Native Americans wearing thigh-high platform moccasins? A head dress made of pink feather boas? A recreated tipi decorated with Louis Vuitton suitcases and a chandelier? Kent Monkman, a noted Canadian artist, has used his native Cree heritage to create paintings, films, installations and performances that question and challenge traditional perspectives of native peoples. His artwork also addresses the strong gender roles associated with native peoples and overly masculine frontier cowboys. Jessica Lack, from The Guardian newspaper, noted of Monkman in 2008: “Funny and politically incisive, his injection of some Cher-like glamour into the heart of America’s butch psyche is like throwing a Versace wedge into an auto-repair shop.” Monkman’s alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, is a modern interpretation of a berdache or a two-spirit, a native person who fulfills mixed gender roles.
George Catlin first documented a two-spirit in his painting, Dance to the Berdache (1832-1839), in which a tribe is shown celebrating an individual wearing both male and female dress. Catlin and now Monkman have completely flipped the universal view of the warrior or noble savage. Miss Chief appears in Monkman’s paintings which usually depict a traditional nineteenth century landscape and figures representing or engaging in mixed gender roles.
So far, Monkman has been warmly received and reviewed by the art community, but it is unclear how other native peoples view his representations. Do Monkman’s interpretations actually challenge traditional masculine perceptions of native peoples? Is this method of art and performance too obscure and limiting for broader audiences? Should Monkman focus more on accurate historical representations such as that in Catlin’s work instead of using a combination of traditional and modern interpretation?