Correcting the Post-Colonial Story: Identity And Belonging In Sam Humphries & Dalton Rose’s ‘Sacrifice’
Right from the start, Sam Humphries and Dalton Rose‘s Sacrifice is identifiable as a work of passion. It was self-published – a risky proposition in the direct market – and it was a story of personal importance to the author. Humphries has epilepsy, and Sacrifice is the story of a boy whose epilepsy isn’t only a source of frustration and anguish, but also a superpower that propels him into an adventure at the zenith of the Aztec civilization – and perhaps also provides the ultimate key to his agency.
That’s not the only source of passion evident in Sacrifice, though. The premise of the series – a suicidal Joy Division fanatic has a seizure that sends him back in time to before Cortés’ invasion of the Aztecs – provides a venue for Humphries to spit fire over how profoundly outrageous and angering the perception and purported ‘history’ of the Aztecs is. As someone fascinated by and familiar with the truth about the Aztecs, Humphries uses the series’ bedrock of time travel, violence, and destiny, to help readers take a step towards that truth.
This is where I get passionate. I’m Métis, a member of one of Canada’s three constitutionally-recognized aboriginal peoples (the other two being First Nations and Inuit). Too often, pop culture is a maddening place for indigenous peoples. In 2013, the same year that Sacrifice ended, one of the biggest film studios in the world released The Lone Ranger, a blockbuster film with a Caucasian man cast in the role of one of western culture’s few iconic aboriginal characters, Tonto – a character also saddled with an insulting, racist name that means “fool” in Spanish.
Humphries and Rose’s work on Sacrifice was a necessary and important breath of fresh air for me. Sacrifice has become a very personally important work, and I’m going to tell you why.
But first, a caveat: I intend to speak to my own experiences as an aboriginal person in my own urban, Métis context. What’s true for me definitely isn’t true for many other aboriginal or indigenous people, and while I’m speaking about an Aztec story, I don’t mean to speak for those people.
POST-COLONIALISM AND YOU
It’s impossible to disentangle the story of indigenous peoples in the Americas from the topic of colonialism, despite the occasional complaints that it happened hundreds of years ago, so, “stop talking about it already.”
It’s not simply something that happened a long time ago; whether it’s residential schools, struggling communities, self-governance, or land rights, the discussion of colonialism is a living, breathing thing – because indigenous peoples are living, breathing things. These issues are real and deserving of attention, but Sacrifice takes on an even broader aspect of colonialism, and a precursor to wider societal change: correcting the story.
Quite simply, history is written by the victors, and the Aztecs didn’t exactly win their war against the invading Spanish. The immediate and ongoing result of this, of course, was the European expansion through the Americas. The more insidious effect was that the Aztecs – as well as all indigenous people in colonial environments – had their own story buried and co-opted.
Think about it: how many Aztec cities can you name? How many of their gods? Their myths? What’s the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they think of them?
Probably human sacrifice.
What’s the one god most people can name?
Most understanding of the Aztec people more or less ends here, and if that wasn’t bad enough, we don’t even usually get it right. Humphries has spoken openly about how viscerally angry this kind of ignorance makes him, and that righteous anger is a big part of what makes Sacrifice work. It drives the protagonist Hector’s efforts to “correct” his timeline, as well as Humphries’ own efforts to educate his readers about the Aztecs.
One of the best ways the book does this is by dropping Hector in the middle of a more fully-realized Aztec world in media res.
Most often, when I’ve seen this kind of outsider-in-an-indigenous-setting story, it involves someone getting dropped in the middle of a battle. Worse storytellers than Humphries and Rose might have placed Hector in the middle of a human sacrifice, with violent hijinks ensuing.
Instead, they root him in something even more awful: politics. More specifically, they drop him in the middle of a political game over the very nature of the Aztecs themselves, as Xilotzin, a priest of Quetzalcoatl, and Itzcoatl, a priest of Huitzilopochtli and first counselor to Moctezuma, vie for control of the Aztec Empire and the city of Tenochtitlan.
