Re-Imaging and Re-Imagining the Colonial Legend: Photographic Manipulation and Queer Performance in the Work of Kent Monkman and Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle
Kent Monkman’s 2006 series, The Emergence of a Legend, consists of five photographs depicting the artist as his alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Employing a threefold process of sexual, racial and temporal masquerade, and both imitating and undermining colonial stereotypes, Monkman’s work engages with the history of ethnographic encounter and documentation. This project implicates Monkman’s series in debates surrounding the intersections of Native Studies and Queer Theory as well as the persistence of colonial stereotypes. Ultimately, this paper argues that the work interrupts historical and contemporary power dynamics by photographically embalming the image of an updated and queered (in)authentic “Indian.”
At the entrance of The Triumph of Mischief, a retrospective exhibition of Canadian Cree artist Kent Monkman’s work, spectators were presented with a wall text entitled, “Wanderings of an Artist” and written by Monkman’s alter-ego Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle. Writing in the romantic and idealistic tone characteristic of early European explorers, Miss Chief declares her dedication to “the study and taxonomy of the European Male” and her aim eventually to produce “a gallery devoted entirely to the bygone splendour and nobility of their glorious European heritage.” ((Reprinted on interior cover of the exhibition catalogue, The Triumph of Mischief, Curated by David Liss and Shirley J. Madill, (Hamilton: Art Gallery of Hamilton), 2007. The exhibition toured Canada, stopping in five cities, from June, 2007 to September, 2010.)) Miss Chief inverts the historical dynamic of colonialism and, mimicking the language of colonial ethnographic discourse, she declares excitedly: “what a splendid contemplation when one imagines the European Male as he might be seen in the future, preserved in his pristine beauty and civility, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come the European Male in his classic attire, galloping his thoroughbred amid his fleeting herds of livestock.”
The ironic tone of the text draws attention to the absurdity of cultural preservation that seeks to situate entire peoples in a perpetual past as has been the case for the figure of the iconic Indian in North America. ((My use of the term “Indian” throughout this paper refers to the colonial construction of an Identity quite separate from the Native people to which it has been applied. As this is the term employed by Monkman in his construction of Miss Chief, I will also refer to her as an Indian. When discussing actual Native subjects, I will either specify the particular nation to which I am referring or use broader terms such as “Native,” “First Nations,” “Native American,” “Aboriginal,” or “Indigenous.”)) Miss Chief’s desire to construct a veritable game farm for the imagined “European Male” alludes to the duplicitous ideology at the root of colonial ethnographic practice that sought to capture and contain vestiges of “primitive” Native life ways while simultaneously enacting genocidal policies geared toward the cultural and physical eradication of Native people. Aligning the history of colonization with its contemporary consequences, the human zoo imagined by Miss Chief – a space separated from society, yet available for the dominant culture’s consumption refers to both segregation of Native communities in the North American reserve system and the fraught history of museological display.
Monkman’s artistic production, sometimes depicting and sometimes in collaboration with Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, directly engages with the historical construction of “Indian” identity in North America and its perpetual rearticulation in popular culture, entertainment and political policy. Specifically targeting the dual and contradictory program of extermination and preservation – assimilation and differencing – that characterized Canadian and American “Indian affairs” in the late 19th and early 20th century, Monkman and Miss Chief re-enact history in ways that level, reinvent or ironically reverse the playing field. While Monkman’s artistic oeuvre includes painting, photography, film, performance and installation, this essay primarily considers his 2006 photographic series The Emergence of a Legend (Figures 1-5).
The collection consists of five photographs depicting Miss Chief in various poses and (dis)guises that both imitate and undermine colonial stereotypes. The images – tiny, tarnished, and made to look like antique daguerreotypes – interact with the history of colonial exploration, encounter and documentation. Despite their temporal remove from the historical context, the works engage with the history of colonial image-making and what Carol Williams refers to as the “photographic frontier” (7) that functioned to construct cultural and racial differences between Natives and European settlers that have persisted as stereotypes or imagined realities throughout the past two centuries. Highly theatrical and romantic, the photographs that make up The Emergence of a Legend are no less staged than those taken and disseminated by colonial ethnographic artists in the 19th and early-20th centuries. A threefold process of sexual, racial and temporal masquerade is employed in the images: Monkman is cross-dressed as Miss Chief; although of Cree ancestry, he is “playing Indian” in stereotypical and exaggerated costumes not associated with his specific tribal history; and the images are manipulated to appear ancient and – by extension – authentic. Through their ambiguous authenticity, the photographs signal the particularly precarious position of the Indian today who is commonly denied even the historical romance of the feathered fantasy and – if imagined at all – is subject to present-day stereotypes of delinquency or dereliction.
In my analysis of the series, I utilize Pauline Wakeham’s conception of photography as a “taxidermic representational practice,” and Johannes Fabian’s assertion of anthropology’s polemic denial of coevalness for cultures under ethnographic investigation and align the works with colonial discourses that functioned to fulfill frontier fantasies through the construction of an “imaginary Indian.” ((For a discussion of the “imaginary Indian,” see Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992) and Marcia Crosby, “The Construction of the Imaginary Indian,” Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art, Ed. Stan Douglas (Vancouver: Talon Books, 1991). )) Owing to the temporal trickery employed in the images’ production, I argue that The Emergence of a Legend participates in the fabrication of Indian identity through the imaging and embalming of an updated and queered (in)authentic Indian that insists upon acknowledgment of the creative license taken in the construction and exhibition of history while also taking action against it. Such a statement inevitably insists upon acknowledgment of what it actually means to “queer” Indianness – “Indian” being a queer and unstable conception as it is. By way of approaching this issue, I employ Elizabeth Freeman’s conception of “temporal drag” as well as assertions that the “Indian” was always already constructed as queer in relation to colonial heteronormativity. Acknowledging the recent work of a number of Native activists and academics who claim queer theory does not take into account the specificity of Native history and experience, I also consider arguments for the advancement of “Two-Spirit,” rather than strictly “queer,” critique.
