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Education (6-12)

Fighting myth with myth

November 25, 2023

In his paintings – and now, in the memoir of his trickster alter ego – Cree artist Kent Monkman challenges Canada’s colonial narratives while revelling in Indigenous wisdom, laughter, sexuality and joy ARTWORK BY KENT MONKMAN INTRODUCTION BY GISÈLE GORDON


Seeing Red, Kent Monkman, 2014. In this painting, the artist appears as Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, his shape-shifting, time-travelling, gender-fluid alter-ego who is the subject of a two-volume memoir published this month. 

Kent Monkman is an interdisciplinary Cree visual artist. Giséle Gordon is a settler media artist and writer based in Dish With One Spoon Territory (Toronto, Canada). They are the authors of The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle Volume 1 and 2.

The Globe and Mail: Our future is determined by our history. Canada’s history, like most colonial nations, is based on misinformation, with the perspectives, experiences and wisdom of entire peoples redacted. Today, Canadian society often pays lip service to reconciliation and decolonization, but how can any of that work be done when the majority of the population is unaware of the truth of our shared history?

Cree artist Kent Monkman has been challenging outdated and often untrue colonial narratives in his paintings for decades through the lens of his alter-ego, the shape-shifting, time-travelling, gender-fluid legendary being, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Fully realizing the power of paintings to communicate emotional narratives and elicit change more effectively than history books or newsfeeds, Kent responds to the paintings of Albert Bierstadt and other 19th-century artists who painted “empty” landscapes, encouraging settlement under the aegis of manifest destiny, and Paul Kane and George Catlin, who painted romantic depictions of Indigenous peoples as a “dying race.”

By inserting Miss Chief into his paintings, often dropping her right into the middle of the “authoritative” colonial narrative, Kent flips the balance of power to reimagine history and create lush, often playfully seductive takes on history paintings that are layered with historical, cultural, queer, Cree and art history references. These references bring the past alive, opening up all kinds of conversations with history itself, with other art history paintings and with our perspectives as viewers. He tackles the colonial violence in art history paintings head on, rewriting the visual language of history in a painters’ duel of the highest order.

Kent and I have collaborated on films, performances, installations and exhibition texts for more than 30 years. We expanded this work to tell the true(r) history of Canada through Miss Chief’s life story. Through many conceptual conversations, shared research, a collaborative writing and editing process, and, most important, our consultations with our Cree advisers, Dr. Keith Goulet, Gail Maurice, Dr. Belinda Daniels and Floyd Favel, we wove together three narrative strands into a braid – Cree oral history, European settler versions of history, and Miss Chief’s own story as she bears witness to the hard truths of what was left out of those school history books, but to also Indigenous wisdom, laughter, sexuality and joy.

In the following excerpt from her memoirs, Miss Chief recalls the 1885 North-West Resistance, a time remembered by Cree people as kâ-kî-mâyahkamikahk, “when the bad things happened.” Many of the acts of violence that occurred around this time had far-reaching repercussions. One of them was the largest mass execution in Canada’s history, the hanging of eight Indigenous men in Battleford, Sask., in 1885. In Kent’s painting Compositional Study for The Going Away Song, it is not the hanging itself that is the focus, but the impact on the Indigenous children who were brought in from surrounding residential “schools” and forced to watch as the men – some of whom were their relatives – were killed in front of them. Miss Chief attempts to comfort the horrified children, but is consumed with grief.

We are fighting myth with myth. As Kent says, “learning about these difficult truths is necessary, but it is art that will help get us through to the other side.”

An excerpt from The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Volume 2, by Kent Monkman and Gisèle Gordon

It is not my way to fight. While the battle raged, I transformed into hawk form, chasing away the oskitakosinokîsikowak, the newcomer spirit beings, who hovered over the plain waiting for the môniyâwak (white people’s) souls. They could claim the souls of their own people, but so many of mine had converted to their church religions under duress. At least in death, my people would be given a choice.

Early in the battle of Cut Knife, Mistatimwas, Sailing Horse, a headman of Little Pine’s band and the keeper of the oskiciy, the sacred pipe-stem used to invoke the power of the Kisê-manitow (the creator) sustained a severe abdominal wound and, fearing that death was close, he gave Pîhtokahânapiwiyin, Chief Poundmaker, the sacred pipe stem, the oskiciy, that was used in times of crisis to invoke the power of Kisê-manitow. When the victorious warriors came back to the main camp to get fresh horses to chase down the retreating soldiers, Pîhtokahânapiwiyin held the oskiciy high, and with it commanded the warriors to let the soldiers retreat unharmed.

After this attack, some of the young warriors sought to join Louis Riel’s forces at Batoche. Pîhtokahânapiwiyin was against it. He wanted to honour the treaty and urged that the band travel instead to the safety of Devil’s Lake – but the warriors had their way. During the journey, Pîhtokahânapiwiyin mediated where he could, intervening to protect the Canadian prisoners.

