Detail of the cover of "Two Tribes" by Emily Bowen Cohen
Detail of the cover of "Two Tribes" by Emily Bowen Cohen

Q&A: Graphic novelist tells story of Jewish and Native American girl

In Emily Bowen Cohen’s debut graphic novel, a boy at 12-year-old Mia’s Jewish day school in Southern California says she looks “Spanish.” When she corrects him — her mother is Jewish and her father is Native American — the boy responds, “Native Americans aren’t even alive anymore.”

The comment, along with an insensitive joke that her rabbi makes at a Shabbat dinner, sends Mia on a journey of self-discovery. Without telling her mother, she uses some of her bat mitzvah money to buy a bus ticket to Oklahoma to visit her Muscogee father, who is divorced from her mother, and his family. There Mia attends a powwow and connects with her cousins and grandmother, all while trying to avoid her mother’s frantic phone calls.

“Two Tribes,” which was published in August, was named one of the best graphic novels of 2023 by School Library Journal.

On Sunday, Cohen — a member of the Muscogee Nation who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children — will give a presentation during a virtual event hosted by San Francisco’s Jewish Community Library, and co-presented by the Cartoon Art Museum and Be’chol Lashon.

In a Zoom interview earlier this week, Cohen, 48, spoke about Native American representation in popular culture and how she blends her two cultures. The interview has been lightly edited.

J.: What inspired you to write and illustrate this book?

Emily Bowen Cohen (Photo/Courtesy)
Emily Bowen Cohen (Photo/Courtesy)

Emily Bowen Cohen: I lost my father when I was 9 years old. We were living in Oklahoma, and after he died, we moved away from my Native community to New Jersey. I was living with my Jewish grandparents and going to Hebrew school, and I was often the only Native person people had met.

When I was an adult and had my own children, I really felt like I had to go back for their sake and reunite with my Native family. And that was a really, really difficult trip for a number of different reasons. I wish I had been able to do that trip when I was Mia’s age because that’s when I was really kind of fighting with what my identity was, but I was 34. I really wanted to tell the story of a girl who was like me: Jewish and Native American and trying to figure out how to live in that kind of intersectional identity.

Mia checks a book out from her Jewish day school’s library called “Little Indian Girl,” and it’s full of stereotypes about Indigenous people. It reminded me of the classic 1980 novel “The Indian in the Cupboard,” which I reread a few years ago and found to be very problematic. Were you exposed to those books?

Yes, I read those books as a child — “Indian Captive” was another one — without a critical eye. Much later, I watched [the 1995 film] “The Indian in the Cupboard” with my children, and we had to pause it and, like Oprah says, have a “teachable moment” about how not all Native Americans dress that way — that kind of thing.

In my book, I wanted to show Mia reading this book that is filled with ugly stereotypes and learning about her own heritage from it, and how painful that can be. I believe that’s part of being Native in the United States. History lessons are painful. We’re painted as the losers of the big American success story.

Do you think representation of Indigenous people in popular culture has improved?

Yes, things are progressing. The Land O’Lakes woman is no longer on the butter packaging.  “Reservation Dogs” has taken over representation on TV. I read “There, There” by Tommy Orange four times. Cynthia Leitich Smith, who is the editor of my imprint at HarperCollins, has written a lot of books. “Rain Is Not My Indian Name” is one of my favorites, and it’s also one of my children’s favorites. It’s really exciting to see that more Native American representation is out there, and I hope it continues.

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Mia’s best friend at school is a Chinese and Jewish adoptee. Why was it important to you to portray Jews of color with different backgrounds? 

It feels very isolating to be the only person of color in a Jewish space, and that’s something I have conversations about with Jews of color, no matter what their background is. It’s been really helpful to just have those conversations and to be in spaces where we can just sort of exist as Jewish people without question. I wanted Mia to have that in her life, too.

Also, I wish people would just not see Native Americans as foreign. That’s the biggest thing I would like to convey with the book. We are your neighbors. We’re in your synagogues. We’re there davening next to you.

Are you in community with other Native American Jews?

Besides my sisters, there’s not a Native American Jewish community right at my fingertips. I’m part of a Facebook group with about 30 members all over the country. I’ve been shocked since “Two Tribes” came out, Jewish Native Americans have been reaching out to me, like, “Hey, I’m out here.” Lots of them are in Oklahoma.

How do you blend your two cultures in your life?

It’s kind of tricky because the way my Muscogee family celebrates Native American culture is through the church, and I was not part of that and I don’t have access to it. I would not call myself Orthodox, but my family is, so we’re trying to thread the needle.

I try to incorporate my Native American heritage in ways that I feel comfortable with, which is more cultural. We’ll make fry bread for Hanukkah. I do like to sage things as a process of renewal. Ribbon skirts are a way to signal to myself and other people that I have this background. I like to wear them when I’m in Jewish spaces.

How did you get into making comics?

I have always been artistic. I took after-school classes at day camp. I was lucky to have good art programs at the public schools I attended in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Montclair, New Jersey. Mostly I just loved to do it, so I practiced a whole lot.

I specialized in animation through the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. The story boarding process is really similar to graphic novels. I really love that I can tell a whole story my way with comics. I’m the writer, director and art director all in one.

One of my favorite sections of “Two Tribes” finds Mia studying with a rabbi after school, and there are several beautiful panels depicting scenes from the book of Jonah. Have you thought about illustrating other parts of the Hebrew Bible?

No, but I’m currently working on a book about a young Native person coping with climate grief, and relying on his Native family to guide him. I’m hoping there will be an organic way to bring in more Torah into the story, without it being specifically about Jewish Native Americans.

“Two Tribes” by Emily Bowen Cohen, illustrated by Emily Bowen Cohen (HarperCollins, 256 pages). Cohen will speak about the book at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 7 during a free, virtual event hosted by Jewish Community Library.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.