One area of the Kent Monkman exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery is titled Incarceration.
This large painting in the section depicts Manitoba’s own Stony Mountain Penitentiary founded in 1877. It is the oldest federal penitentiary still in use in Canada. In the painting wooden, puppet-like figures emerge from the prison, walk through the water and then come to life to take part in a dance or pow-wow on the other side of the river.
The wall adjacent to the painting features photos of Big Bear and Poundmaker, indigenous leaders who were incarcerated at Stony Mountain Penitentiary for treason after the Northwest Rebellion.
The exhibit includes this installation of Kent Monkman’s alter ego Miss Chief in a prison cell, on her knees, watching the sunrise and set through a window. She is holding a piece of braided sweetgrass in one hand and a feather in the other.
In his commentary, Kent says he wants to draw attention to the large number of indigenous people in Canada’s prisons, particularly on the prairies. At Stony Mountain penitentiary nearly 65 % of the inmates are aboriginal but indigenous people represent only 18% of the province’s population.
On the outer walls of the cell are pieces of artwork by prisoners and a set of letters written to Kent’s mother Rilla from a woman named Lisa Peltier, who is in prison. In one of the letters, she talks about her father Leonard Peltier and how she hopes President Obama will give him a pardon.
Leonard Peltier is a 75-year-old man who was convicted of taking part in the murder of two FBI officers at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. Pine Ridge in South Dakota is home to Wounded Knee, the site of a massacre of 200 Sioux men, women and children by the American army’s 7th Cavalry in 1890.
Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement and was part of a nearly three-year occupation at Wounded Knee. It tried to bring attention to the unfair treatment of First Nations people in the United States. A virtual civil war had broken out between the American Indian Movement and traditional First Nations leadership. The AIM said the leadership was corrupt. It was backed and supported by federal agencies including the FBI.
FBI officers came to Pine Ridge in 1975 to arrest a robbery suspect and were met with a torrent of rifle fire. Peltier was given two consecutive life sentences for his participation in the murders. Three other AIM members who went to trial for the murders were acquitted. Peltier maintains his innocence to this day.
Desmond Tutu, Jesse Jackson, Amnesty International, Robert Redford and Oliver Stone have all advocated for Leonard and asked he be released immediately from prison. Leonard is elderly and has health problems. His supporters maintain there were many errors and inconsistencies in the way his case was handled. Some of these are highlighted in Peter Matthiessen’s best selling book called In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.
When Barak Obama was leaving office there was hope he would give Leonard a pardon and Lisa, Leonard’s daughter refers to that in her letter to Kent Monkman’s mother Rilla. Obama decided not to pardon Leonard.
There is another case of an indigenous person’s experience with the justice system included in Kent Monkman’s Incarceration exhibit.
These handcuffs and leg irons are artefacts from Canada’s only lynching. Louie Sam was born in 1870 a member of the Fraser River Salish First Nation. When he was 14 he was accused of the murder of James Bell a shopkeeper just across the Canadian border in Nooksack Washington. Two men told the Nooksack sheriff they had seen Louie near Mr Bell’s store on the day of the murder and so the American sheriff came to British Columbia to talk to William Campbell the local justice of the peace at the time. On February 24 Campbell rode out to Louie Sam’s home and arrested him. He put him in handcuffs and leg irons. Louie was taken to the home of a hastily deputized local citizen named Sam York to spend the night. The next morning Louie was to go to New Westminster some fifty miles away to stand trial.
During the night an angry mob of Americans, who were in costumes- some wearing women’s clothing and others with their faces painted with Indian war paint crossed the border into Canada, stormed into the York house and captured Louie Sam. They hung him from a tree close to the U.S. border.
Although more than five thousand lynchings happened in the United States during the post Civil War period Louie Sam’s is the only Canadian lynching on record.
A subsequent investigation by Canadian authorities strongly suggested that Louie Sam was innocent and that the likely murderers were two Americans who were the leaders of the lynch mob. They were William Osterman, the Nooksack telegraph operator who took over Bell’s business, and David Harkness, who at the time of Bell’s murder was living with Bell’s estranged wife. Neither man was ever prosecuted.
It has been interesting to discuss the case of fourteen- year old Louie Sam with the teenagers who visit the Kent Monkman show. I ask them why they think Kent chose to include Louie’s handcuffs and leg irons in his exhibit.
Incarceration is just one area of nine in the current Kent Monkman exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. As you can see each area is rich in meaning and well worth multiple visits to explore. Hope to see you there.