Immediately the reader learns two very important facts. First, the Aztecs were more diverse than most people imagine. Second, erroneous beliefs about Quetzalcoatl and human sacrifice are placed in the context of the complexities of Aztec beliefs.
The scene takes the idea that the Aztecs were one thing and immediately expands them to being many things.
I cannot speak enough about how valuable this is, and how thankful I am for it. The biggest injustice of the colonial narrative is that it reduces indigenous populations to caricatures created by the often willfully ignorant. The root of Native American/Aboriginal peoples being called “Indians” is that an explorer landed in the Caribbean when he was looking for the East Indies, and even knowing he was wrong, he still proceeded to define entire races of people incorrectly out of stubbornness. The politics of the word “Indian” are complicated and ever-changing, but the idea that the identity of entire groups of people was created by mistake and nobody bothered to immediately correct it can kind of sting.
It’s actually important from the outset that the characters and settings of Sacrifice have names, and have their own names.
Sacrifice also takes the one thing most people might think they know about the Aztecs – human sacrifice – and problematizes that narrative by giving it the appropriate context.
Human sacrifice was hardly a universally loved and accepted aspect of Aztec society, and Xilotzin and Itzcoatl represent that broader debate as they argue over each other’s gods and what is best for society. More than that, they’re not just arguing for each other’s sake. They’re arguing to convince Emperor Moctezuma. They’re talking politics.
The intersection of faith and government is something that can easily be taken for granted in most Western stories. It’s just kind of accepted that we don’t necessarily have to look hard for a discussion about religion and how it gets tangled up in government.
The Aztecs, like many indigenous peoples, suffer in this reduction because it takes dissent within and between faiths out of the picture, so that the Aztecs end up being represented via an incomplete, inaccurate idea of what their faith was. When a people is presented primarily in terms of its religion to a modern culture with a more nuanced understanding of its own relationship to faith, this lopsided representation makes indigenous people look like savage, blood-crazed caricatures. It deprives them of true personhood.
Sacrifice not only embraces the complexities of religion and politics in Aztec society, but also enriches the different points of view. Through the character of Malintzin, the rebel rabbit of the East, it even introduces someone who fundamentally disagrees with how the Aztecs should be led.
It gets taken for granted that the discussion of Western/Caucasian/European society includes intra-societal debates about wealth and government, so Malintzin isn’t just a great character whose constant exasperation at Hector is pretty funny: she also shows that Aztec culture wasn’t a monolith, and that it wasn’t the unquestioned superiority of Cortés and European military forces that brought the Aztecs down. Sacrifice presents the (sadly) revolutionary and complex truth that internal discord in the valley of Mexico made the Aztecs vulnerable, and suggests that they’re far more deserving of respect than the dumb “Moctezuma’s Revenge” jokes about vacation diarrhea that get bandied about.
DICK JOKES FOR ALL
Of course, Sacrifice is a comic book, not a textbook, and it pairs its intelligence with plenty of humor. Malintzin jokes about Hector’s incompetence. Xilo teases Hector for his squeamishness at the requirements for becoming a priest of Quetzalcoatl. The very first scene, when Hector is mystically transported to the pre-Cortés world of the Aztecs, is full of humour. In a fun bit of slapstick, Hector defends himself against a well-armed, terrifying threat by throwing a squash at him, like a scene straight out of Vaudeville.
Just as Humphries and Rose use the religious and political discussions to show the Aztecs in a different light than as savages, they use humour and cussing to avoid portraying the Aztecs as noble savages.
Aboriginal novelist Thomas King, author of A Good Story, That One, once gave a lecture in which he talked candidly about the false dichotomy of North American indigenous people; that they tend to be perceived as either drunken winos or noble savages, with little or no room in between.
King spoke humorously about how, when he travels to Europe, people are surprised that he wears slacks and Oxford shirts. Even at the turn of the 21st century they expect him to wear a feather headdress, deerskin trousers and beads.
It’s not really those people’s fault, per se – as silly as it sounds, they’ve never really been told that indigenous people are just like them. The documentary Reel Injun explicitly tackles how these inaccurate images have led to misunderstanding of aboriginal people in popular culture – but being as the documentary aired on the Canadian equivalent of PBS, it’s probably not that widely seen.
