Q&A with Featured Contributor Johnnie Jae
As Programming hammers out the final details of the con-weekend schedule, we’ve been taking some time to get to know this year’s Featured Contributors. I was lucky enough to chat with Johnnie Jae, who you may know as the founder of A Tribe Called Geek. I learned about everything from where she’s from to the depth of her love for Star Wars. Keep reading to get even more stoked for the con than you already are.
Where can folks find you online?
Tell us a little about your story.
I’m from the Otoe-Missouria and Choctaw tribes of Oklahoma. I am the founder of A Tribe Called Geek, a media platform dedicated to Indigenous geekery and STEM. I’m also a co-founder of Not Your Mascots and LiveIndigenousOK, two phenomenal organizations dedicated to addressing Native rights and representation in media and society at large.
A few years ago, after a series of unfortunate events, I found myself moving from Lawton, Oklahoma to Hollywood, California. I can’t imagine living anywhere else, which is really surprising. I’m a country bumpkin, I was terrified at the thought of living here because it’s such a huge city. That fear was short-lived because once I got here, I knew it was the place for me when I crossed the street with Edward Scissorhands and no one even took a second glance. I was like, “Yup, I’m home. This is my kind of weird.”
What are your favorite fandoms to be a part of?
Oh, my fandoms. This is a big question because I am a part of so many fandoms. First of all, Star Wars. I grew up with an entrenched love for Star Wars, and I will always owe the Star Wars fandom a tremendous debt because a huge part of my survival is due to the community that I found within the fandom at a time when I was struggling with mental illness, recovering from a suicide attempt, and feeling as if I didn’t belong. Fellow fans and even the way I related to the struggles of characters within the Star Wars universe reminded that I do belong, and the space created within the Star Wars fandom allowed me to navigate my own struggles without judgement or fear. I know that’s a lot, but you know fandoms create community, and we can find sanctuary and healing in them. I know I did. In addition to Star Wars, I will always love and be a part of the Doctor Who, Firefly, and Harry Potter fandoms. I’m also loving the fandom that is emerging from the growing popularity of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series that kicks off with Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts.
Which creators were important to you growing up?
George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tom Savini, George A. Romero, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Gerald Vizenor, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and don’t judge me but Francine Pascal because
I loved the Sweet Valley High books.
How about now?
Oh geez, this could go on forever because there are so many creators that I just adore with my whole being. Elizabeth LaPensee, Meagan Byrne, Jeffrey Vregge, Weshoyot Alvitre, Dale Deforest, Shaun Beyale, Theo Tso, Jay Odjick, Jay Soule, Rebecca Roanhorse, Tommy Orange, Terese Mailhot, Alicia Elliott, Darcie Little Badger, The 1491s, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, and last but not least, Taika Waititi
Which stories were important to you growing up?
The whole Star Wars saga—it is so relatable for Native people. It’s an epic tale of surviving imperialism, genocide, and rebuilding in the aftermath, while also trying to figure out who you are, your purpose and place in the universe. As an Indigenous woman, that really resonates with me, especially because within the Star Wars universe there are so many nods to various Indigenous cultures around the world, especially in the languages used.
Aside from Star Wars, I think one of the most important stories for me was the Velveteen Rabbit. This passage has stayed with me and continues to remind me to be patient with my growth and to remind me that we are all beautiful, we are real, and to the people that know us and love us, that beauty and realness shines from within us even when we don’t feel it or believe it: “‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’”
How about now?
Star Wars, still and always. But Firefly is a series that I’ve come to love for the same reasons that I love Star Wars. It really touches on rebuilding in the aftermath of losing your way of life and trying to figure out where you stand and heal from that trauma. For the crew of the Firefly, it was through the creation of family that they found in each other despite their differences in lifestyles and the way they viewed right and wrong. I really loved the complexity of all the characters and that they were allowed to be fallible and exist within a gray area of morality. I’m also loving all the stories that include Indigenous futurisms: Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, and anthologies like This Place:150 Years Retold, Deer Woman, Walking the Clouds, and especially Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indeginous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology, which is so vital for our communities.
What do you wish you had more time for?
Visiting family. I only get to visit once a year and usually just for a week or two. My mom is always trolling my Facebook statuses with, “I sure do miss you, but I know I have to share you with the world,” which always makes me feel guilty but also confused like….who do you think I am? Beyonce? I’m working and trying to survive the cost of living in L.A, not galavanting around the world on sold out tours hahahaha.
I’ve always considered myself a Gryffindor, but every single time I take one of those sorting quizzes, I end up a Ravenclaw. I can’t really be disappointed in that because when I really break down my traits, I am a Ravenclaw. I’m just glad that unlike a lot of people who were unhappy with their Patronus, I’m very happy with mine. My patronus is the Siberian Cat, which is perfect because I took a DNA test and turns out I’m 100% that crazy cat lady.
What’s the short version of how A Tribe Called Geek came to be?
I wanted to create a space where we could support each other and geek out together, while also flipping the script on the narrative that we were strictly primitive peoples. We have always been innovators, scientists, creators, and disruptors. A Tribe Called Geek originally started as a social media platform. I was thinking it could be the next Myspace or Facebook, but being self-funded, it was more expensive than I realized. The social media aspect was up and running for four months, and we had about a hundred users before I had to cut my losses. While the social platform was dead, I kept the domains and social media accounts because I still hoped that it could someday be something. A year later, I met Jack Malstrom through our advocacy work, and we would guest on each other’s podcast and radio show, and it got to the point where it only made sense that we would join forces and host a show together, and A Tribe Called Geek was reborn as a multimedia platform for Indigenous geekery.
What are some of the platform’s greatest triumphs in your opinion?
Our number one triumph is just the fact that we continue to exist. This year marked our five year anniversary, and I’m still amazed by that. But beyond just existing, I think what really makes me proud is that people are paying attention to our Indigenous geeks and creators. We also were sponsors of the FIRST EVER Indigenous Comic Con, which was founded by Lee Francis of Native Realities and Red Planet Comics. That was a lifelong dream come true for me as an Indigenerd because all my life, I had dreamed of the day when we would have our own comic-con, and not only did I live to see it happen, but A Tribe Called Geek got to be an integral part of its beginning.
Besides your work with A Tribe Called Geek, what are some of your favorite ways to engage with the geek community?
I love attending comic-cons and other fan conventions, not as media but just as a geek. I love talking with people that I randomly meet who love what I love or are just discovering this world of geekery. I think that’s the thing I’ve always loved about being a geek, the community and the feeling of belonging to something that is so fantastical.
I also love presenting at cons because there is so very little Native representation, and I love being able to introduce attendees to our creators and Native superheroes that are so much more complex and interesting than what you find in mainstream comics. I love sharing what I know about Native representation in Star Wars and how to survive the zombie apocalypse rez style. I love engaging and just belonging to our wonderfully diverse geek communities.
Is there anything you’re looking especially forward to at the moment?
I’m definitely looking forward to GeekGirlCon ‘19!!!!! This will be my first year attending and presenting, so I’m pretty darn stoked!