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Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Naked Truth

Because colonial habits die hard

Keith Garebian

The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle: A True and Exact Accounting of the History of Turtle Island

Kent Monkman and Gisèle Gordon

McClelland & Stewart

264 pages (vol. 1), 264 pages (vol. 2), hardcover, ebook, and audiobook

A member of Fisher River First Nation in Manitoba, Kent Monkman is a two-spirit cisgender man whose paintings about the adventures of his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, dramatically confront chronic misrepresentations of Indigenous hist­ory and culture. Miss Chief’s very name contains a double pun on androgyny and mischief as well as being a satiric homonym. In collaboration with Gisèle Gordon, a writer and media artist who moved from England to Canada as a child, Monkman has fashioned two volumes of genre-demolishing history, fiction, and art that revise and remake our understanding of Turtle Island. Famous and infamous notables such as Sir John A. Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier, and Egerton Ryerson are dispatched with deadly wit — as are international figures like Charles Dickens and Eugène Delacroix.

The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle is certainly a double whammy, with magic realism in text and painting consorting to expose the colonial structures that have dispossessed Indigenous peoples and attempted to erase them from the history books. Volume 1 covers the period from creation to Canadian Confederation, moving from the complexities of Cree cosmology to the arrival of European settlers and the various dangers and challenges they posed over the next few centuries, such as the undermining of tribal alliances, the spread of disease, and the exploitation of the land and its resources. Volume 2 carries into the present, zeroing in on a single family across the generations. In the process, it explores the legacy of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and the “disconnectedness” of life in urban Canada. Unlike anything ever published before, the work startles, stuns, and charms while also passionately demolishing long-standing narratives.

Kent Monkman’s art often traces contemporary socio-political realities to historic injustices.

Nathan Denette; The Canadian Press

The first volume’s opening chapter (wryly entitled “A Star Is Born”) is a sexually charged version of creation told by Miss Chief, who first appeared in Monkman’s painting Artist and Model (2002) before making her presence felt in performance art, installations, and films. She claims to “come from the stars”— blazing down to earth, “leaving a glittering pink trail” in her wake, and establishing herself as a shape-shifting, time-travelling trickster who sends “shock waves of sound rolling in all directions.” Indeed, this Cree universe is filled with sound — not a scientific Big Bang but a magic combination of howling wind, glowing hot skin, atmospheric sparks, and Miss Chief’s “screaming, smouldering descent,” during which her golden-brown skin glows brighter until her raven hair begins to singe and smoke. Before she can scream her first human sound, the great shadow of an eagle flies before her, slowing her fall: “The air shrieked apart as the leader of the winged ones cracked the molecules aside with his mighty wings. He flapped again and enfolded me against his breast, my body relaxing into his cool feathers.” This is a highly charged sensual, erotic scene, as Miss Chief arches her back to press against the eagle’s sternum, which feels “so exquisitely hard underneath the softness of the downy surface.” The bird looks her in the eye and grips her harder with razor-sharp talons. Her androgynous body connects with his, so that she feels “new pathways burn” to her brain and loins until she gets an erection. The writing is high camp and artificially exaggerated by extreme language and imagery, conjoining seriousness with a lewd humour that exercises itself whenever an opportunity arises.

Miss Chief never misses her opportunities, whether she is totally nude, wearing a full headdress, riding bareback while wielding a bow and arrow, or in a G string, red chiffon, and high heels. She revels in double entendre almost as much as she revels in androgyny, offering tumescent delight to select Indigenous and non-Indigenous lovers. Among the many gifts that the Great Spirit has granted her, one of the most potent is her ability to convince others to do her bidding. With her privileged status and power, she is to live with humans — learning their ways, holding their stories, and becoming legend with them as she teaches them the right balance for a fulfilling existence.

Here is a critique that mocks and explodes colonial representations, replacing them with an interpretation that aims at an optimistic future of resilience and reconnection. Skeptics might counter that the tales are extravagantly hyperbolic and therefore false in their method. But the fact remains that this is a crash course in Canadian history from a different point of view, amply fortified by endnotes that run to a combined eighty pages and usefully supplemented by a generous Cree glossary.

The text and the visuals perfectly complement each other, with the writing amplifying what can be seen in the paintings, which seem self-aware and allow themselves to be read capaciously by viewers. Although the paintings were composed between 2003 and 2022, most of them speak to a cohesive narrative. Often explicitly sexual, they expose Monkman’s proudly defiant renegade aesthetic, one that will give every school board grave pause and every fundamentalist hysterical fits. His art presents illustrations of mirth and ecstasy as bold refutations of restraint, decorum, and modesty. Censors be damned: they can console themselves by returning to the falsehoods of George Catlin, William Berczy, and Paul Kane, who catered to demand in North America and Europe for misleading, stereotypical images of violent prairie warriors and inauthentic renderings of geography, history, and ethnography. In the style of the European Mannerists, replete with romantic flair accentuated by special lighting and dramatic clouds, they hardly reflect the Canadian West. Even the horses come from outside Canada, as do the rural peasant scenes.

Monkman’s paintings deliberately evoke Titian, Canaletto, Botticelli, Raphael, Renoir, Bosch, Matisse, Seurat, and Picasso, as well as Norval Morrisseau — for parody’s sake and for didactic purposes. Putting aside the chromogenic prints on metallic paper that show Miss Chief as a vaudeville performer mimicking the Penobscot actor, dancer, and writer Molly Spotted Elk, as well as the gouache Study for Beaver Bacchanal (2015), the paintings generally fall into six categories: early landscapes with embedded depictions of significant Indigenous-white interaction, Biblical parodies, aesthetic reinventions (also rooted in parody), historical themes, political satire, and explicitly Cree and two-spirit subjects. Of course, categories erase their own boundaries from time to time, and Monkman’s creations are rife with delightful anachronisms. For instance, The Triumph of Mischief (2007) is a hyperactive mash up of centuries, containing Pegasus, multiple centaurs and Spartan warriors, a giant bear, nude wrestlers, angelic cherubs, and other figures. What is overtly a super-realism of mixed cultures and time periods is quite in keeping with Miss Chief’s shape-shifting (as cod, whale, peregrine falcon, and tiny warbler) and time travel (to Victorian England and the Paris of George Sand). So in the paintings appear the likes of Baudelaire, Louis Riel, Queen Victoria, and George Simpson. History is never a straight line, and this whimsical epic is a delightful example of what the art historian Reilley Bishop-Stall has called “archival intervention.”

Monkman’s landscapes clearly recall familiar eighteenth- and nineteenth-century canvases, with their fervent urge to suggest the vast sublime in Canadian geography. Although he allows the natural geography to dominate spatially and pictorially, he craftily adds detailed but relatively miniaturized figures to destabilize the scene — as in Not the End of the Trail (2004), where a priest keeps lascivious watch over a mounted Miss Chief. Massacre of the Innocents (2015), with its title drawn from the Old Testament, is explicitly message driven in its depiction of newcomers’ ruthless slaughter of beavers. And Trappers of Men (2006) is a wide canvas depicting settlers and First Nations under massive snow-capped mountains and near a light-dappled lake, where the “­missionary” Miss Chief intends to teach the Cree laws of love, kindness, and respect for all beings.

The Bible figures prominently in several paintings, but always with a twist, devoid of religious reverence, as in The Good Samaritan (2010), where a Louis Vuitton bag underscores Miss Chief’s privilege; Two Spirits (2011), a homoerotic parody of Jacob wrestling an angel; and Study for Fate Is a Cruel Mistress (2022), where nude Miss Chief is in her boudoir attempting to coax the future King Edward VII, dubbed “Edward the Caresser” by Henry James, to “moan assurances that his mother, the powerful queen, would negotiate fair and equitable treaties” with First Nations. (That painting’s alternative title, Potiphar’s Wife, refers to the Egyptian woman who falsely accuses Joseph of rape in the Book of Genesis.)

Of course, it isn’t simply the Bible that is upturned. Canadian history and politics get their comeuppance as well. Imperial Britain nods and listens politely without acting in any manner advantageous to Indigenous well-being. As for the Fathers of Confederation, everything rots from the head down. Sir John A. Macdonald is portrayed as an inveterate drunkard, given to outrageous acts, such as vomiting in public, setting fire to a cabin after falling asleep while leaving a candle lit, reciting lines from Hamlet before a looking glass while dressed only in a night shirt and railway rug, and having Miss Chief as his all-too-willing “country wife.” Other Confederation figures are lampooned, with Monkman’s pièce de résistance being The Daddies (2016), a delightfully indecent send up of Robert Harris’s famous Fathers of Confederation (1884). Observing that no one had invited any Indigenous representatives to the Charlottetown Conference, partly because they were considered obstacles to the railroads and western settlements, Miss Chief invites herself to the prestigious event, posing flagrantly nude before their collective male gaze of astonishment.

Sex — especially gay sex — is celebrated as something natural and with polymorphous perversity. For example, Fort Edmonton (2003) gives man and horse their separate modes of sexual congress. Honour Dance (2020) is a colourful spectacle, in which nude Miss Chief (now in black stilettos) poses as the object and vortex of love in an ensemble of wanton warriors. Meanwhile, Gender Splendour (2021) and Wedding at Sodom (2017) are prime emetics for puritans who would probably be just as outraged at Monkman’s representations in volume 2 of harsh socio-political realities that continue today.

The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle constitutes an impassioned disruption of the imposed dynamic that has long positioned Indigenous people either as exotic Others fit only for the “Indian Gallery,” in the mode of George Catlin, or as “mere animals” and “wretched creatures,” in the dismissive opinion of Charles Dickens.

Of course, contemptible misrepresentations and omissions remain with us. How many Canadians are aware of Cartier’s boast of “purchasing” Rupert’s Land (roughly a third of modern Canada) for the equivalent of mere trinkets from the Hudson’s Bay Company? Or that the British North America Act of 1867 has only a single mention of Indigenous people? How many Canadians care about the extinction of the Beothuk and the near extinction of the bison, which ran in herds that once stretched twenty-five miles across and fifty miles long? And how many Canadians remember that in 1885, the government, seeking to eliminate traditional cultures, banned the potlatch ceremony? For anyone still wishing to defend or ignore residential schools, broken treaties, the Sixties Scoop, the Indian agent Thomas Quinn, the abusive Father Fafard, John Delaney’s withholding of rations at Frog Lake, young children being forced to watch the execution of Louis Riel, the pass system, racist Mounties, or the continued marginalization of Indigenous women, Monkman and Gordon offer a powerful archival intervention: at once an alternative history and a dream of optimistic wish fulfillment.

Keith Garebian has just published his eleventh poetry collection, Three-Way Renegade, as well as a memoir, Pieces of Myself.

Related Letters and Responses

Phyllis Reeve Gabriola, British Columbia