The title of Miss Chief’s wall text, “Wanderings of an Artist,” is a direct reference to Paul Kane’s 1859 publication of the same name, and its curatorial inclusion functioned by way of explanation for the collection of objects and installations displayed in The Triumph of Mischief. ((Intended as a visual and written compendium of the life ways and practices of Native cultures, Paul Kane’s Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America: from Canada to Vancouver’s Island and Oregon through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territory and back again, was published in 1859 following the artist’s two journeys across North America in 1845 and 1849.)) A sparkling beaded teepee, transparent and suspended from the ceiling, occupied the center of the room, monumental landscape paintings and tiny photographs hung on the wall and silent films projected campy and homoerotic westerns on buffalo hides. Vitrines housed a pair of stilettos, a dream-catcher bra and a Louis Vuitton quiver. The entire space was set up like a national pavilion at a world’s fair. ((More specifically, the show’s organization mimics ethnographic artist George Catlin’s infamous “Indian Gallery” which toured Europe during the 1830s and 40s. The gallery, part lecture series and part theatrical entertainment, displayed artifacts, images and “real Indians” collected from the colony. See John Hausdoerffer, Catlin’s Lament: Indians, Manifest Destiny, and the Ethics of Nature (Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2009).)) The exhibition, in fact, crossed Canada in a tour reminiscent of the trajectory of North American colonial expansion – heading west and staking claim to gallery space in a handful of host cities. The retrospective staged a theatrical reenactment of “how the West was won” but with an alternative outcome. ((While the term refers specifically to a 1962 Hollywood Western, chronicling one pioneer family’s Gold Rush adventure, it is also simply a common and offensive inference of the Colonial ideology that viewed the defeat of Native peoples during the “Indian Wars” as a justifiable and proud stage in the grand narrative of North American progress. )) The show did not simply replace the victims with the victors and vice versa, but offered a camp and hybrid account of – or mischievous alternative ending to – the colonial encounter.
The Emergence of a Legend: Re-presenting the photographic frontier
From a distance, the five photographs that make up The Emergence of a Legend appear to be a collection of antique daguerreotypes imaging contact-era Indians, dressed in full tribal regalia and offering a romantic image of an unreachable past. Their diminutive size enforces an intimate engagement with the images and upon close scrutiny, the camp and contemporaneity of the subject matter is revealed. In each photograph, Miss Chief, actress extraordinaire, performs Indianness in recognizable, yet rearticulated, ways. Miss Chief, Hunter is a standard Miss Chief pose: she uses this stance to finally take down her European Male prey after an arduous process of tracking, trickery, pursuit and seduction. ((The pose directly references Monkman’s 2005 film, Group of Seven Inches as well as a number of his oil paintings.)) Miss Chief, Vaudeville Star, however, mimics a famous pose struck by the Wabanaki actor and dancer, Miss Molly Spotted Elk, who made a living from her Indian identity in the early decades of the 20th century (McIntosh 37). Cindy Silverscreen and The Trapper’s Bride lock eyes with the viewer and strike demure and passive poses and Miss Chief, Film Director, angles her look, but positions the camera directly at the target viewer. Miss Chief thus plays five different roles that amount to one identity – the “Indian.”
David McIntosh has suggested that, taken as a collection, the photographs present the “clear trajectory of Miss Chief’s relationship to mechanical reproduction… as she moves from object of photographic representation to simultaneous subject and object of her own photographic gaze” (37). While most of the images are constructed to fulfill scopophilic desires of contained exoticism, in Film Director, Miss Chief acquires the power to record and begins to upset the colonial dynamic that posits the Indian other as object of the ethnographic look. The film director’s power and authority is made evident in her war-painted face and confident posture – muscular shoulders squared with one hand on her hip and the other in ready anticipation to call the scene into action – as well as her veritable arsenal of directorial and recording implements. As mentioned earlier, the images are no less staged than any 19th-century studio shot would have been. The figure in each image is set against a faux backdrop, often a stage curtain, pastoral landscape, or indiscernible wilderness scene. The appropriation and inversion of colonial stereotypes, along with the deliberate damage to the images, paradoxically signifies their fake age and authenticity.
According to Carol Williams, the excessive images of colonial and Indian life produced in the 19th century effected a “photographic frontier” – a visual narrative of the history of contact, colonization and co-optation of Native land and identity in North America (7). While much evidence exists that the ethnographic images produced and disseminated during the process of colonization were staged, falsified and manipulated for effect, their continued circulation as collectibles and coffee table books is rarely accompanied by postcolonial warnings of unreliability. Whether or not these images are regarded as genuine, they continue to be romanticized in ways that suggest a common nostalgic pull for a lost moment in history: when the West was still wild.
Williams attributes this type of reaction to the conflicted position of the photographic medium, with its claims of truth telling and objectivity that have been – and continue to be – both destabilized and reaffirmed (4-7). Owing to the potential for manipulation in digital photography, the suggestion that photographs can be trusted to present a material vestige of something “that-has-been” (Barthes 77) is now typically viewed with skepticism and while this has forced a re-thinking of the medium and its popular perception, the lack of faith in the truthfulness of contemporary images arguably has contributed to the assumption of authenticity in relation to early photographs. The assertion that the potential for manipulation possessed by photographers in the digital age renders a “real” referent obsolete presumes analogue images and their precedents had no similar capability. Daniel Francis has argued, however, that “[p]hotographs have always masked reality as well as exposing it. The viewer never knows what is just outside the frame, or how the photographer has selected and posed the contents of the image to convey a particular feeling or point of view” (Copying People 2). Indeed, it is the case that photographic manipulation, creative liberty and the tampering with images are not at all specific to the contemporary age, but are hallmarks of the medium.
