PORTLAND, Ore. - The sidewalk of New York City teams with people in a
hurry. Holiday energy is in the air.
A gray flannel suit guy hailing a cab. A black man in shades with his ball
cap turned around in back. An elderly couple in glasses within which their
eyes are not visible. Two younger women, an aging hipster in a purple beret
and a black woman in cornrows with a studded belt and boots that make you
In the middle of the montage is an Indian man about the same height as the
shrunken elderly lady. He is a short and stocky presence in the crowd. The
only one not going somewhere. Planted, just rooted there with a sandwich
board hanging off his shoulders advertising a Thanksgiving special. Range
fed hormone-free turkey for $29 at the Country Kitchen on 8th Avenue at
The man's face houses a big wooden-Indian frown. Black brows and lines in
his forehead arch down over narrowed eyes that squint out over an absent
horizon. His sweep of shiny black hair is part in the middle and straggles
down on his old blue coat. He's a plump man. Someone who long since decided
that what comfort life might bring would come from extra calories.
But R. Crumb's genius really shows in the inset he worked along the edge of
the drawing. Eight faces stacked on top of each other: Indian, Pilgrim,
Indian, Pilgrim, Indian. The woman at the very bottom clutching her Bible,
brows furrowed together over the whites of her eyes. A virginal cap holds
back most of her mousey, stringy hair and she looks horrified. In terror.
Above her is the first Indian man. He's from a New England tribe. Has a
hoop in his earlobe, feathers in his hair and a leather shirt on that's
fringed and beaded. His lips are pressed together over straight, fierce
eyes. No wrinkles mar his face. The man is relaxed. There's something clean
about the message he brings to the page from almost 400 years back in time.
It goes on that way. Indian, Pilgrim, Indian, Pilgrim. A study of the faces
shows more of the same. The hollow eyes and gaunt casts on the gray skin of
the Pilgrim's faces with their ragged hair. R. Crumb contrasts that to the
fleshy fullness and ripe tawny color of the Indians, at home in a land they
are friendly with.
In sum, the Nov. 29 cover of The New Yorker gets a person's attention.
Certainly it did noted author Tom Spanbauer, who rarely writes a story
without weaving in American Indian themes. "Isn't it great? I've never seen
a cover of The New Yorker with such blatant social commentary. I've never
seen it be so particular. To take a stance like this," Spanbauer said.
"Usually it's more sophisticated nuanced-type messages, but nothing as in
your face as this."
R. Crumb, of course, fathered the world of alternative comics back in the
'60s. Mr. Natural of Mystic Funnies was a key creation among other
characters through which Crumb pointedly condemned mainstream American
culture and values. And like all good baby boomers, Crumb's position only
strengthened as the neo-conservatism of the 1980s gained ground. His
commitment was such that by the time religious fundamentalists and their
cowboy-cowgirl counterparts re-elected George W. Bush, Crumb didn't have to
join the fray of heartsick boomers talking about moving to Canada. Years
before, Crumb had taken his money and run. He now lives with his wife and
daughter in Southern France where he is mindful of his roots and his native
The main reason R. Crumb's drawing made it to the cover of The New Yorker
is that the editors knew the piece would resonate with readers because they
have their fingers on the pulse of the nation. They've seen the smoke
signals in Indian country get stronger over the past 25 years, and
particularly the past decade. And the editors know what can happen when a
group of men, and the women behind them, remember not only where they are
from but also, to what they are entitled.