But Sacrifice? It’s a strikingly illustrated comic book that, while originally self-published, has since been collected by a major publisher, Dark Horse, and it’s written by one of Marvel’s rising stars and drawn by incredibly talented artists. There’s a possibility for it to spread its ideas, and when people crack the cover, they can see Aztec people swear and laugh, and talk politics and religion, and engage in exciting action sequences.
Even better, Rose and colourist Pete Toms’ art is crisp and modern. It echoes the cosmic insanity of Jim Starlin, but with a palette and aesthetic that explicitly references Aztec art. The entire visual language of the story presents a modified Aztec context, just as Humphries’ dialogue treats the culture with the appropriate respect.
I know it might seem odd to highlight all this, but bear with me. If I’m gushing, it’s because I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve experienced non-indigenous creators tell stories about indigenous or aboriginal peoples with this level of respect and compassion. Sacrifice doesn’t correct the cultural dialogue all by itself, but it provides a safe and welcome place for this kind of discussion to start.
Sacrifice doesn’t just engage the revolutionary idea that indigenous people are complete individuals with their own frequently conflicting thoughts, feelings and desires. It also takes on the very interesting, very dangerous topic of identity politics.
The question of who qualifies as aboriginal is a very sticky one to address, and not particularly easy to parse, because formally, legally, it can get caught up not just in detailed genealogical records, but in issues of residence and community acceptance. It’s brave of Humphries and Rose to wade into this – and luckily, they do so in a way that was, for me, extremely personally relevant.
We’re all familiar with the jokes about people who discover or suspect a minute amount of aboriginal ancestry and fall into a parody of cultural discovery. It happens in fiction – one of my favorite running gags on Happy Endings was the 1/16ths Navajo character Dave Rose, and his friends’ exasperation with his constant references to his ancestry – and it happens in real life – see the considerably tanned Johnny Depp.
But it’s not a one-way discussion; not only do Caucasian people joke about this, but indigenous communities themselves have ongoing, difficult-to-resolve discussions about what constitutes an aboriginal person. Being Métis, I’ve frequently found myself in the middle of it.
My lived experience is not necessarily the most native one. I have a card denoting my status as a Métis person, but this doesn’t mean the same thing as a Treaty Status card. I don’t believe in aboriginal spirituality and, being from a heritage that includes both that and Christianity, I don’t know if I should. I don’t live on a reservation; I rarely even go to them unless my parents invite me along to a community round dance or powwow. I don’t look particularly aboriginal, and sometimes I don’t particularly feel aboriginal.
I expect Caucasian people to lift an eyebrow or express disbelief when the fact that I’m Métis comes up, but you’d be surprised how frequently I hear disbelief from the aboriginal community. And sure, I can understand being protective of cultural appropriation, but when the Canadian constitution recognizes me as an aboriginal person and I don’t need to look further than my own childhood upbringing – the family Bible in Cree, or my mother’s face – to feel aboriginal, it’s especially disheartening to get called “half-breed” by a fellow indigenous person, someone who’s supposed to be on my side.
Don’t get me wrong; I have First Nations friends who accept me as aboriginal, and I know the discussion is getting better every year, but sometimes it’s difficult to feel that I’m accepted as aboriginal when I don’t look how I’m supposed to, or live how I might be expected to.
It can be lonely – infuriatingly, heartbreakingly so – and oddly enough, Sacrifice has been one of the things that comforts me the most. Hector’s story is one of the most familiar ones I’ve ever read – allowing for the fact that I’ve never once traveled through time via seizure, or become a priest of Quetzalcoatl, or led a last-ditch effort to save the Aztec people.
Sacrifice is almost more a story about identity and belonging than it is about correcting a post-colonial narrative. As much as the anger of the book comes from the urge to finally get things right, a line of melancholy runs through it. The book starts with Hector leaving a mental facility after a suicide attempt, and flashbacks show that it wasn’t simply brought on by frustration with epilepsy; it’s hinted that it was the despair of the resultant loneliness that led Hector to his thankfully unsuccessful attempt. When he arrives in the Aztec past, he’s immediately defined by his strangeness. He’s dressed differently. He looks different. He can’t speak the language.