For example, one of the most infamous ethnographic photographers of the early 20th century, Edward S. Curtis, traveled across North America with the ambitious intent of securing a comprehensive photographic record of all North American Indian people (Francis, Copying People 2). Curtis, like most photographers and ethnographers of the time, was driven by a desire to record for posterity images of the “Vanishing Indian.” However, in his hope of visually rendering traditional Indians, untainted by colonial encounter, Curtis carefully removed all evidence of modernity or European influence from the picture plane and staged theatrical presentations of an imaginary Indian (Figures 6 & 7). Colonial photographs were predominantly taken in studios, then manipulated, painted or super-imposed over landscape images to provide an appearance of the subject in a more exotic setting. As early as the 1860s, commercial photographers had figured out how to capitalize on the desire for images of primitive Indians in nature and began utilizing a combined-negative approach in which a figure would be photographed in the studio and then that image would be merged with a landscape scene to make the subject appear immersed in the wilderness (Figures 8 & 9). ((In operation throughout the mid- to late-19th century, Canadian commercial photographers Hannah Maynard and Benjamin Leeson are the most productive exemplars of this type of photographic manipulation (Williams 20-21). ))
While it has not been proven that Curtis employed such elaborate techniques of photographic manipulation, he did use costumes and props to dress up his Native subjects as recognizable and real Indians. Reinforcing European preconceptions and stereotypes, the authenticity of Curtis’s props mattered little and they were spread indiscriminately over models from varying nations and tribal affiliations (Francis, Copying People 3). The market for these images, both within the new world and throughout Europe called for images of authentic Indians produced in the studios of commercial and ethnographic photographers. The Indian, as such, is thus a construction that has no material referent. “Indian” means something entirely separate from the Native peoples who posed for those images and were transformed into parodies of the “manifest manners” perceived by the settler community. ((Gerald Vizenor describes manifest manners of this sort as the constructed aspects of identity attributed to and performed by indigenous people that parody western constructions. Rather than signifying an actual being, the Indian stands for native culture; “it replaces the cultural real with its simulated reality” (Quoted in Yu 94). ))
In Time and the Other, Johannes Fabian argues that while anthropological research depended heavily on intersubjective communication with native interlocutors, the dominant strategy enacted following fieldwork involved a spatio-temporal distancing between the participants (30-31). Fabian deems this disavowal a “denial of coevalness,” to signify “a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse” (31, italics in original). The denial of coevalness thus functions to erase the presence of contemporary Native peoples by relegating them to an indefinable and persistent past. Rather than attributing such action to anachronism, which implies a mistake or accident, Fabian argues that the denial of coevalness is a politically charged process of allochronism, which refuses acknowledgment of the simultaneous sharing of space (32).
The anthropological trope of denying present existence to the Native through the construction and taxonomy of the ethnographic “Indian” is parodied in The Emergence of a Legend. Monkman’s drag disguises his contemporary Cree identification behind Miss Chief’s mask of ethnographic objectification to provide a series of images in line with the fantasies of frontier mythology. Appropriating common colonial techniques and over-indulging in the stereotypes attributed to the iconic Indian, Monkman-as-Miss-Chief highlights the carefully calculated and constructed scenarios that were offered to the (mostly non-Native) public as actual accounts of frontier life and “material vestiges” ((My use of the term “material vestiges,” comes from Susan Sontag’s 1977 On Photography in which she claims: “While painting… is never more than the stating of an interpretation, a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation” (154). )) of a vanishing race. Re-playing the common strategies of costuming and furnishing his subject with stereotypical attire and props, Monkman further manipulates the images to appear antique by wrinkling and tearing the photographic paper and moistening it to produce a moldy aesthetic (McIntosh 37). The result is a collection of photographs of an imagined Indian who most certainly never existed, but whose claims to authenticity can barely be considered inferior to the claims made by colonial ethnographic photographers. The temporal tampering at work in these images functions in two crucial ways: the incongruity between the physical appearance of the photograph as object and the clearly contemporary subject matter of the images work to reveal the photographs as 21st century productions. In addition, by aligning fabrication, manipulation and fantasy with an object that appears antique, the work effectively suggests that photographic representation and images of otherness must always be viewed with certain suspicions, regardless of their historic date of production. Indeed, Monkman’s strategic production and exhibition of present images as overtly “past” parodies the very process of allochronism that Fabian describes and insinuates the continued invisibility of Native communities and concerns in North America.
