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The Noble Savage Was a Drag Queen: Hybridity and Transformation in Kent Monkman's Performance and Visual Art Interventions

Kerry Swanson

The idea of the North American Indian man – stoic, primitive, dark, Other – can

be largely credited to the epic paintings of celebrated 19th-century white European-

American artists whose work remains housed in the national institutions and galleries of

Europe, America, and Canada. In their romanticized landscapes of the New World,

colonial artists such as George Catlin, Albert Bierdstadt, and the Hudson River school of

painters mythologized the "dying" race of Red Men while propagating their own personas

as heroic adventurers in a wild, undiscovered land. The iconography created in these

works and those that followed, which depicted the Indian man as the doomed noble

savage, are among what the late Native theorist Louis Owens called the "hyperreal."1

These paintings gave birth to an imaginary Indian – the highly masculinized noble savage

  • that became the popular model for authenticity, challenging the identities of all those

who did not fit into this limiting construct. They created a mythology that cast the Native

people of the period, and therefore those who followed, as either brutal animalistic

warriors, or sad victims of Darwinian destiny. In a current body of work that is gaining

attention both in Canada and internationally, Canadian Cree visual and performance artist

Kent Monkman challenges this imagery, and the mainstream Christian version of history

perpetuated by 19th-century colonial artists, by appropriating their landscapes, language,

1 Louis Owens. Mixed Blood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998, p 13. Of mixed Cherokee, Choctaw and Irish heritage, Owens focuses on the theme of mixed blood identity in much of his writing, in which he disputes the notion of the "real Indian" and the imagery proliferated by this limited social construct. Owen's own life, cut short by suicide in 2002, was deeply affected by his inability to prove his Native ancestry, thereby branding him a non-Indian in the eyes of the American government.

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