In the wake of the dialogue surrounding Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” at the Walker Art Center, and on the event of the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation this July 1st, I present you the acutely considered and poetically writ text of Kent Monkman and Gisèle Gordon produced to accompany Monkman’s multi-venue, cross-Canada tour of new work in an exhibition titled Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Canada. I would like to recognize that the land on which I write this, Chicago, is Inoka land: land of the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Moingwena, Michigamea, Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, and Tapouara. That the state of Illinois is a French-given name for these peoples whose tribes spanned from Iowa to Lake Michigan to Arkansas is something I’d like to keep in the front of my mind.
Shame and Prejudice
- New France, Reign of the Beaver
“And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds.”
— Royal Proclamation, 1763
Beaver Rosary, Rosary with pewter crucifix, 2016. Photo Credit: Kent Monkman
I had them both wrapped around my elegant pinkies in those days, Montcalm and Wolfe. They fell over themselves to curry my favour. They couldn’t get enough of those luxurious pelts, taking the fashion worlds of London and Paris by storm, to say nothing of all that castoreum, distilled into Europe’s most opulent perfumes. Our poor beavers, almost decimated by overuse (something I’ll never say about my own). The power was in our camp back then, when we, the Cree, Iroquois, Assiniboine, and the other Red Nations, controlled these territories. No one got rich or powerful without us on their side. We always embraced new technologies, the guns worked well, and we prided ourselves on new ways of thinking. Why not humour those handsome Jesuit priests? There were far too few to cause much confusion….
2) Fathers of Confederation
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in need of a wife.”
— Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813
“Why this response from grizzlies as the party (Lewis and Clark) moved across the land? Did the bears see vulnerability in the white men they could not detect in the Indians? The Indians of all tribes had a long-standing and complex relationship with bears. For many tribes the bear was a prophet, and having a dream about bears would almost certainly endow someone with the power to find lost objects. Other tribes saw the bear as a medicine animal, after watching him dig for roots that were as useful to humans as they were to the bears.”
—Vine Deloria Jr., excerpt from Frenchmen, Bears, and Sandbars, 2007
Bad Medicine, Acrylic on canvas, 2014. Photo Credit: Kent Monkman
When the stakes are high and our enemies mighty, it behooves us to do what we can in order to tip the scales in our favour. My people needed an ally in power, and I had my ways of getting a seat at the table. Men are so simple, blinded by greed, they see only that from which they think they can profit. I give them what they want, they believe that they take it from me; it amuses me to play them like pawns. Naked, I am at my strongest. I did not get where I am today by being a wallflower. My people need me. My muskwas (bears) enjoy converting those Christians back to their authentic natures; how many times now have I seen their true selves blossom forth.
3) Wards of the State / The Indian Problem
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem…..Our objective is to continue until there is not an Indian that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department…”
— Duncan Campbell Scott, Minister of Indian Affairs, 1920
Oh, how I cried when they took Pîhtokahanapiwiyin away in chains. You would know him as Poundmaker, but to me, he was my leader, my brother, my hero, my dear friend. He was our defender, our peacemaker. He stood firm against the lies others believed, and led us with calm steadiness as he negotiated the treaty for peace. Our dear friend Mistahimaskwa, Big Bear, was the strongest of our warriors, both in wisdom, and in medicine. His gifts allowed him to see that the reserves would keep us poor and beholden to the settlers. He kept his people free for as long as he could, until to keep them from starving, he was finally forced to capitulate. Our leaders thought we were going to share the land. Macdonald and Laurier’s ideas of purchasing land as one would a trinket was as foreign to Mistahimaskwa and Pîhtokahanapiwiyin as buying air, for we shared all. The sight of our proud leaders, later taken in chains to Stony Mountain prison under false charges, was meant to break our spirits. But even though they weakened under illnesses contracted in that stone fortress, Mistahimaskwa and Pîhtokahanapiwiyin’s spirits stayed strong; they knew we would persevere.
Miss Chief’s Praying Hands (Red), Silicone rubber, 2015. Photo Credit: Kent Monkman
“Those Reserve Indians are in a deplorable state of destitution, they receive from the Indian Department just enough food to keep soul and body together, they are all but naked, many of them barefooted. Should sickness break out among them in their present weakly state the fatality would be dreadful.”
—Lawrence Clarke, 1880
“A long time ago, my father told me what his father told him, that there was once a Lakota holy man, called Drinks Water, who dreamed what was to be…that the four-leggeds were going back into the earth and that a strange race had woven a spider’s web all around the Lakotas. And he said: “When this happens, you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve.”
Before the settlers came, all of us across Turtle Island were rich, in buffalo robes, in food, in our ability to go out on the land or water and bring back whatever we needed for our people. We didn’t beg for scraps at anyone’s table. They told us how important the Iron Horse was, and the riches it would bring to all. Blinded by their promises, I led the way. It was only later that I realized they did not consider us part of the “all.” When the settlers started shooting the buffalo from their trains, we were sickened by the waste, the carcasses left there rotting in the sun. But slowly we realized that it wasn’t only for sport, the soldiers knew we couldn’t live without the buffalo, and they were right. Once so numerous, it took several days for a herd to pass, they were now almost entirely gone and our people were starving. It was one more way they tried to make us disappear, but the buffalo came back, and we never left.
Seeing Red, Acrylic on Canvas, 2014. Photo Credit: Kent Monkman
5) Forcible Transfer of Children
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
—Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, 1879
“It can start with a knock on the door one morning. It is the local Indian agent, or the parish priest, or, perhaps, a Mounted Police officer. The bus for the residential school leaves that morning. It is a day the parents have long been dreading. Even if the children have been warned in advance, the morning’s events are still a shock. The officials have arrived and the children must go.