Taxidermic Photography: the macabre preservation of the Indian specimen
While the evidentiary power of photographs has largely been disproved by the introduction of increasingly malleable technical processes, I have argued that the contemporary hyper-awareness of such potential manipulation has served to wrongly imbue earlier images with more authority. This distorted hindsight has created false trust in early photography along with continually unchallenged assertions of the camera’s ability to halt, capture and preserve moments in time. As Peter Wollen, attests, “photographs appear as devices for stopping time and preserving fragments of the past” (76). The camera is understood as a mechanism for the capturing of instances and the freezing of fleeting moments in two-dimensional permanence. For this reason, it is not considered durational or subject to creative production, but, rather, it refuses temporality and renders time static. Once the shutter closes, time stops and the photographic subject, caught in the act, is brought to a standstill and held in eternal suspension. ((Despite the authority of claims made regarding photographic instantaneity, it is important to acknowledge that photography in the colonial period was plagued by lengthy exposure times. Discussing the “masklike quality” of ethnographic photographs produced by long exposure times, David Francis argues that “this simple technological imperative may have contributed to the stereotype of the grim, stoical, cigar-store Indian” (Francis, Copying People 2). In The Emergence of a Legend, Monkman further parodies both early photography and the stereotype of the “stoic Indian” in the stern expressions of Miss Chief. ))
Pauline Wakeham nuances and expands upon this common conception in her analysis of colonial ethnographic photography as a “taxidermic representational practice.” Relying heavily on film theorist Fatimah Tobing Rony’s use of taxidermy as a metaphor for the practice of ethnographic cinema that uses “filmic artifice to imaginatively reincarnate and preserve indigeneity on celluloid,” Wakeham extends the notion from metaphor to active logic and practice, arguing that “ethnographic film is not merely like taxidermy, it actively reinscribes taxidermic semiosis” (14). Transferring Rony’s argument to the medium of photography, Wakeham challenges the common assumption that unanimated stasis is the time of photography and asserts, “the taxidermic freeze-frame… suspends its object matter in the present through a form of dynamic stasis that appears to ‘arrest decay’” (94, italics added). While there is obvious danger in supposing a parallel between the post-mortem stuffing and preserving of animal specimens and the photographic depiction of Native people, it is precisely this unsettling connection that has instigated Wakeham’s argument. ((Wakeham describes the common motif of pairing taxidermied animals with mannequins dressed in traditional Native attire in ethnographic museological display. Wakeham argues, “the construction of animals and aboriginals as proximate bodies is indelibly marked by the colonialist hierarchies of race and species that position native peoples as evolutionarily inferior to the fitness of white supremacy” (4).))
The art of taxidermy developed and flourished alongside that of photography and both are thus historically linked to “the rise of colonial exploration and the related desire to collect and study specimens from distant lands” (Wakeham 10). According to Wakeham, the uncomfortable alliance between these two technologies of visual capture and preservation saw “the semiotics of taxidermy… transferred from the animal corpse to a new form of ‘specimen’: the racialized body of the native other” (87). Wakeham connects the development, use and philosophy of the camera to that of the gun and cites a 1908 article in the American journal The World’s Work: A History of Our Time, written by historian Edmond Meany and entitled, “Hunting Indians with a Camera,” which, as the title suggests, employs a series of sport-hunting metaphors and animalistic adjectives for the peoples preyed upon (89). Indeed, one can shoot with both but, while the one holding the weapon has the authority to stop time and freeze motion, the camera allows a further element of capture and control in the potentially permanent preservation of the image. Racist colonial ideology easily affected “a shift from the ‘ethnographic animal’ to the ‘ethnographic Indian’” (Wakeham 87), in which curiosity was coupled with capture and preservation deemed a noble counterpart to eradication. This analogy provides the ethnographic photographer with a dual function as “both preserver and predator of the ‘vanishing race’” (Wakeham 90), which mimics the arguably contradictory logic of the entire salvage paradigm and colonial project. On the one hand, assimilationists were erasing Native cultures through residential school teachings and laws forbidding traditional language, activities and dress. On the other hand, the colonizers were no less zealously collecting, classifying and commemorating the nobility and glory of pre-contact Indians. Thus, the theory and impetus behind taxidermy, “a posture that purports to preserve and to monumentalize, to defeat time” (Wakeham 125), is synonymous with the photography produced at the behest of salvage ethnographers and colonial collectors. Not unlike a taxidermied bird, frozen mid-flight or a wolf halted in an endless howl, the photograph can sustain in simulation the life and motion of a human actor: “Aboriginal others are frozen in simulated, supposedly lifelike poses that ironically inscribe the mark of extinction upon their bodies” (Wakeham 14).
Wakeham’s extension of taxidermic representation to ethnographic photography is indebted to Fabian’s argument against anthropology’s calculated denial of coevalness. The ethnographic preservation and exhibition of Native specimens is predicated on a subordination of the subjects imaged to a perpetual past figured in the teleological narrative of progress. Despite the important work of post-colonialism undertaken in the past three decades, the continued circulation of Indian imagery vastly outweighs the visibility of contemporary Native communities on the Canadian and American national and political fronts. ((The entire discourse of postcolonialism has, in fact, been problematized by Native artists, activists and academics. The argument is well articulated by Aboriginal Australian activist Bobbi Sykes who, when asked her opinion on postcolonialism, responded, “What? Post-colonialism? Have they left?” (Quoted in Driskill 70).)) In addition to the perpetuation of Indian images and effigies in tourism and popular culture, Native people today are denied even the false dignity afforded the historical caricature and saddled with stereotypes of an entirely different nature. Indeed, a series of experiments undertaken by First Nations artist Brian Jungen make manifest the predominance of prejudice against Native people in North America. Acting as unofficial ethnographer, Jungen asks strangers on the street to draw pictures of things they associate with Indians and exhibits the results as his Field Drawings. ((A version of Jungen’s Field Drawings was exhibited in the artist’s mid-career retrospective exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2005.)) Among the common historical clichés – dream catchers, headdresses, teepees and drums – are included a Lysol bottle and a can of beer (Rodgers 36). Not only are Native people denied contemporaneity by the incessant imaging of imaginary Indians of yesteryear, now even that romanticized stereotype has become outdated and anachronistic in the face of new prejudices. (( I would like to thank Christine Ross for bringing this anachronism to my attention.))
