour appear in the story at all.