A True and Exact History of Queer Indigenous Sovereignty

Having collaborated for more than three decades across visual and print media, artists Kent Monkman (Fisher River Cree Nation) and Gisèle Gordon (settler) released their most ambitious work to date: The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle: A True and Exact Accounting of the History of Turtle Island. Miss Chief is Monkman’s alter ego, a sensuous, gender-fluid, time-traveling spirit being who frequently appears in his characteristically grandiose paintings as a touchstone and historical witness. For more than 20 years, Miss Chief has been part of the artist’s repertoire as a persona in performance interventions, photography, and film. Her memoir has long been rumored, and was well worth the wait. 

Spanning two volumes, both richly illustrated with Monkman’s paintings, The Memoirs is an exercise of queer Indigenous sovereignty. It neither shies away from the devastating reality of colonialism nor placates settler readers with a vision of reconciliation. Through wit, fabulation, and a clear sense of ethics, the work is anchored in ninêhiyawak (Cree peoplehood) and wâhkôhtowin (the relational bonds of kinship). 

Kent Monkman Compositional Study for They Walk Softly on this Earth PN.2021.076 24 x 36 Full Res JPEG
Kent Monkman, “Compositional Study for They Walk Softly on this Earth” (2022), acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 inches

Each chapter begins with the title in Cree syllabics, followed by an English translation. The books also include a glossary of Cree terms and highlight Cree usage in red throughout. A crucial intervention, the use of Indigenous language foregrounds the precise concepts, at times untranslatable, that make this a work of philosophy, history, and memoir all at once. 

The text is also rigorously annotated, with 344 endnotes in Volume One and 254 in Volume Two guiding readers to contextual information, oral history, and the names of Indigenous Peoples and places in their original language. These supplemental notes support the reader with a robust set of sources from which to navigate the breadth of Miss Chief’s recounting of the world’s history.

Drawing on the genre of colonial-era chronicles such as German explorer and soldier Hans Staden’s True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil (1557), The Memoirs upends conventional expectations of “truth” by fanning the common desire to maintain an uncritical faith in the written word. We know that Miss Chief is a constructed character, and yet, in the context of the memoir, we trust her because she bears witness to the colonial violence of the môniyâwak (white people), and never once loses hope in humanity.

After smallpox devastates community after community, she holds a former lover in her arms, in an inspiring act of tenderness. When the settlers see all life as a commodity to be bought and sold, she holds out for kinship, for love. When the people have forgotten their songs and language, she helps them remember. She helps the paskwâwi-mostoswak (buffalo) return home. 

Miss Chief’s narration leads to the inevitable conclusion that this is not only a singular telling of the history of colonial conflict across Turtle Island, but a project of shattering the illusion of settler perspectivism. The work is more than a history, for it is not circumscribed to settler conceptions of time and space. As in much of his oeuvre, Monkman inverts the settler gaze to reveal the fallacies of canonical art history, its lacunae and failure to engage with the material realities of Indigenous worlds. Here, Monkman’s background in representational art finds seamless expression in writing. Miss Chief tells us the story of Turtle Island not as a settler allegory, as in John Gast’s 1872 painting “American Progress,” but from the perspective of the land itself. 

However, Miss Chief is more than the voice of a personage or the residue of art history. She represents the interstices of Indigenous life, that shapeshifting, time-scale-slipping force that reminds us of our enduring strength in the face of such overwhelming violence. The recounting of the swindling politicians, drunk Indian agents, abusive clergymen, and unscrupulous land speculators; the memory of matriarchs whose care sustained generations; the land and its ebbing transformations. Miss Chief is all of that and more. Her voice echoes across time: I see you. I remember you.

In one of the most devastating chapters, “When They Took Our Children” at the center of Volume Two, Miss Chief bears witness to a scene that would repeat across Turtle Island for decades, in cities and reservations alike: A young girl, Agnes, is taken from her mother by a Black Robe (a priest) and sent to a work camp (a residential school), where she is shamed, abused, and taught to forget her Nêhiyaw identity. Miss Chief is, for once, speechless, though she manages to reflect: 

I had seen wars and terrible plagues, but this theft of our most precious gift, awâsisak, glowing sacred flames, our children, was a wound so grievous, so deep, and so elemental that it was splintering my thoughts, shredding my heart, tearing me from my human form.

The scene has been the subject of some of Monkman’s most powerful recent paintings, including “The Scream” (2017), “A Mother’s Grief” (2017), and “The Scoop” (2018). These works evoke the elemental shredding that Miss Chief here puts to words. In the context of the memoir, we understand the violence of the boarding school and residential school era in both the US and Canada as extending to the molecular level, a tear in the fabric of reality that undoes thought and form. This violence reverberates, and we are still feeling its effects today. 

Given that Miss Chief’s rivals in this moment of spiritual disaster are not just the priests, but the settler angels they have brought with them — she spars with these feathered beings occasionally — I cannot help but wonder about a debate between her and that other angel of history, the one Walter Benjamin theorizes after the 1920 monoprint “Angelus Novus” by Paul Klee. 

I will admit this is a perilous connection in these times. To invoke Benjamin here is to recall that the German Jewish philosopher died by suicide while fleeing the Holocaust. But to invoke Benjamin now is to bring into equal focus the genocide of the Palestinian people that is currently being perpetrated by the Israeli state, of which Benjamin was a critic and as South Africa argued in its recent case in front of the International Criminal Court. Miss Chief would certainly say: Free Palestine

Benjamin’s angel faces the past and turns away from the future in recognition of the ongoing catastrophe of history not as linear progress but instead, he wrote in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” as a “storm … blowing from Paradise.” This angel would find a sympathetic ear in Miss Chief, for whom time is elastic and who can “[pinch] the web of time to peer forward.” She peers forward, Miss Chief, but also backward, and is not encumbered by settler time, or Indigenous time for that matter. 

Unlike this angel, though, Miss Chief sees history as grounded in relations rather than time. She is history. She is its witness and its bearer, able to ground it in the Cree conceptualization of relations — the web, the interconnected network of all things, the sacred mystery. It is a set of commitments to place, to land, and to our responsibilities as kin to living in good relations. 

I fear the methodological intervention by Monkman and Gordon may go unnoticed because we have seen many great works of Indigenous history recently; scholar Ned Blackhawk’s The Rediscovery of America won the 2023 National Book Award for nonfiction. But these books are more than just works of Indigenous history and Miss Chief is more than a historian, more than a storyteller. She is âtayôhkanak, a spirit being, not an angel of history. 

We need to listen to spirit beings like her, those fabulous, piquant figures who exceed the bounds of settler imaginaries, whom settlers tried to erase but could not. It is that resistance that The Memoirs finally recalls: We have not been abandoned by the land and the spirits, despite the violence of the ongoing settler colonial project. Miss Chief reminds us not just that we endure, but that the brilliant, luscious future we desire is already in formation.

Volumes One and Two of The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle: A True and Exact Accounting of the History of Turtle Island (2023) by Kent Monkman and Gisèle Gordon are published by McClelland & Stewart and available online and through independent booksellers.

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