Art historian Jane Blocker argues, “the Indian is, in his own body, a museum. He is on perpetual display for a culture that views him as a walking artifact” (57). This quandary is only escalated for contemporary Native artists who, if not producing work easily deemed “traditional” or “tribal,” ((Fabian argues that terms such as these are further evidence of anthropology’s denial of coevalness (30).)) are given little access to the museum space. For this reason, it is not surprising that a number of contemporary Native artists have taken up institutional critique of the museum system as the subject of their work. In The Triumph of Mischief, Monkman directly engages with colonial display tactics of 19th-century traveling exhibitions and in The Emergence of a Legend he infiltrates the salvage paradigm of ethnographic photography.
Monkman is not the first to encroach on the anthropological and museological terrain. One of the most profound critiques of the museological treatment of Native peoples in North America is Luiseño American artist James Luna’s 1987 performance, Artifact Piece (Figure 10), at the Museum of Man, San Diego. During the work’s exhibition, Luna lay in a museum display case, naked but for a beach towel breechcloth, for the duration of the museum’s operational hours. Still as could be, the artist appeared to be a preserved Indian corpse – a living taxidermic body – offered up for scientific or educational scrutiny (Blocker 56). A series of didactic panels described the source of his various scars and a collection of “Native artifacts” filled a neighboring vitrine: divorce papers, his college diploma, a picture of Jimi Hendrix and a pair of ceramic rattles. The entire display produced a “living diorama” that implicated both the museum and its visitors in the exploitation and consumption of Native culture, art and objects (Blocker 56). Art historian Charlotte Townsend-Gault argues that by “playing dead Indian… Luna made fools of his viewers,” who did not all immediately recognize the work as a parodic performance or biting critique of the museological system in which they were implicated (728). The fact that a human body could be displayed in such a manner without immediate uproar or acknowledgment of its impossibility speaks volumes to the persuasiveness of the anthropological denial of coevalness and its perpetuation in contemporary popular consciousness.
Making Miss Chief: Performance and the Practice of ‘Playing Indian’
Discussing Luna’s Artifact Piece in relation to the work of numerous other contemporary Native artists across North America, Townsend-Gault argues that such performances “mark a move from Native art as definitionally associated with Native stereotyping and epistemology to art that allegorizes a predicament, a state of being” (724). Rather than producing work that is recognizably traditional or tribal – with all of the primitivizing allochronic implications that go along with its reception – the work of contemporary Native artists who engage with historical constructions of Indian identity and its contemporary consequences is, according to Townsend-Gault, “stereotyped by its obsession with stereotypes, guilt and essentialism” (724). Monkman’s political and parodic drag performances as Miss Chief can be considered in relation to this community of North American Native artists who have (re)appropriated the image of the Indian and regurgitated it in excessive and extraordinary ways in order to illuminate its absurdity. ((The work of Luna and Monkman, along with Jimmie Durham, Rebecca Belmore, Brian Jungen, Edgar Heap of Birds, Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco are just some examples of Native artists who have employed parody, mimicry and institutional critique in the ways discussed by Townsend-Gault. Specifically critiquing the colonial construction of Native gender and sexuality, Monkman is also included in a community of queer Native performers with artists such as Lori Blondeau and Adrian Stimson. ))
Rayna Green argues that “One of the oldest and most pervasive forms of American cultural expression” is the performance of “playing Indian” (30). Similar to Wakeham’s conception of taxidermic representation, Green posits playing Indian as predicated on the destruction, disavowal or death of Native people, as the performance “depends upon the physical and psychological removal, even the death, of real Indians” (31). Tracing the earliest incarnations of such a performance to colonial curiosity and co-optation of Indian identity, Green acknowledges one of the most disturbing aspects of the activity to reside in the fact that not only did European colonizers and other settlers partake in playing Indian, but Native people themselves were expected to also play the part (30). While this is most clearly evident in the transporting of Indian specimens back to Europe for the entertainment of colonial audiences, or the display of “authentic Indians” at world fairs and in Wild West Shows, Native people were also asked to play Indian for the photographs – and later, films – which were then showcased and circulated as authentic portrayals of the dying race.
The perpetuation of the Indian image as simulacra for the contemporary Native person is another blatant example of the denial of coevalness, as it situates the living people parodied in another time – a suspended past (Fabian 31). One of the earliest and arguably most successful stages for such a playing out of the colonial encounter and the inspiration for the perpetual presentation of Indians as a particular type of Indian was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Touring North America and Europe for over four decades, the impossibly successful theatrical performances staged by the frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody began as a forum for the bringing to life of Cody’s adventures in the Wild West. Originally performed by a cast of wigged and feathered white actors with their skin painted, by the late 1870s, Cody began employing Native warriors released from military imprisonment (Warren 190). Like Curtis and other ethnographic entertainers, Cody costumed his Native actors to mimic the Indians of popular imagery, so that regardless of tribal custom, every Indian wore a Plains headdress, whooped and hollered the same war cries and greeted one another “with the upraised right forearm, saying ‘how’ in an abasement of the Sioux greeting ‘hau’” (Green 39). This arbitrary and imaginary Indian, romantically suspended in contact-era casting and made famous by Buffalo Bill became the prototype for the Hollywood Indian – the cowboy’s necessary nemesis, destined to lose the battle and vanish into a legend kept alive in westerns, Boy Scout training and the playing of “Cowboys and Indians” (Green 39-40).
