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Language and Culture (13-17)

Alter ego speaks: Kent Monkman’s Miss Chief Eagle Testickle gets two memoirs

November 4, 2023
Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, the gender-fluid alter ego of acclaimed Cree artist Kent Monkman, has been relayed through paintings — including “Seeing Red,” above — photography, installations and films.

Toronto Star: Since she first appeared in 2002, the ravishing Miss Chief Eagle Testickle has challenged perceptions of history and time, bringing glamour and a touch of sass to her expansive reframing of Indigenous Peoples’ experiences and to the story of Turtle Island.

As the gender-fluid alter ego of acclaimed Cree artist Kent Monkman, parts of Miss Chief’s story have been relayed through paintings, photography, in-person performances, installations and films. But now, Miss Chief’s stilettos are striding into the print world with an expansive narrative of her life and occasionally bawdy adventures.

Six years in the making, the first volume of “The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle: A True and Exact Accounting of the History of Turtle Island,” arrives in the world Nov. 7, with a second volume following on Nov. 28. An audiobook, narrated by Cree/Michif-speaking actor and filmmaker Gail Maurice (“Bones of Crows”), will also be available.

Told in a conversational style peppered with humour, the first volume follows Miss Chief ’s memories from the creation of the universe to the introduction of European settlers and Canada’s confederation in 1867, presenting a history absent from textbooks.

The second volume sees Miss Chief observe the continued genocide of her people with the introduction of children’s work camps (residential schools), the Sixties Scoop and environmental devastation. Both books are anchored by full-colour reproductions of Monkman’s paintings; many of which will be familiar to those who have followed his career. Outside of their usual gallery settings, the book provides opportunities to sit longer with these works and better understand all their layers of meaning.

The books are co-written by Monkman and Gisèle Gordon, the artist’s long-time collaborator of about 30 years. The duo first started talking casually, almost jokingly given their busy schedules, about a memoir when they were preparing Monkman’s formidable exhibition “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience,” which opened at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto in 2017 before touring the country for three years.

Monkman wanted the paintings’ labels to be narrated through Miss Chief’s voice, but kept hitting writer’s block trying to distil these complex narratives down to the tight word count required for gallery walls. “Gisèle stepped in and crafted these beautiful, very succinct label texts,” he said. “They were so beautifully written and Gisèle really absorbed the messaging from each painting. I think that’s what really made that exhibition sing and be so powerful was this writing that brought together so many of the themes. Finding Miss Chief’s voice gave such focus to the project.”

Monkman was first approached with the idea of writing a personal memoir by Scott Sellers, associate publisher at Penguin Random House Canada, but thought his own story would be too boring. The artist countered with a pitch exploring Miss Chief’s story instead.

Gordon recalled that when they met with Sellers and Jared Bland, then publisher at McClelland & Stewart, the idea was met with supportive enthusiasm. “They really understood why we wanted to tell the story this way,” said Gordon. “We always thought about it like an art intervention into society. Miss Chief is an extension of Kent’s performance-art practice and so Miss Chief is going out into the world, but in a different way now.”

The first step required stitching together an outline. Over a weekend the two laid out a long line of colour photocopies of about 300 paintings in Monkman’s large Prince Edward County studio. After much deliberation, they culled the works down to about 100, grouped into chapters. This formed a storyboard, a format the two were experienced with through their film collaborations.

“Gisèle would then come to the studio and spend hours picking my brain about each painting,” said Monkman. “We went through this really thorough unpacking of each painting, all the themes and layers, and then we started to assemble this into a narrative.”

“Somebody could write a PhD thesis on each one because Kent’s referencing layers of European history, but also European art history, Cree history and contemporary gay references,” said Gordon, who estimates it took about a year and a half for the narrative arc to reveal itself. “There are so many things going on in each painting and then Miss Chief’s story, of course, which is ever evolving and has become huge in the years that she’s existed. There are a lot of narratives packed into each painting. So much information, it was almost overwhelming of where to start.”

While on the surface this is very much Miss Chief’s account, her recollections hold an incredible amount of knowledge synthesized through her voice. Ultimately, there are three threads braided together: the recasting of European colonial history or “propaganda,” as they refer to it; Cree history, both oral and recorded; and Miss Chief ’s own story. In the manuscript’s early days, Monkman and Gordon turned to a team of past collaborators, including scholars, elders and knowledge keepers, each with their own deep understandings of Cree language, gender identity or culture. Firstperson accounts from family and community members also played a key role in filling out the story.

“There were so many voices that went into this project, but they really understood what we were doing and wanted it to be a fun narrative tale because that is so much a part of Cree culture,” said Gordon. “There’s so much knowledge that gets transmitted through storytelling.”

Through this process, one collaborator, Floyd Favel, pointed out a major gap that altered the book’s trajectory: Miss Chief needed her own origin story.

“I just threw her into these landscapes and off she went, but I didn’t really have the beginning, middle or end of her story, and so we had to figure out who this character was, even though we had some of these little storylines along the way that had been developed in the paintings,” said Monkman.

This realization helped them better understand Miss Chief’s limitations and purpose as a legendary being. The process also inspired new paintings exploring her creation story and Cree cosmology that appeared in Monkman’s 2022 show at the Royal Ontario Museum, “Being Legendary,” and continues to inspire new imagery and possibilities for new works.

“We realized that in many ways Miss Chief really functions as a witness. She was reversing the gaze in the paintings and looking back at the settlers, but she also functions as the singular voice who has seen it all,” he said. “History can be so dry. Somehow just her saying, ‘Oh, I was there and I saw that happen and it made me feel like that,’ seems to make the history more connected to real living people.”

The memoir was never intended to be two volumes, but when the first draft was complete the length came in at double the proposed word count — and that didn’t include the Cree-language glossary and the thousands of endnotes that had been meticulously pulled together by Monkman’s studio assistant and researcher, Sadie MacDonald. Gordon recalled feeling terrified sending the Google doc off to Bland, convinced the publisher would cancel the deal.

The size did prove to be too hefty for one book, but Bland was still passionate about the project. He proposed cutting the manuscript into two volumes, keeping the story intact but reducing the endnotes by hundreds. Despite the edit, the fulsome endnotes still serve as a vital stand-alone resource for readers.

“Even though there are two volumes, we are literally just taking a little strand of this massive story of the European occupation of North America and we had to leave out so much. When we made decisions, we had to keep bringing it back to a Cree story,” said Monkman. “We couldn’t be everything to everybody; there are so many other stories out there.”

And now that her life’s story is out in the world, Miss Chief is packing up her glam carry-on and taking it on tour. Expect a special appearance at the launch on Nov. 14 at the Winter Garden Theatre, featuring Monkman and Gordon in conversation with Jesse Wente.

“This is really her memoir. She’s got to show up and present it to her audience,” said Monkman. “We’re excited about that. She’s unique in the world and her perspective is unique, too.”