Facing up to John Wayne

In his new graphic novel, ‘Memorial Ride,’ Stephen Graham Jones turns the traditional Western on its head

0
Gary Isaacs

A few summers ago, Stephen Graham Jones fell down a John Wayne rabbit hole. 

The Blackfeet Native American author and professor of English at CU Boulder gorged on canonical Wayne films: Red River, The Cowboys, The Searchers.

You’ll find nods to these films in the form of quotes from Wayne’s characters—Thomas Dunson, Wil Anderson, Ethan Edwards— scattered throughout Jones’ new graphic novel, Memorial Ride (Red Planet Books). 

With art by Native American artist Maria Wolf, Memorial Ride follows Blackfeet soldier Cooper Town as he takes leave from his deployment in Afghanistan to attend his father’s funeral. Cooper plans to take a bit of comfort in a whirlwind weekend with his girlfriend, Sheri Mun, and make a quick buck selling his old man’s Harley before shipping back off to the sandbox, but things turn sour real quick when the couple runs afoul of the violent John Wayne gang during a convenience store heist. Next thing you know, Coop and Sheri are on a high-speed chase through the Southwest. 

It’s a classic American story: John Wayne chasing Indians.

“I think when you’re trying to engage with or face up to John Wayne, what you’re really doing is wrangling with America,” Jones says. “John Wayne kind of embodies the core American myth—he’s the cowboy of cowboys. There’s a Charlie Daniels song—I forget which one—where he says, ‘I wish John Wayne would have lived to run for president.’ There’s a whole lot of people out there like that, but I mean, the dude was pretty deplorable, too. So for me, falling into that John Wayne hole, I think was me just trying to figure out what’s going on with America.” 

A staunch Republican, Wayne supported the war in Vietnam and, for a while, was a member of the conspiracy-theory churning, civil-rights thwarting, radical right-wing John Birch Society. He was also an Academy Award winner who starred in nearly 180 movies in his lifetime. 

In 1971, Wayne gave an infamous interview to Playboy magazine, espousing, among other things, his belief “in white supremacy until the Blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from the Indians,” he said later on in the interview. “Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

After his death in 1979, Wayne was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States.

The Searchers, released in 1956, has been lauded as one of the great American films, deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress in 1989—nevermind that the Comanche tribe depicted in the film were erroneously located in Monument Valley in Arizona, or that a white man played the Comanche chief.

“Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough,” Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards says to his sidekick as they scour the Southwest in search of Edwards’ nieces, who were abducted by the Comanche. “Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.”

In the end, when Edwards finds the sole niece who has survived, he contemplates killing her.

“She’s been spoiled by the Indians; she’s kind of gone Native,” Jones says. “It’s not worth keeping her alive. It’s a mercy to put her out of her misery.”

In Memorial Ride, Jones inverts the traditional Western. Coop and Sheri’s only offense to the John Wayne gang was being in the way of them taking what they wanted. Memorial Ride suggests what America knows to be true: The colonizers never stopped chasing the Natives, never stopped killing them, not to this day.  

“In the very first novel I wrote, The Fast Red Road, the biggest argument I had with my editor was that I refused to put a capital letter at the front of the word America,” Jones says, “because I didn’t think America was that important. So I think by making John Wayne be the name of the bad guys, I’m still trying to not do that capital letter. I’m still trying to take the knees out of America in some way.”