Monkman’s drag persona, Miss Chief, mimics the image of the imaginary Indian so concretized in popular consciousness by the stereotypical caricature constructed in 19th-century scientific and visual culture and glorified in mainstream movies in the 20th century. More specifically Miss Chief is directly modeled on pop icon Cher, who, in claiming to be part Cherokee, capitalized on the popularity of Indianness during her “brilliantly orchestrated ‘halfbreed’ phase” (Liss 103). The title song of Cher’s 1973 album, Halfbreed, laments the hardship of a young girl accepted by neither her Native community nor white dominant culture as expressed in the song’s opening lines:
My father married a pure Cherokee
My mother’s people were ashamed of me
The Indians said I was white by law
The White Man always called me “Indian Squaw”
First performed on the stage of her popular variety show, Sonny and Cher, the narrative lyrics of the song are only one aspect of the artist’s carefully choreographed “half-breed” identification. Dressed like a Las Vegas showgirl performing Indianness, with her skin tinted an obnoxious orange shade, costumed in a dramatic feathered headdress and dazzling beaded bra-top, Cher straddles a Pinto steed, bareback and barefooted and belting out her purportedly personal tale of woe (Figure 11). Rather than exhibiting the sartorial and cultural history of the Cherokee Nation, the Indian aesthetic, adopted and expounded by Cher, is fabricated and fashioned after the Hollywood construction of Indianness. The infamous and extravagant war bonnet she wears is not a facet of Cherokee dress, but is culturally associated with the Plains Indians of America and specifically the Lakota nation (Green 37-39). While the headdress is not native to all Natives, this popular myth produced and proliferated by the movie industry worked to conflate all Native nations with a single Indian image.
In the production of his theatrical alter ego, Monkman appropriates Cher’s take on the movie Indian and highlights the “halfbreed’s” hybridity in his transgendered performance (Figure 12). As with the Cherokee, the Cree never wore feathered war bonnets, but Miss Chief exhibits hers proudly as both Hunter and Vaudeville Star. Similarly the beaded headband worn by Miss Chief, Film Director is not only incongruous with the artist’s cultural history, but is a direct reference to screen-styled Indians. In his documentary, Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian, Montreal-based Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond reveals that the headband was produced and utilized out of necessity in the filming of westerns. Diamond’s documentary traces the history of the Hollywood Indian through interviews with film scholars, actors and industry insiders who assert that the headband was employed to keep long braided wigs affixed to actors heads in high-speed horse chases and boisterous battle scenes. The decision to include the headband in the image of Miss Chief, Film Director is thus a calculated move to highlight the power of the culture industry to produce taxonomic types.
By mixing cultural signifiers from a variety of nations and bands, Miss Chief is clearly mimicking the practice of ethnographic photographers like Curtis and the directors of Hollywood westerns, and is making clear the fact that she is not performing Nativeness, but is playing Indian. In addition, Monkman further blurs the lines of identification by emphasizing Miss Chief’s gendered ambiguity. It is crucial to this project that Miss Chief be a cross-dressed version of Monkman, as the performance both complicates heteronormative colonial constructions of gender and demonstrates the fundamental hybridity of imagined Indians. While drag is popularly understood as the masquerading of one gender as another – and typically within a binary system of male/female – Miss Chief’s self-identification as Two-Spirit adds further significance to the performance by expounding her essentially queer consciousness.
Queer Performativity and the Indian Question
In “Queer Wallpaper,” Jennifer Doyle highlights the open nature of queer theory to both “bring sexuality and desire to the center of our attention” and question or experiment with criticism and scholarship in general (347). Doyle references Douglas Crimp’s assertion that a principle theme of queer criticism is “its investment not in the articulation and production of concrete categories of sexuality and gender, but in the very real ways that queer art… can cut across and dismantle the attempt to produce sexual subjects as inevitable members of a ‘type’” (347). It is in this sense that Monkman’s work engages with the ideology of queer critique. Monkman-as-Miss-Chief rearticulates the construction of Indianness with all its gendered and sexually stereotyped connotations. Monkman’s drag amounts to more than cross-dressing and the acknowledgment of the performativity present in all cases of gender identification, to reveal the ways in which gender and sexuality were produced and policed in specifically racial terms throughout colonization and contemporaneity. ((Chris Finley argues that heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy are fundamental to the logic of colonialism and must be acknowledged as such. He claims, “[t]aking sexuality seriously as a logic of colonial power has the potential to further decolonize Native studies and Native communities by exposing the hidden ways that Native communities have been colonized and have internalized colonialism” (33). See also Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005).))
In “Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations,” Elizabeth Freeman posits “temporal drag,” as a method of queer performativity that engages with queer theory’s dismantling of gendered and sexed types, but is also strategically associated with “retrogression, delay, and the pull of the past upon the present” (728). To highlight her point, Freeman articulates the divide between one’s identification as “lesbian” or as “queer,” asserting that “it often seems as if the lesbian feminist is cast as the big drag, drawing politics inexorably back to essentialized bodies, normative visions of women’s sexuality, and single-issue identity politics” (728). In contrast, Freeman’s notion of temporal drag signifies “a mode of embodiment” that can connect “queer performativity to disavowed political histories” (729). She argues that such an act of registering a sense of “chronotopic disjunctiveness” (Freeman 732) on the surface of one’s body can potentially articulate a “temporal-transitivity” that does not necessitate the destruction of historical signifiers of identity or political positions (Freeman 729). Temporal drag thus takes up the “multitemporal aspect of camp” to both reclaim the past and to highlight its effects on the present (Freeman 732). The retention of problematic and outdated stereotypes that threaten to impede the project of queer critique in temporal drag is not dissimilar from Monkman’s repetition of harmful racist tropes.
