Special to Indian Country Today
Dimi Macheras’ love of storytelling is rooted in his Chickaloon family traditions.
His grandmother, who was a respected elder and clan grandmother of the Chickaloon Tribe, told traditional Ahtna Athabascan Ya Ne Dah Ah stories to him and his cousins in Alaska when they were children. He never forgot them.
“She would tell these stories using different voices and act out the characters and their movements using her hands,” said Macheras, a citizen of the Chickaloon Tribe who now lives in Seattle.
“It was a tradition in our family, and we were all raised with these stories."
His grandmother died in 2009, but his mother continued to tell the stories across Alaska until she died in 2014. Now Macheras has teamed up with writer, artist and designer Casey Silver — his business partner in 80% Studios — to share those stories with the rest of the world.
The result — their new graphic novel, “Chickaloonies” — was released Aug. 1, 2021. It’s the first in a planned series of books for all ages that tell the fantasy adventure of two Indigenous friends involving legends, language and magic in an ever-changing world.
"My mother took on the mantle of storyteller after my grandma passed away,” Macheras said. “I'm hoping that this new project, “Chickaloonies,” will be a way for me to continue that tradition and expand on the storytelling legacy."
Artist Melissa Shaginoff, a cousin of Macheras’ and curator of Alaska Pacific University’s art galleries, provided support for the book’s development as a cultural advisor. Shaginoff, Ahtna and Paiute, is Udzisyu (caribou) and Cui Ui Ticutta (fish-eater) clans from Chickaloon Native Village in Alaska.
Looking for light
The “Chickaloonies” story opens at a time of perpetual darkness for the village.
Two Alaska Native youths, the hulking Sasquatch E. Moji and the smaller Mr. Yelly, decide to go on a quest to find the sun and to become the greatest storytellers the world has ever seen.
They learn from stories told by past generations that the sun was stolen, gobbled up whole by a giant fish from far away, and long, long ago.
The grandmother in the story — the archetype of a respected Ahtna Athabascan culture-bearer — tells the youths that glow-berries are all that remain to keep balance and the life force of the village.
The pair then set out to restore balance and save the village of Chickaloon. Along the way, they learn from other cultures and share their Ahtna Athabascan culture and stories with those they meet.
“Chickaloonies” draws on details of the history and traditions of the Chickaloons, a tribe based in south-central Alaska. Chickaloon means “the river with two logs across it,” according to the tribal website.
The graphic novel has drawn praise in the comic-book world.
“’Chickaloonies’ is just the kind of storytelling we need today as we rise out of darkness and toward hope and understanding,” according to a review in comicsgrinder.com. “The good-natured, and often zany, antics here will keep readers of any age entertained and inspired.”
The authors are planning additional books for the two characters to find other cultures and lands.
Macheras and Silver worked together for several years before forming 80% Studios in 2010.
They wanted to use the independent visual arts studio based in Seattle to bring stories like “Chickaloonies” to life for themselves, Native people and others interested in their stories.
Macheras, 40, is an artist with experience telling Indigenous stories.
Silver, 36, a writer, artist and designer, had more experience than Macheras in the technical aspects of telling stories in comic book form. He has been a comic book artist for more than 10 years and has created graphic content for Image Comics, Dynamite Publishing, and Z2 comics.
The two credit their partnership with developing their craft further than they might have done on their own.
"The collaboration between the two of us yields something really special,” Macheras said.
“Being able to bounce ideas off each other, the outcome is something greater than you could come up with on your own."
Art was an important part of Macheras’ life from an early age.
His grandmother, Katherine Wade, founded an Ahtna Athabascan tribal school for elementary students in 1992 called the Ya Ne Dah Ah School, meaning ancient teachings. Wade was a fluent speaker of the Ahtna Athabascan language, he said.
The Ya Ne Dah Ah School is on the traditional tribal lands of Nay'dini'aa Na' Kayax, the Chickaloon Native Village, between the communities of Palmer and Sutton northeast of Anchorage.
Macheras attended the Ya Ne Dah Ah School for the first two years after it opened, then moved to public school. After graduation, he moved to Seattle but returned a few years later in 2007.
"I went back to Chickaloon Village,” he said. “Grandma always encouraged my drawing.”
As a young adult, Macheras worked in the education department for the Chickaloon tribal government with his mother, Patricia Wade. At the time, the Ya Ne Dah Ah stories were illustrated by Macheras and shown using PowerPoint. His mother would tell the stories with the illustrations.
“Really, (that) was my first collaboration as an artist with a storyteller for those early Ya Ne Dah Ah stories," Macheras said.
Silver, a non-Native who grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, learned to read from black-and-white Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, and never looked back. Comics have been the backbone of his creative life and he credits them with instilling a deep-rooted passion to create stories.
“Alaskan Native cultures are so steeped in storytelling,” Silver said. “It is an honor to be able to collaborate with Dimi to add to this grand tradition with our story of Chickaloonies.”
Unlike a more traditional production team, the two worked together on most aspects of the writing and illustrations. They both contributed artwork and writing to the graphic novel.
"It takes a very special breed of artist to create and do something on their own,” Macheras said. “Casey knows how to tell a story well, and I am more of a visual storyteller. In comics, we can combine both of our skill sets that create this rounded-out artistic product with great imagination and creativity."
Speaking to future generations
The special, pre-order edition of “Chickaloonies,” signed and hand-numbered, was limited to 50 copies. The initial offering sold out within 12 hours.
Orders of the book are now being accepted on Etsy.
Macheras says graphic novels and comic books offer an opportunity for storytellers to have greater visibility, and to provide a narrative of Indigenous characters that aren’t often seen in the media.
Macheras wants to tell new Ya Ne Dah Ah stories to future generations using the traditions of storytelling that his grandmother and mother used in classrooms, conventions and conferences across Alaska.
“We told these stories using a projector with images from the Ya Ne Dah Ah books that I illustrated,” he said. “It added a new dimension to the storytelling.
“There are many kids, an entire generation, who are now familiar with the Ya Ne Dah Ah stories that originated in and around the area they live."
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