For tens of thousands of Aboriginal children for over a century, this was the beginning of their residential schooling. They were torn from their parents, who often surrendered them only under threat of prosecution. Then, they were hurled into a strange and frightening place, one in which their parents and culture would be demeaned and oppressed.”
— Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015
This is the one I cannot talk about. The pain is too deep. We were never the same.
In the period between March 2010 and January 2013, the Prairies Region of the Correctional Service of Canada (primarily the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) accounted for 39.1% of all new federal inmate growth. Most of this growth was led by Aboriginal offenders, who now comprise 46.4% of the Prairie Region inmate population. At Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba, 389 out of 596 inmates – 65.3% of the population – were Aboriginal; at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, 63.9% of the population was Aboriginal; at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, 55.7% of the count was Aboriginal; and at Edmonton Institution for Women, 56.0% of the population was Aboriginal.
— Aboriginal Offenders – A Critical Situation,
Office of the Correctional Investigator, Government of Canada, 2013
Salome, from Fate is a Cruel Mistress by Kent Monkman in collaboration with Chris Chapman, Archival giclée print on archival paper, 2017. Photo Credit: Kent Monkman
They wanted to take the Indian out of us; they couldn’t do that, but they did beat down our spirits. Generation after generation of us spent our childhoods in the residential schools, being told over and over again that we were inferior, until we believed it ourselves. One hundred and fifty thousand of us were told that our loving parents were bad, that our devoted grandparents practiced devil worship, that we were dirty, inside and out. Then, in the sixties and seventies, social services came to our homes, scooped twenty thousand of our beloved babies, and gave them to other families, far from us, our languages, and our land. So many of our people grew up broken — is it any wonder that they fill the prisons, crowd the wards, and line the sidewalks, lost in the cycle of self-loathing, trauma and addiction? I shine brightly for these souls through the darkness, slaying savage masculine force with the dazzling power of my beauty and allure. I am the light, the two-spirited gentle man and fierce woman. Walk towards me, my children, fall into step and let the drum guide you. You will be reborn, free to rise again with the buffalo.
7) The Res House
“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. “
— Luke 2:12
Not so long ago (well, my sense of time may be different from yours), my family crowded into the same drafty substandard housing familiar to so many of our people, for the most sacred of occasions – a birth. And this was not just any birth. This was my birth, into this period of history, anyway. The skies opened up and all manner of angels and supernatural beings awaited my arrival. There was no room at the hospital. Actually, there was no hospital at all. In our makeshift res shack, a cold draft blew, chilling my mother as she laboured. My father hauled water for my dear mother, but it caused her sickness when she drank, and it blistered my newborn skin, for the water was poisoned. I was born in humble circumstances, yes, but to my beloved parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, I was a treasure, for there is nothing more important to us than our children.
8) sickness and healing
“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.”
— Duncan Campbell Scott, 1910
Scent of a Beaver, Mixed media installation, 2016. Photo Credit: Kent Monkman
I remember the first catastrophes – the dark days of the epidemics; we had no resistance to the European plagues of smallpox, influenza and measles that ravaged our communities. Our numbers were reduced by three quarters; so many perished that those few who remained could not even bury our dead. Now the sicknesses of the body that stalk us have different names: tuberculosis, diabetes, HIV, AIDS, FAS. The sicknesses of the soul are many: far too many of our young people, growing up broken in the long shadow of residential school, are so bereft of hope that they take their own lives at horrifying rates. My heart aches for our missing and murdered Indigenous women – each one a sister, mother, daughter, friend. We remember their names, all one thousand five hundred, and we hold their spirits tight. We mourn for those of our men we have lost to violence, trauma, mental disturbance and despair. Entangled in the darkness of their afflictions, trapped in the chaos of addictions, they suffer alone in institutions. I visit my people to bring them the solace of our spirituality, that they may rise up out of this cycle of destruction, learn the language of their souls and be free once more.
9) Urban Rez
“We’re surrounded by violence here, self-inflicted violence, or violence by Indians to other Indians, or violence by whites to Indians. That’s Regina, and that’s Saskatoon for us, because we grew up like that. We try to be good, you know? But there’s sickness all around. You witness it. You participate in it in some way. But as an artist, I guess that informs your work, it becomes part of your work. And what comes out is life and death. Dashed hopes and beauty.”
— Floyd Favel, The Tunguska Project, 2005
Here in the cities, my people struggle. We have no space, we cannot see the horizon or feel the wind. Crowded into ghettos in these prairie and northern towns, broken and bleeding from the wounds of our parents and grandparents, we may as well be surrounded by the same concrete walls of the prisons. Too many of my sisters are stripped of their honour and grace by men who are afraid of the power of the feminine. I try to bring hope, some laughter, a respite from the crushing weight of poverty and violence that keeps my people from seeing the sacred within themselves. I show them who they truly are, my beauty reflecting theirs, but only some have eyes to see. The others cannot see our magic, they try to tell us it is not there, but they do not understand the power of Miss Chief and they sorely underestimate the resilience of our people.
Iron Horse, Acrylic on canvas, 2015. Photo Credit: Kent Monkman
Kent Monkman is a Canadian artist of Cree ancestry who works with a variety of mediums, including painting, film/video, performance, and installation. Monkman’s exhibition, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Canada, is on view at multiple venues throughout Canada this 2017. You can find his complete bio here.