In both ideological and material ways, The Emergence of a Legend temporally complicates the construction of Indianness as well as Indian sexual identity. Through the reappropriation of cultural and social stereotypes left over from colonization and the amalgamation of such disparate signifiers upon the surface of a single body, Miss Chief is a multi-temporal and hybrid representational construction. I suggest that the employment of temporal drag can advance an understanding of the queer performativity at work in Monkman’s images which rely heavily on the manipulation of time and temporal significance. Further highlighting the temporality at play in the works is the antique costuming employed for the photographs as physical three-dimensional objects. By overtly faking the antiquity of the photographs as authentic and antique, Monkman essentially queers the production of images manufactured for ethnographic and entertainment purposes made possible by the outright denial of coevalness. Effectively dressing his photographs in temporal drag and taxidermically preserving the image of an alternative Indian, Monkman-as-Miss-Chief produces a form of visual and ideological time-travel that re-introduces the allochronic imaginary Indian into the present. Through a radical camp action, the Indian of the perpetual past is updated through her queer refusal of easily categorized gender, racial or cultural classification and thus enters the present, revealing the arbitrary assignment of identification and the absurdity of cultural construction, while also arguing against the physical and ideological policing of Native gender and sexuality.
Gendered stereotypes pervaded the colonial construction of Indianness and were predicated on the establishment and advancement of a national identity that asserted Native otherness as a threat to Euro-North American cultural cohesion. Fear-mongering was a common tactic that posited Native men as animalistically savage sexual predators partial to poaching white settler women for sexual satisfaction and enslavement. In addition, a fantasy of the sexual availability and flirtatiousness of Native women was propounded in visual and literary culture as well as political and popular consciousness. It has been persuasively argued that the trope of passive and easily penetrable Native women functioned metaphorically to justify the colonial occupation of Native land (Justice, Rifkin and Schneider 10). ((See also Rayna Green, “The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture,” Massachusetts Review 16.4 (1975): 698-714.)) Thus, in addition to the consequences of social stereotyping and representation, colonial practice resulted in a direct attack upon the gender identity and sexual lives of Native people in North America. Official colonial policy in Canada and America enacted a program to drastically reconfigure traditional Native gender roles and familial structures to conform to Euro-North American social ideals. ((Restricting hunting rights and forcing Native men into agricultural labor – a role assigned to women in many Native communities – and the attempts to enforce a heteronormative nuclear structure on Native familial relationships functioned to “destroy the core of matrilineal societies… and to forcibly reorient Native cultures to patriarchal property-based models” (Justice, Rifkin and Schneider 18). In addition, the establishment of missionary and residential schools that forcibly removed children from their cultural communities on the pretense of civilizing and assimilating the youth, undertook a program of re-education that included molding Native children to the heteronormative ideals of European society. See Celia Haig-Brown, Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2006) and Sarah De Leeuw, “Intimate Colonialisms: The Material and Experienced Places of British Columbia’s Residential Schools,” The Canadian Geographer 51.3 (Autumn 2007): 342.)) Indeed, Chris Finley argues, “heterosexism and the structure of the nuclear family needs to be thought of as a colonial system of violence” (32). Not surprisingly, the assertion of heteronormativity was, at its most blatant, enacted to eradicate any evidence of gender identification other than male or female, as these are conceived in Euro-American patriarchy (Justice, Rifkin and Schneider 18).
Although largely erased from the writing of history, Native communities were not all structured along a male/female binary system prior to colonization and were thus perceived as deviant by European colonizers. The unabashedly derogatory term, berdache – originating from a Persian title referring to slave youths, but extended to deride the position of “kept boys” in homosexual relationships – was applied to Native individuals who did not easily fit heteronormative categorization (Goldie 9). Berdache was employed by settlers disturbed by the unorthodox practices of some Native nations in which it was perceived that men would dress in women’s clothing, take on women’s roles within the community and often partake in “same-sex” coupling or marriage. ((The term same-sex does not necessarily apply to relationships involving Two-Spirit individuals as Two-Spirit always already destabilizes the construction of single sex (male or female) identification.)) The extraordinarily demeaning word has obviously fallen out of favor for contemporary Native people and has been most predominantly replaced with “Two-Spirit.” ((The term “Two-Spirit” was proposed by queer Native people in the 1990s as both a replacement for the derogatory term berdache and a displacement of anthropological authority that had functioned to define and describe Native people as ethnographic subjects. (Driskill, Finley, Gilley and Morgensen 34). ))
While Two-Spirit does not necessarily infer homosexuality, such occurrences became the defining characteristic for colonizers. Rather, a Two-Spirit person is characterized by the possession of both male and female characteristics or consciousness: “a personal subjectivity consisting of two spirits” (Gilley 127). Terry Goldie has argued that the greatest consequence of colonial aggression against such cultural practice is the rampant homophobia present within Native communities today and the lack of respect offered Two-Spirit individuals (10). While Two-Spirit positionality today has been reappropriated by a number of Native people – many of whom identify themselves as gay, lesbian, queer or transgender – the historic deference afforded Two-Spirit individuals prior to colonization has been fundamentally shaken. In much of his work with or depicting Miss Chief, Monkman engages with the history of colonial war waged on Native sexuality and gender. Miss Chief self-identifies as Two-Spirit and through her roles in performance and film, sets herself the task of educating people on the pivotal position of Two-Spirit individuals in Native history and contemporary cultural life. It is arguably through the adoption of Two-Spirit identification that Monkman-as-Miss Chief effectively queers Indianness.
