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Alaqua Cox, a deaf Menominee First Nation actor, plays Maya Lopez in Marvel Studios' Echo.Chuck Zlotnick/Handout

Disney’s latest Marvel series, Echo, centres on a deaf Choctaw superhero named Maya who lost her mother, Taloa, in a tragic car accident. This being Marvel, Maya moves to New York with her father, who also dies, and she is partly raised by an older man named Kingpin, who tries to harness her powers for his own sinister use and dominance.

Now, I don’t normally write about big-budget Marvel TV miniseries, but this time, I had to – because representation matters, be it in classrooms or on your screens. After more than a century of Hollywood promoting the myth of the “noble savage” – the idea that before contact, Indigenous people were docile folks, hanging around the wilderness, waiting to be saved by the white man – the fact that a First Nations community, a rez-family dynamic and two deaf women, one of whom also has a missing lower leg, are being showcased by the studios that brought us Pocahontas and The Lone Ranger, is big news.

Hollywood’s portrayal of First Nations people has been legendary in its ridiculousness, causing much harm when it was perpetuated and repeated in countless spaghetti Westerns and cartoons. The genre features Indians wearing headdresses and riding around on horseback, and they are usually the sidekicks of main characters. In the case of the animated feature film Pocahontas, Disney somehow made conquest romantic by using the taking of young, terrified girls by older white men to be the basis of a love story.

But Marvel’s Echo breaks the stereotypical mould. Here is a female-powered action series where two strong First Nations deaf actors are featured – and one of them is Winnipeg’s own Katarina Ziervogel, a mega-talented Anishinaabe/Mohawk/German actor and writer from Sagkeeng First Nation. Ms. Ziervogel has also co-written the feature film The Finality of Dusk, released in 2023.

“I never thought about acting as a career because of how limited the pool is for someone who is an Indigenous deaf woman like me, and growing up I never really saw myself represented on TV,” Ms. Ziervogel said in an interview from her Winnipeg home. “I mean, yes, there was Indigenous and deaf representation, but not both.”

Seeing Maya’s family communicate with Taloa in sign language has resonated with deaf Indigenous people, she said, adding many are contacting her to cheer her on. “I hope to see more people willing to learn sign language and for our community to grow more inclusive for the Indigenous deaf and hard-of-hearing members.”

Ms. Ziervogel has joined Echo’s first season with a stellar Indigenous cast – many of whom had to learn sign language. The Choctaw character of Maya Lopez is played by Alaqua Cox, a deaf Menominee First Nation actor; Dev Jacobs is Kahnàwa:ke Mohawk and fresh from the hit series Reservation Dogs; Edmonton Cree actor Cody Lightning recently appeared in the classic mockumentary Hey, Viktor! and Indigenous royalty Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene top off the slate. The series is directed by Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland.

Authentic representation, said Ms. Ziervogel, “in front and behind the camera,” is key to why the series works. Echo’s main character, Maya, has had a hard past, lost her parents, is suffering trauma, and is violent and lashes out. The Judeo-Christian ideal of good versus evil is thrown out the window in Echo. Maya is a powerful First Nations character and she is angry and on fire. She is not a victim – on the contrary, she is out to settle a score. Seeing Maya on-screen is empowering.

“Choctaw people, especially their culture and language, are featured heavily in Maya’s story and [the filmmakers] actually collaborated with the Choctaw Nation to ensure that the representation is being done right,” Ms. Ziervogel said. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is one of the biggest nations in the United States, with more than 225,000 tribal members.

Indigenous storytelling matters, and it matters when stories are told by those who are truly Indigenous. The entertainment industry has been set back by those who claim indigeneity but are found to be putting on an act. From directors to singers and actors, everyone who promotes “pretendians” does us harm.

Last year was overshadowed by the alleged long deception of singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, which left many Canadians reeling, saddened by the revelation that she wasn’t Cree from Saskatchewan, but rather Italian from Massachusetts.

Now, to start 2024, nothing warms my heart more than seeing a red carpet full of Indigenous talent, and, right there at the Toronto premiere last week was Ms. Ziervogel, in a pantsuit ringed with bright ribbons and a long braid swinging behind her, representing to all of us what is possible.

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