My lover, Camille, and his fighters with Riel, however, were not to fare well. In mid-May, Major General Frederick Middleton launched an assault against the Métis stronghold at Batoche, devastating the town with heavy shelling and then attacking. With most of their equipment and supplies destroyed, Camille and the Métis had precious few supplies with which to resist. Riel surrendered to the Canadians.

Like many who had fought with Riel, Camille disappeared into the bush. We had one short, sweet tryst, and then for many years he lived so deeply in the forest that I needed the help of the mêmêkwêsiwak (the smallest of the sacred beings) to find him when I wanted to kiss his smooth face again. He had lost his taste for fighting, and for people, and saw no one besides me – except for when he came into town twice a year to trade.

After Riel was defeated, Pîhtokahânapiwiyin tried to negotiate with Middleton, who rejected Pîhtokahânapiwiyin’s appeals for peace, paid no heed to others who spoke of his efforts to reduce the deaths on each side, and demanded that Pîhtokahânapiwiyin surrender. Wanting to end the fighting, my dear friend led his band to Battleford and gave himself up. As always, my friend spoke the truth: “Had I wanted war, I would not be here now. I should be on the prairie. You did not catch me. I gave myself up. You have got me because I wanted justice.”

Mistahi-maskwa’s, Chief Big Bear’s, people held out the longest. But the government forces were in constant pursuit, and again his people were starving. At Loon Lake, the Mounted Police caught up to them, and the final battle of the rebellion was fought. The men did what they could, but the situation was hopeless – the band was forced to disperse and flee for their lives. Mistahi-maskwa led those who remained in an attempt to stay ahead of the Mounted Police, but he knew they could not last long. Like Pîhtokahânapiwiyin, he could not let his people starve, and eventually also surrendered. Eventually, all of our great leaders were imprisoned and made to stand trial under the Canadians’ law.

Riel was sentenced to death for treason and hanged for his killing of Thomas Scott, as I had feared. Our children were marched in from the newcomers’ schools they’d been taken to and forced to watch him die, slowly strangling on the scaffold.

Not long after, under a dark grey early-winter sky, eight of our people were hanged. Those of our people hung for their actions at Frog Lake were: Kâ-papâm-ahcâhkwêw, Wandering Spirit, who had killed Thomas Quinn, the Indian Agent, for his cruelty; Papamê-kîsik, Round the Sky, who killed Père Fafard, the Catholic Black Robe who had raised and mistreated him; Kitahwahkên, Miserable Man, and Manicôs, Bad Arrow, for killing carpenter Charles Gouin; Nahpasê, Iron Body, and Apisciskôs, Little Bear, both convicted of killing trader George Dill; and the two Nakoda warriors from the Eagle Hills – Itka and Waywahnitch – whose revenge killings Pîhtokahânapiwiyin had relayed to me earlier.

Taking lives as the men had done was not my way, but they had watched their people starve while those with food laughed. They had seen their women abused and lost their children. None were afraid to die. They stood tall and sang their death chants, heard over the hills for miles around. Kâ-papâm-ahcâhkwêw sang one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs I have ever heard, for his wife. I stood with them and sang with them, until one by one, it was quiet.

Families from surrounding reserves had been brought in, and all the children from Battleford Industrial School and other institutions nearby – some of them relatives of the men – were made to stare in horror as the trap under the men’s feet was opened. I later discovered that this cruelty was, of course, the idea of the okîskwêpêsk (the drunk, otherwise known as John. A Macdonald) who insisted that my people witness the executions in order to convince “the Red Man that the White Man governs.” What we understood was that the white man’s justice was no justice at all for our people.

I smelled iron in the air. The clouds darkened and I heard the low rumble of piyêsiwak wings in the distance. I remember it all.

When they put Pîhtokahânapiwiyin on trial, I had to be a witness with a heavy heart to their sentencing of my dear friend. I shifted to watch through the eyes of their queen as Pîhtokahânapiwiyin, our defender, our peacemaker, one of our greatest leaders, was brought in in chains. Despite the peacemaking he had shown when he saved the lives of countless soldiers and settlers, he was sentenced to three years in the prison they had built that held so many of our people.

I would visit Pîhtokahânapiwiyin and Mistahi-maskwa often, sometimes in whiskey jack or crow form. It was only a few miles from anishanabe mandaamini kitigan, but each time I approached, the cold imposing facade of the Manitoba Penitentiary would chill me to my bones. Prisons like the ones in Europe that I had described to Niska, Minôsis, and Kimiwan were now opening their grey stone jaws and devouring our leaders.

Being Kent Monkman: More from The Globe and Mail

How do Kent Monkman’s large history paintings go from ideas on paper to paint on canvas? The Globe went inside his Toronto studio to document the process.