Intergenerational Creativity and Learning through Indigenous Comics | Smithsonian Voices

In the comic Chickaloonies: first frost, intergenerational storytelling is key. In this illustration from the book, Grandmother tells a story, with symbols rising as she speaks representing the Ahtna Athabascan language.
Artwork by 80% Studios, © 80% Studios

Over the past few months, comic book creators Chickaloonies: first frost has partnered with the Alaska office of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center to expand their Athabascan adventure for all ages into a teaching opportunity for students in Alaska and beyond. Based on Chicks characters and storyline, the project team created an in-depth workbook and developed a virtual workshop to engage learners. The manual details how to create comics and stories, and includes activities inspired by and informed by pieces of Athabascan cultural heritage in the Smithsonian’s Living our cultures exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, pieces enriched with information shared by Alaska Native experts during exhibit research and co-curation with center staff. Together, the team aims to empower Indigenous youth, and all youth, through creative expression and intergenerational learning with family and cultural heritage, made relevant to their lives by developing their own artistic vision and voice.

Casey Silver and Dimi Macheras stand in the foreground of a photograph containing copies of their comic strip Chickaloonies: First Frost.  They pose during a book signing held at the Title Wave Bookstore in Anchorage, Alaska.

Casey Silver and Dimi Macheras attend a signing for Chickaloonies: first frost at the Title Wave Bookstore in Anchorage, Alaska. Dimi grew up in Chickaloon Village, Alaska, where the name of the comic comes from: his mother used to say with a fond smile: “those crazy Chickaloon kids”.

Courtesy of 80% Studios

The project is led by an interdisciplinary team: Dimi Macheras (Ahtna Athabascan) and Casey Silver, the artists and screenwriters of 80% Studios; artist and knowledge keeper Melissa Shaginoff (Ahtna Athabascan); and Dawn Biddison, museum specialist at the Centre. In the edited excerpts below from their recent webinar, you can read what underpins their work.

Dimi: I’ve been an artist since I can remember, doodling and drawing. I’ve always loved cartoons and illustrated some of the stories Grandma used to tell us. In many ways, looking back, it was my first collaboration with a storyteller. They were little comics that I drew, as raw and crude as they were. One thing that I think makes this project so special is that we’re telling the story from the perspective of these two young friends who are setting out to become the greatest storytellers the world has ever seen, kinda like me and Casey. But along the way, they learn, and as they learn, we learn. It becomes a step by step, hopefully, for the reader who connects through it, an interactive way to participate in what our family has that is so special and dear with what has been left behind by Grandma and mum and all the rest of our family do a great job in the village.

Melissa: Dimi and I both grew up with something called Ancient Stories, recurring stories meant to teach kids lessons. In many ways, Chicks is like a contemporary story that you create. There are moments of storytelling, science fiction and magic, but it all depends on cultural information and the Ahtna language. How was the process of creating learning materials with Dawn and being able to use the Smithsonian Learning Lab as a starting point to share even more information and expand your knowledge?


This comic book page Chickaloonies: first frost shares a cultural value held by the Athabascan peoples on storytelling, as the characters Mr. Yelly and Sasquatch E. Moji leave the village for their next adventure. (p.82)

Artwork by 80% Studios, © 80% Studios

Dimi: We are students ourselves, learning as we go, and The Learning Lab, Smithsonian, and Dawn are a wealth of knowledge and reference materials. It’s sort of guiding our steps as we create this process. I think the more we can imbue the story and the characters with real, real-life knowledge, knowledge that is actually usable and teachable, it’s going to be something special that can convey that.

Melissa: You create it in consultation with someone like me to go through the content, edit, and help steer things. Can you talk about that?

Casey: It’s a project that feels like it carries weight: being able to tap into a great lineage and history and work in a respectful way collaborating with people like you, Melissa, and hopefully others people in the future. Being able to get a full sense of what it means to represent Indigenous culture in pop culture today is really a big thing. For Chicks, we really wanted to take the themes and values ​​of the traditional stories and present them in a new way. Do it where it’s fun and enjoyable, but at the same time there’s a subtext of the power of language, of respecting your elders, of cross-generational storytelling. How these things are relevant today, and how they can be seen in a bit of a fantastical way to guide our characters through the story and for them to learn who they are. A big part of the idea is to help children find their place in the world. To help kids see something where it’s not just Superman or Batman tackling their problems. We really tried to get our characters to be creative and think about what they’re affecting with their actions as they move around the world.

Melissa: It’s about raising all those kids who read it: showing them how they can represent themselves in a medium that might already interest them. I just think back to my school days, and it felt like the only place my family was represented was in a two-month Alaskan studies course. I think in many ways it’s important to feel that your heritage, your culture, your family has a place in history, has a place that is important, taught and shared.


A page from a comic book writing activity in the Chicks project manual, available on the project’s Learning Lab site for teachers and students.

Artwork by 80% Studios, © 80% Studios

To learn more, watch the video archived in the team’s Smithsonian Learning Lab collection. You will also find information about each artist, details about first frost and sample pages, a PDF copy of the manual with a video introduction and the pieces of Athabascan heritage that informed it, and workshop information. The project team thanks the CIRI Foundation, Recovering Voices (National Museum of Natural History) and the Alaska State Council on the Arts for their generous support.

Daniel K. Denny