Sunday, June 24, 2012


A few days ago, Doret (she blogs at The Happy Nappy Bookseller) posted her review of Patricia and Fredrick McKissack Jr.'s Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love. The book is a graphic novel. Here's the summary (in the catalog of the local public library):
From acclaimed authors Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack Jr. comes a thrilling biography of an unforgettable man told in compelling graphic novel form. Born into slavery in 1854, Nat Love, also known as "Deadwood Dick," grew up to become the most famous African-American cowboy in the Old West. A contemporary and acquaintance of Bat Masterson and Billy the Kid, Nat was widely known as an expert roper and driver, a crack shot, and a real Wild West character. Featuring lively full-color artwork by Randy DuBurke, Best Shot in the West is an exhilarating mix of high-interest historical fiction and nonstop adventure.
On page 60 (the book is 130 pages in length), Nat has left his family home and is working with a cattle team in Kansas. It is 1869, and Nat is 15. They're riding out west when the leader of the team calls out "Indians!" They are attacked by "a raiding party of Old Victorios, a renegade group of Apaches" who had been "harassing folks for months." These Apaches are on horseback and have guns. One is wearing a feathered headdress and another is wearing a headband with a feather in the back. Love specifies Apaches, but I don't know who the "Old Victorios" or the "Victorios" were. There was an Apache man named Victorio who led a group of Apaches in the 1870s. They refused to give up their homelands. Maybe that is who Love was thinking about, but I am not sure Victorio was in Kansas. From what I've read, Victorio was primarily in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. 

On page 84, the text reads:
Between Indians and White desperados, life in cattle country was dangerous. We got into fierce fights and long chases. Some got hurt. Some died.
That sentence is a perfect example of the way in which language shows bias. According to that sentence, there were Indians, and there were White desperados. A desperado, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, was a bold or violent criminal, especially "a bandit of the the Western United States in the 19th century." I think we all know that not all Indians were bold or violent criminals. Wouldn't that sentence be better written as "Between the desperados--Indian ones and White ones--life in cattle country was dangerous." That simple difference packs a lot of information! Can you imagine a teacher pointing out that passage to a student? How it exponentially increases the ways in which the student might begin to imagine American Indians?

On page 102, Nat is in Arizona looking for stray cattle. He is attacked by Indians on horseback. They use guns and tomahawks, and are part of "Yellow Dog's tribe." Nat uses up all his bullets and then tries to "fistfight my way out of that canyon."

The only "Yellow Dog" I'm able to find is on a webpage about Black Indians of Texas. Yellow Dog, the web page says, "was said to have more Black Indians than full blood Indians in his band of Comanches." On page 110 of Best Shot in the West, Yellow Dog's spokesman tells Nat that "Many of us share the same blood as you. The blood of slaves. Yellow Dog wants you to be part of this tribe." He then offers Nat "one hundred ponies and my daughter for marriage." I've got to spend time researching that trope... I've seen it in other places---like Westerns.

On page 116 is Nat's last mention of Indians. He is in Old Fort Dodge, Kansas, and thinks he ought to steal a cannon to help them fight off rustlers and Indians. That passage is like the "Indians and White desperados" on page 84. Could Indians be rustlers? Or were Indians just Indians?!

The author's note says that they relied on Love's autobiography for the material they used to write Best Shot in the West. I wish they'd used it more selectively, or, that they'd figured out how, in their narrative, to put some context around Love's words about Indians. Why were the Apache men attacking settlers? Were those settlers on land that didn't belong to them? What had the settlers done to the Apaches? As-is, the take-away about Indians is that they were all just bad.

An interesting exception to the all-bad Indian is Yellow Dog and the Black Indians. As-is, the story suggests that if Indians are mixed with someone else, Indians could be good guys. Nat may have thought that was true, but surely the talented McKissack's could figure out a way to frame Nat's views so that today's readers gain the information necessary to put all of it into context.

My take-away? The all-bad Indians ruin the story. I can't recommend Best Shot in the West. 

 I'd like to see stories for children about Black Indians. If you know of one, let me know. (Medearis's Dancing with the Indians is full of problems. See my review: Angela Shelf Medearis's Dancing with the Indians.)


Kenneth John Odle said...

Wouldn't that sentence be better written as "Between the desperados--Indian ones and White ones--life in cattle country was dangerous." That simple difference packs a lot of information!

This is the kind of detailed analysis that upsets your detractors. But what a huge difference that subtle change in wording makes. It completely changes the perspective from which we view that passage.

If we want children to appreciate literature and to engage with it in a meaningful way, we must model and teach this level of analysis, and at the same time, provide a safe place to examine their (and our own) misconceptions. (They could even connect this to mathematics skills by using Venn diagrams to visually depict this information. Does "desperados" include all Indians and a handful of white people? Or is there a large circle of "Indians" that includes a small circle of "desperados"?)

It's not impossible to teach this to kids. In fact, it's rather easy, since they are not often as attached to their misconceptions as adults are. We simply need to develop the political, personal, and professional will to do so.

Rob said...

Nat Love's autobiography is online at It seems the graphic novel reflects the negative attitude toward Indians in the original.

Love does claim that Yellow Dog's tribe offered him the chief's daughter in marriage. I'm guessing he romanticized the facts to make his book more marketable.