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The surprising religious backstory of ‘Black Panther’s’ Wakanda

Chadwick Boseman in a scene from “Black Panther.” (Marvel Studios/Disney/AP)

The new superhero film “Black Panther” has set so many box-office records since its recent opening that even those who haven’t seen it may have heard the word “Wakanda.” Wakanda, of course, is the fictional East African country that is home to the Black Panther, also known as T’Challa, king of the Wakandan people.


At least as far as its origins are concerned, though, Wakanda may not be where you think it is, and its forgotten religious roots tell a story with as many twists and turns as any comic book.

Trace the word back several generations — before comic writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby at Marvel applied it in 1966 to a hidden kingdom of scientist-warriors whose technological capabilities make it the most advanced civilization on the planet. The nativity of Wakanda becomes very curious, and suggests the name of the fictitious land in the beginning was in no way African but thoroughly American.

Among the Plains Indian peoples — the Omaha, the Kansa, the Ponka, the Osage and others — Wakanda was (and is) a name for God. And like the Wakanda of “Black Panther,” this was a divinity whose hiddenness was inseparable from its power. As the Bureau of American Ethnology noted in 1894:

“The ancestors of the Omaha and Ponka believed that there was a Supreme Being, whom they called Wakanda. They did not know where He was, nor did they undertake to say how He existed … Wakanda means ‘the mysterious’ …”

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Wakanda also was something more. Recorded in some sources as Wah’Kon’Tah, it was both a source and a destination: a place from which all goodness emerged and to which all aspired to journey.

“According to their religious code,” a report called “The Far West” in the Nashville Tennessean noted in 1873, “there is a future state. It consists in a place of pleasure and repose, where the prudent in council, intrepid and courageous warriors, indefatigable hunters, and the kind man will obtain an eternal recompense.”

The name of this place? “Wak-an-da,” the Tennessean wrote, “or the country of life.”

Lee and Kirby likely did not look to 19th-century newspapers or ethnographic reports to name their own abode of intrepid and courageous warriors. But by the time they introduced Black Panther and his kingdom, Wakanda lingered in parts of the United States as a haunting remnant of displaced languages and beliefs. As Wakanda, Wakonda, and Waconda, it had become a commonplace name throughout the Midwest, and, most intriguingly when considering its afterlife as the distant realm of superheroes, in the mid-20th century it was a popular name for summer camps in the mid-20th century, those ephemeral nations of experience that seemed to appear only when children fled the familiar to join a magical land.

The new film’s use of the term was examined a few weeks ago on Indian Country Today, a news site about native people across North America. “Offensive or Not?”, published Feb. 20, quotes members of the Osage Nation — a native tribe, and government, in Oklahoma — as recalling that the word was used not only in Marvel comics but also in the 1984 film “Ghostbusters.” In the film, ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd says his memory of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, whom the ghostbusters fight, came from when he was a boy at “Camp Waconda.”

“I remember reading the comic as a kid and remember my mind being blown that it was used,” Newton Cass, an Osage tribal member, told Indian Country. “I always thought that it was used appropriately, being that we all come from the Creator, and it was used in that context.” As far as the “Ghostbusters” context, Cass said, “I always thought it was weird the way Aykroyd said it.”

To celebrate the movie’s release, the Otoe-Missouria tribe — a tribe based in Oklahoma whose language includes ‘Wakanda’ — created a poster of the movie title translated into tribal language:

Whether born of unknowing accident or authorial intent, Wakanda links “Black Panther” to a fraught tradition of ideas about Africa and Native America blended in dubious ways.

On Wednesday, in response to the publication of this essay, the granddaughter of Kirby tweeted that she suspects he did know of the roots of the word “Wakanda”:

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As it happens, the earliest known use of “Black Panther” to name a character representing the strength and cunning now seen in T’Challa was, in fact, a European fantasy of a black man raised by Indians in America.

In the 1864 novel “The Black Panther: A Boy’s Adventures Among the Redskins” by C.F. Lascelles Wraxall (an English author who admitted “never having been further west than Killarney”), the titular figure was described in legendary terms. “A Negro once lived with me,” an Indian chief says. “He was called the Black Panther, and was my best hunter as well as my best warrior.”

“The Indians feared the Black Panther from the Gulf of Mexico up to the Rocky Mountains! He was born among us, for his father and mother were slaves of my father. I first put the boy on a horse. I put the first weapons in his hands, and taught him how to use them. I, too, it was who taught him the war-yell of the Delawares, which afterwards none of us could utter with such power as the Black Panther.”

A century later, the comic book’s borrowing of Wakanda echoed eroticized depictions that used Africans and Indians as lenses through which to view the other, including those of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The man who gave the world Tarzan may also be responsible for first transplanting Wakanda from one cultural context to another.

Written in 1915, Burroughs’s novel “The Man-Eater” wasn’t widely circulated until it was released posthumously by a New York pulp publisher in 1957, at a time when Lee and Kirby were consuming pulps as grist for their creative mill. In Burroughs’s book, the fictional Wakanda people attack a “little American Methodist mission in the heart of the African jungle.” While Kirby and Lee may not have read Bureau of American Ethnology reports about Native American beliefs, Burroughs did; he even listed them as sources for his later novels set on an Indian reservation, “The War Chief” and “Apache Devil.” Added to background reading that included Henry Morton Stanley’s “In Darkest Africa,” it is understandable how such research might produce a pastiche of tropes. “The Wakandas,” he wrote, “are upon the warpath.”

Burroughs experts point out that the author left behind no clear indication of where he first encountered Wakanda.

“I do not think you can say with certainty that Burroughs used a Native American term,” said Robert Zeuschner, author of “Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Bibliography,” “but I think it is a reasonable suspicion.”

It is reasonable, in part, because Burroughs — like many an author before and since — was a sponge for the influences all around him. And it becomes all the more plausible when considering the tendency of the colonial imagination to blur lines between the cultures that have been colonized. Tarzan lived in Africa but wrestled Asian tigers all the time; why shouldn’t T’Challa rule a kingdom with an Indian name?

Arguably, unlike its earlier iteration, Marvel’s new Wakanda does not diminish the two cultures it connects. Instead, no doubt more than its creators ever intended, this unlikely linguistic bridge — between continents, between fantasy and reality, between present and past — underscores a spiritual dimension of “Black Panther’s” undiscovered country.

With social media erupting in #WakandaForever and strident replies of “Wakanda does not exist,” it’s useful to remember that among those who first used the word, it served as shorthand for the hope of a place beyond such conflicts. By definition, Wakanda was a concept whose reality could not be limned in the usual ways. As long-ago ethnographers explained, “Each person thought in his heart that Wakanda existed.”

That this sentiment now captures the spirit of the multiplex should not be a surprise. Some words, it seems, are like the heroes we invent with them: shape-shifting, resilient, rising again when they are needed most.

Peter Manseau is the curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian, and author most recently of The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost.