By Lynn Calf Robe
Note: Throughout this article Jason uses the term “ndn.” He says, “Some people think its short for Indian, but for me, it means iNDigeNous.”
Jason Eagle Speaker is a self-made graphic novelist, nationally published author and entrepreneur, and self-proclaimed “half buffalo ndn and half salmon ndn” (otherwise known as half Blackfoot and Duwamish) with family ties to the Kainai Nation and Muckleshoot Tribe. He created a business venture that includes www.eaglespeaker.com and a non-profit organization called The Connection. Front and center on his website is the quote, “We’re More Than Just Beads and Feathers,” so I asked what that means to him. “It is a life philosophy I learned when I was 10,” he replies. “It’s also kind of a long story, so I’ll try to break it down. After my grandpa passed away, I was back dancing in front of HUGE crowds at the Calgary Stampede grandstand, just like I had since I was a toddler. This time was different, though. I looked into the audience and wondered, ‘Why do they cheer wildly for me when I am wearing my [powwow] outfit and entertaining them, but ridicule and even laugh at me when I am wearing street clothes?’” He used the phrase as the title of a recently published graphic novella he helped create with McGraw Hill Ryerson, an international education publisher. The book itself is part of an anthology called iLit: Strength & Struggle: Perspectives of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit People.
Eagle Speaker is a natural born businessman, starting his first venture selling Christmas trees and frybread kits as a kid. He also made extra cash collecting bottles at the local powwows. “I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 7. I was the only kid on the rez running my own Christmas Tree lot every year… the only kid selling frybread kits in ziplock bags. I was also that one kid at the powwow who grabbed the pop can from your hands while you were still drinking it.”
The nature of his business is broad but he sums it up as “Inspiration by example. Our community is often TOLD what to do. Rarely are we SHOWN what to do.” He recently published UNeducation: A Residential School Graphic Novel, depicting a family’s experience in Canada’s residential school system. “It’s the chilling chronicles of a family’s government-sanctioned exploitation in residential schools. No statistics, no data, no numbers—just pure raw visceral emotion and experience. You can’t minimize genocide.” The book is an excellent fundraising tool. Jason says, “It’s a unique fundraiser for our Engage, Empower, Evolve healing initiatives. UNeducation sells internationally and to tons of groups like school districts, universities, corrections and treatment centres, etc.” UNeducation: Volume 1 is available in two versions: PG for more sensitive readers and UNcut for discerning readers. UNeducation: Volume 2 comes out May 2012. This highly sought after resource is also available to the public and will be featured soon on APTN (Aboriginal People’s Television Network). Check out www.eaglespeaker.com for orders and information.
Jason also produced the 5 Minute Frybread Kit, inspired by his youthful endeavors, which is now sold online and in stores. It is a secret family recipe belonging to his na’ah (grandma). “It’s the great Leona Eagle Speaker’s secret recipe. They began years ago as a unique promo item for Elders. Instead of just handing them a boring (and often forgotten) business card, I would hand out frybread kits with all our info on them. Now they’re sold online, at gift shops, trading posts, and fundraisers.”
Jason is influenced by his need to make connections that support his survival and lead to opportunities. “One thing I do take pride in is my ability to make grassroots and community connections. There have been times in my life where I was homeless, and my ability to connect helped me realize that possibilities are everywhere. Many ndn people feel surrounded. I say we are… we’re surrounded by opportunity.” He attributes his success to hard work, talent and connections. “Elders have had it right all along,” he says. “Sincere traditional values can fulfill all your dreams. Respect, Humility, Love, Truth, Wisdom, Honesty and Bravery are all traditional values. There are three keys to success: #1 Hard Work (which we can all do); #2 Talent (which we all have); and the most overlooked but most important, #3 Meeting the Right People and Not Pissing Them Off. When you have sincere traditional values, The Right People will want to know and support you and your work.” He also adds that “being an asshole is never a wise investment.”
Jason believes education is an great way to improve traditional values and social skills in the face of everyday challenges, and offers this advice: “School is an excellent training ground to test, perfect, and hone your traditional values and how you conduct yourself towards others. Whether we admit it or not, racism, bigotry, cultural ignorance, sexism, and discrimination all exist there, just like in the real world, but all in one convenient place. Use your time in school wisely, and you will be more than prepared for anything the world throws at you. Formal education can make you a living; self-education can make you a fortune—master both!”
Jason Eagle Speaker sees great opportunity in new media markets for talented artists. “In ndn graphic novels, there really isn’t enough representation. I can count on one hand the few I know of, which is kind of sad. That should change soon enough, as the untapped talent out there is awesome. I also work with some fantastic ndn artists, authors, storytellers from all over Canada. There is no shortage of ndn talent.” Jason considers his competition more as a compliment to his own business and maintains relationships with them. “I want them all to thrive and evolve too,” he says. “I thrive on collaboration, cooperation, communication and coordination.”
Eagle Speaker likes having creative control over his work, choosing his own path. He is familiar with business challenges and says the hardest part is to “believe in yourself when no one else does. If you can do that, you have it made.” He says he is inspired by previous generations, “those that suffered through atrocities so that I may have opportunity” as well as his own generation “for overcoming disparity and taking real action towards our future” and also his children’s generation “for accepting the gifts and carrying the burdens of parents and realizing their own limitless worldly goals.” Eagle Speaker’s hobbies include wreaking havoc in videogames, anything to do with hotrods (including his own ‘72 Chevy Nova), and Hostess Suzy Q’s. He used pursue daredevil sports but finally realized that “just being ndn is high risk enough, why push it?”
From one Blackfoot to another, I had to ask: What do you love most about Blackfoot country? “Used to be the snagging,” he replied. “Today it’s the dry meat, berry soup, ndn tacos, and of course, distribution.” And for all the ndn leg wrestling fans out there, who do you think would win an Indian leg wrestle: Buffy St. Marie or Martha Stewart? Jason says, “Gotta go with the one with the ndn leg, of course.”