Soldiers Unknown: Graphic Novelist Chag Lowry on World War I’s Native Warriors

Brian Daffron

The wars of the past 70 years, such as World War II, Korea, Vietnam and now the Global War on Terror, still receive a fair share of coverage. Yet World War I seems to be a forgotten war, relegated to an occasional small town memorial statue or a Memorial Day showing of Sergeant York with Gary Cooper. Yurok and Maidu historian Chag Lowry, an author of books that profile both World War II and Korean War veterans, wants to give respect to those Native World War I veterans of northern California through the graphic novel format with Soldiers Unknown.

The graphic novel centers on Yurok soldiers who were part of the 91st Infantry in the first 10 days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which was one of the bloodiest long-term battles of American military history. “One of the reasons why this battle was so horrific is they did a lot of frontal infantry attacks against machine gun pillboxes and nests,” said Lowry. “The Americans basically did not learn from what the French and the British went through already.” Juxtaposed with the battle are events from a 10-day Yurok Ceremonial that, according to Lowry, focuses on “healing” and “world renewal.”

Lowry is a long-time comic book fan, who said his influences include DC Comics titles such as Sergeant Rock, GI Combat and Army at War. Lowry met his collaborator, Rahsan Ekedal, at a Comic-Con in San Francisco, and found a rare talent—a comic artist who could illustrate, ink and color his own work. Ekedal’s work includes titles such as The Tithe and Think Tank, and has done work for DC, Dark Horse and Top Cow publications.

Soldiers Unknown will be in mostly color, with flashbacks in black and white. It will be published through Heyday Books of Berkeley, California, in 2017 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the United States’ involvement in World War I. Plans also include German and French language editions for European markets.

ICTMN caught up with Lowry to discuss the graphic novel.

Soldiers Unknown cover

What is it that interests you about the experiences of Native veterans?

I have many veterans on both sides of my family. I was raised around a lot of the World War II generation—my grandfather and my great-uncle. As a little guy, I was always very curious about what my grandfather and his generation went through.

What drew you to create this graphic novel about World War I soldiers?

When I was conducting interviews among the World War II veterans, a lot of them would tell me ‘My dad was in the First World War…I had an older brother who was in World War I…. ’.

I always wanted to convey those stories. The graphic novel is the best format that I can think of. It is historical fiction. Both of my great-great uncles and the majority of the Native men from California who fought in World War I were all in this one infantry division—the 91st Infantry Division. I’ve studied that division’s history and incorporated the actual battles in the Meuse-Argonne. The characters that I have are an amalgamation of all these Native soldiers I learned about.

Will this graphic novel have the incorporation of Yurok language or culture?

Yes it will. The characters will sometimes speak to each other in Yurok. Sometimes that will be translated in the captions, and sometimes it won’t. Part of the story revolves around Yurok culture. We have a 10-day ceremony that revolves around healing. It’s like a world renewal ceremony. In my research about where these Yurok men and all these other Native men fought in the Meuse-Argonne Battle, the first 10 days of that battle was very horrific.

I’m only focusing on the first 10 days in the Meuse-Argonne. In my graphic novel, I will write about the Yurok ceremony—that was 10 days to heal and for world renewal—and contrast that with the World War I experience, which was chaos, disorder, death and destruction. These Yurok men, literally in a space of six to eight months, they were taken from their Yurok relatives on the Klamath River into basic training, shipped overseas and put into fighting in these little French hamlets and ravines in less than a year’s time.

Have you had any support from the tribes in your area?

The people and the tribal governments are very supportive. It’s a side of who we are as Native people that mainstream America is not aware of. When you think of World War I soldiers, very many people don’t think of Native Americans.

What do you like about Rahsan Ekedal’s work and collaborating with him?

Rahsan lives in Berlin. He is close to all the museums and to the battlefields that we’re going to be showing in this story.

He’s one of the nicest people you could ever meet. He conveys emotion when he draws people. I love his line work. It’s very clean and detailed. He’s able to have the same amount of detail in a tree as he has in a helicopter or a person’s face. I love how he draws hands. That’s a hard thing. In the war, the use of hands are very prominent if they’re holding a rifle, or they’re swinging a knife, or they’re putting on their gas masks. His use of color is awesome.

What have been your sons’ responses in writing a graphic novel?

The ten year old, I can tell, he’s enjoying that he can say ‘My dad is creating a comic.’ With my three year old, I printed out one of Rahsan’s images, and I put it on a t-shirt. I was wearing my t-shirt and had a picture of one of the Yurok characters in his regalia—it’s called the Jump Dance. My three year old was looking at that image, sitting on my lap, and was asking me about it. I was telling my three year old about our ceremony and using Rashan’s art as the teaching piece. It was such a neat experience. Later that day, I emailed Rashan and said ‘this is the most powerful experience ever. I was teaching my son about our ceremony using your art.’

I am really hopeful that once the book is out, these images—not just for Native kids but for youths in general—can look at it and learn more about Native culture, history and the emotional experiences of war.

[After answering that question, Lowry went into the importance of the “coming home” experience for veterans.]

In my book, there’s an aspect of coming home. What do veterans experience when they come home? We, as a society, have to continually think about that today with Iraq and Afghanistan, and we might now be going into Syria. We have veterans that are going to come home. How they come home and what they come home to is something that we need to talk about, I think, as a society. This World War I story, there are aspects of it that are just as prevalent today as they were 100 years ago.

What will people learn when they read this?

I hope that people will learn that there are many Native American families in all of our different Native cultures across this country with family members that have served and sacrificed for the sovereign United States of America, that our people have done this for generations. That service and that sacrifice deserves to be recognized. I hope that people understand that our families have been impacted by that. When Native people died in the war, when they were wounded, when they had to be in combat, the trauma, and then return home to a society that doesn’t often respect who we are. There’s a lot of stereotypes about who we are as a Native people. I hope this is a story that will impact and change the stereotypes that exist.

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