And if that wasn’t enough, he’s immediately branded not just as an outsider, but something not even human. The first Aztec words spoken to Hector call him an insect. Itzcoatl calls him a demon. From the start of his adventure, Hector is shown as someone who doesn’t belong in his own modern culture, and as someone who’s not recognized as a person in the Aztec culture. It’s only Hector’s seizures – a potential connection with the gods – and Xilo’s desperate quick thinking that save his life.
As the story moves forward, we see Hector become a priest of Quetzalcoatl. We see him become the last priest of Quetzalcoatl and the first advisor to Moctezuma. As dire as the situation is for the Aztecs, Hector has at least found a form of belonging. Right?
Wrong. This isn’t Dances With Wolves. Hector might be a priest, but he’s not necessarily one of these people, not entirely. Itzcoatl still calls him a demon. Malintzin, in a moment that sent a shock through me because of how close to home it struck, tells him to shave off his “European beard.”
And it’s not just Hector’s own physiology betraying his non-indigenous blood and inherent lack of belonging. As Hector himself shouts at Itzcoatl, he’s Mexican:
Hector is descended from the indigenous people of Mexico, perhaps even the Aztecs specifically. His tattoo, and his lifelong appreciation of – and sympathy for – their culture and fate, is not just a matter of appropriation or a dirty little secret. Hector doesn’t see himself as European, or as an outsider; he sees this as part of his own birthright, and he’s livid at having that called into question.
Itzcoatl, of course, doesn’t see it this way, and he abandons all pretense that it’s about Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli or whatever happened generations ago on the Black Mountain. It’s not about spirituality; it’s about something far more urgent. Unlike Hector, he grew up in the culture. He is a true member of the community. His genes don’t betray him as anything else. Hector, at the end of the day, just isn’t Aztec enough, and that’s the true spitefulness behind Malintzin’s comment about his beard.
As someone who has spent his whole life thinking about what it means to be “aboriginal enough,” I understood how hurtful that offhand remark really is.
This, ultimately, is Hector’s struggle; not just to save the Aztecs, not just to repel Cortés, but to actually find a place where he belongs. The disorienting swirl of his visions – an alarming mix of his modern and Aztec lives – only reinforces it.
The driving pulse of the narrative isn’t just Hector’s search for acceptance; it’s his effort to save the Aztec civilization from Cortés’ invasion. It’s the rising action and climax of the story, as Hector tries to live out his long-held belief that “the Aztecs didn’t deserve to die.”
It’s a beautiful literalization of Humphries’ goal with the book, the idea of making things right. Hector is possessed of the idea that if the Aztecs were only unified, if they only knew what it would take, he could save them. It’s a beautifully comic book-y line of thought, one straight out of Batman. Yes, father. I will end… injustice.
But it’s an oversimplification, an underestimation of the complexities of the situation. Hector’s dream is admirable, but it’s not feasible. He doesn’t factor in disease. He doesn’t think that Spain will just send more men. He thinks Itzcoatl and Malintzin will forget the past.
But he’s wrong, and therein lies the heart of the book: you can’t forget the past, and you can’t fix everything.
At the Thomas King lecture I attended, I asked him the following question: “If people only think of us as the wino or the noble savage, how do we correct that?”
King’s answer was sobering to my idealism. “We can’t,” he told me. My heart dropped.
“Of course,” he continued, “that’s the short answer.” The long answer, he explained, was that correcting misconceptions would take years, if not generations, of dedicated work and compassion; sea-changes in the stories we tell, and getting people to listen to those stories, one by one.
It was a much more hopeful answer, and the one I see in Sacrifice‘s ending. Hector never gets to feel acceptance from Itzlcoatl or Malintzin. They never tell him he’s one of them, or that he’s Aztec enough. And I won’t feel “aboriginal enough,” or really understand what that means, just by turning a page.
But Hector gets his chance to save the Aztecs, and every time I read it, I start crying. There’s hope, and that might be enough.