July 15, 2012

Review of Road to Medicine Lodge

Picture Perfect: The Graphic Novel as Vehicle for Nonfiction

By Wilhelm MurgBuyers might not be investing in comic books the way they once did. Nonetheless, the graphic novel is continuing to grow—not only as a showcase for superheroes, but also as a nonfiction medium. And some American Indian graphic artists are using the history of Indian culture as the basis for their work.

Robby McMurtry, who lives in Morris, Oklahoma, is one of those artists; he is of Comanche, Irish and Cajun descent. He came of age during the underground “comix” movement in the 1970s; as a student, he commandeered machines late at night in the printing department of the Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) to churn out his own small-run comix. That experience is reflected in the title of his graphic-novel series, which he has dubbed “The Underground History of Indian Territory.”

Now an art teacher in Oklahoma, he has just released the third title, The Road to Medicine Lodge: Jesse Chisholm in the Indian Nations (CreateSpace, 2011), a biography of the famed Cherokee trader, guide and interpreter. The series’ earlier titles are Gunplay: The True Story of Pistol Pete on the Hootowl Trail (New Forums Press) and Native Heart: The Life and Times of Ned Christie, Cherokee Patriot and Renegade (CreateSpace).

“I did the Chisholm book because the director of the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, Oklahoma, kept pitching the idea to me,” McMurtry said. “The more I found out about it, the more interesting it became. Chisholm spoke many languages and knew everybody.

Most people think that the Chisholm Trail was something that he drove cattle on, but he had nothing to do with cattle; that was a trail he used for trading expeditions with western tribes. Then the cowboys started using it.”
Comment:  Wikipedia tells us the basics about Jesse Chisholm:Jesse Chisholm (1806–March 4, 1868) was an Indian trader, guide, and interpreter, born in the Hiwassee region of Tennessee, probably in 1805 or 1806. He is chiefly famous for being the namesake to the Chisholm Trail, which ranchers used to drive their cattle to eastern markets. Chisholm had built a number of trading posts in what is now western Oklahoma before the American Civil War. Ironically, he never drove cattle on the trail named for him.I read The Road to Medicine Lodge last year after McMurtry sent me a copy. So "just released" means about a year ago, as you can tell by the 2011 publication date.

I never got around to reviewing it, but here are my impressions:

On the positive side, it does present the "Underground History of Indian Territory." Other than the Trail of Tears and the establishment of the Cherokee Nation, what was happening in Indian territory (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas) in the early to middle part of the 19th century? This graphic novel will give you an idea.

As always, McMurtry doesn't engage in any stereotyping or romanticizing of Indians. These Indians dress in Western clothes, herd cattle, and sometimes attack and kill each other. They aren't much different from the Euro-American settlers and ranchers around them.

On the negative side, McMurtry kind of skips through Chisholm's life, dropping in every few years to give us an update. It was never clear to me where he lived, what his occupation was, whether he was married with children, and so forth. I would've spelled this out--with chunks of text between the pages, if nothing else.

Also, I'm not sure Chisholm did enough to warrant a full-length biography. He was more of a witness to history than a participant. The title indicates the book is an account the Medicine Lodge Treaty, and that might've made a better subject than Chisholm. The treaty's Wikipedia entry doesn't even mention Chisholm, which suggests his role was minor at best.

Maybe it's the nature of the plains, but I found McMurtry's art slightly less interesting than in Native Heart, his previous book. That book had some sylvan scenes that McMurtry executed beautifully. This book looks more like the image below: kind of wide open and empty.

All in all, I'd say Road to Medicine Lodge is a notch or two below McMurtry's Native Heart. If you're interested in historical dramas about Indian territory, start with Native Heart. If you like that book, try Road to Medicine Lodge.

But if you're not interested in historical dramas about Indian territory, I doubt this book will change your mind. Let's put it this way: The potential fan base of the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center and this book probably overlap. If you're fascinated by old cowboy 'n' Indian lore, check it out.

For more on McMurtry's work, see Greg Burgas Reviews Native Heart and Review of Native Heart.

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