In the first months of 2010, the interdisciplinary journal GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies published a special issue crossing the intersections of queer theory and Native studies. The issue as a whole develops a dialogue among scholars, artists and activists that challenge the striking lack of representation of Native people in queer theorization and even queer of color critique (Justice, Rifkin and Schneider 6). In the introduction to the issue, Cherokee activist and writer Daniel Heath Justice argues that the colonial rhetoric of North America enacted a project that essentially queered indigenous men from the outset, claiming that the “Indian of white fantasy, in all his dime-store musculature and eternal infantilized dependence is also, in the racist discourse of state, violently and insistently queered” (17). The colonial assimilationist program defended its treatment of the Native inhabitants of the north American “wilderness” primarily through a process of infantilism in which the threat of the Native other was tempered by a sense of pitied primitivism that justified settler benevolence bent on assimilating and civilizing the savages. According to Justice, this paradigm worked to fundamentally queer the Indian, by positing him as other to white colonial masculinity (20). At issue in this argument is the suggestion that the opposite of masculinity is not necessarily femininity, but immaturity. The boy is the becoming-man, but by existing in-process, he is fundamentally not man and thus queer. Chris Finley similarly posits the colonially constructed image of the Indian as fundamentally queer from the outset. ((Of course, Justice’s and Finley’s utilization of the term queer refers to a pejorative act on the part of the colonial institution that branded the Native population as fundamentally different and other and is thus connected to the strategic 1980s reclamation of the homophobic and derogatory term by the gay and lesbian community. )) Despite stereotypes of savagery, Finley claims that, colonial narratives necessitated a reading of Native men as weak and incapable of either controlling their women or regenerating their race (36). “Native men,” she writes, “are seen as sterile members of a dying race that needs a ‘genetically superior’ white race to save it from the ‘unavoidable’ extinction,” and are thus feminized, infantilized and queered by white colonial heteropatriarchy (Finley 36). In their claims that Native sexuality was effectively queered by colonial rhetoric, both Justice and Finley focus solely on the construction of the Native male. Indeed, Finley points out that if Native women were depicted as queer, the narrative would fall apart as it is dependent both on the Native man’s conceptual sterilization and the Native woman’s heterosexual desire for the white male settler to claim both her body and her land (36).
Considering Justice’s and Finley’s assertion that the Indian is always already queer, the question of what it means for an artist like Monkman to enact a practice of queer performativity is further complicated. Additionally, the argument has been made by a number of Native activists and academics that queer theory and even queer of color critique fails to acknowledge the specific historical and contemporary situation facing Native people across North America. Qwo-Li Driskill, for example, suggests that Native people have to “disidentify” with queer theory to some extent and proposes Two-Spirit critique as a viable alternative (79). ((Driskill is clearly referencing José Esteban Muñoz’s notion of “disidentification” as a modality for dealing with dominant culture that relies upon neither wholesale assimilation nor outright opposition, but rather allows the subject to both identify with and reject the dominant form in a process of subversion. See José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queer of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).)) Driskill claims, “queer too often refers to sexualized practices and identities,” whereas Two-Spirit focuses on gendered identities and experiences that sometimes, although by no means always, include sexuality (73). ((Brian Joseph Gilley has argued, however, that there is a danger to arguing that Two-Spirit identity primarily concerns gender (as it is culturally constructed) and does not adequately take into account sexual desire. Focusing on a conception of traditional gender roles, he argues, “fail[s] to recognize that mainstream dominant Indian society views Two-Spirit people according to broadly American notions about ‘homosexuality’ (128-129).)) Despite the potential benefits of Driskill’s program, it could also be problematic to apply such a culturally specific and historically loaded referent to a wide range of sexually identified and gendered individuals who would not necessarily define themselves as Two-Spirit. The terms Two-Spirit and Queer appear to be equally divisive and controversial within Native communities.
This issue is given extensive consideration in the recent publication, Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics and Literature of which Driskill is a co-editor. ((Driskill has effectively acknowledged this problematic in, “D4Y DßC (Asegi Ayetl): Cherokee Two-Spirit People Reimagining Nation,” an essay that includes interviews with various Native individuals who identify themselves as queer, two-spirit and/or homosexual.)) In the anthology’s introduction, the editors argue for the advancement of “Indigenous queer and Two-Spirit critiques… to disrupt external and internalized colonialism, heteropatriarchy, gender binaries, and other forms of oppression” (Driskill, Finley, Gilley and Morgensen 19, italics added). Rather than privileging one over the other, the authors argue that both the ambiguity of queer studies and the specificity of Two-Spirit critique can help to destabilize heteronormativity (19). “To interrogate heteronormativity,” they write, “is to critique colonial power,” and is thus integral to the imperatives of decolonization (Driskill, Finley, Gilley and Morgensen 217).
Performative practices such as those undertaken by Monkman incorporate elements of specifically Native historical and social identification into queer critique. By reclaiming Two-Spirit identification, Miss Chief insists upon the project’s pertinence to the specific history of Native people in North America. Furthermore, the medium employed in The Emergence of a Legend can be understood both as an act of queer performativity that illuminates the historical construction of Indianness and as a visual intervention in the established photographic frontier that directly confronts the temporally unsound system at work in colonial ethnographic representation. By undertaking a photographic process of documentation that depicts and disseminates an updated image of the Indian in similarly taxidermic ways as its historical precedents, Monkman-as-Miss-Chief evinces the temporal entrapment of ethnographic photography by producing contemporary images of a contemporary Native actor in a phantasmagoric past. Queering and subverting the process, he presents a subject historically and to this day denied access to the colonial narrative – a powerful, transgendered Two-Spirit agent who is both offered up for scopophilic consumption and furnished with the means to write and record from her own perspective.
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