Jim Denomie De-Colonizes Tonto and the Lone Ranger

Jim Denomie: Vatican Cafe

Jim Denomie: Vatican Cafe

So Tonto and the Lone Ranger show up at a truck stop called the Vatican Café. Jesus is there, and so is Elvis, of course. There's a priest with his pants down, and a few others. They're all lined up along the table like it's the Last Supper. Through the window, you see tanks and war and genocide. Meanwhile Elvis is taking a selfie, the Lone Ranger is working on a Rubik's Cube, the priest has an inappropriately placed banana, and Jesus is about to pray over the humble fish before him. Oh, and there's the punch line: Tonto, grinning, looks over to his right and asks, "What's good here?" 

Jim Denomie's painting, currently on view at Bockley Gallery, illustrates his knack for dark, subversive humor that is often aimed at colonization and other wrongs committed by European Americans on Native people. "Dialogues" takes several jabs at Christianity, one of the tools historically used to destroy Native culture in the Americas. By invoking priest pedophilia, Denomie's satire goes right for the balls. 

Perhaps the most controversial piece in the show depicts a priest who is forcing a Native youth to have oral sex with him, while a nun stands next to them with a bunch of bananas. A school and a graveyard are in the background, and there's a line of kids waiting for a turn. Communion speaks to both current scandals of sex abuse cases in the Catholic church and the historical abuse that happened in boarding schools across the country, where Native children were not only stripped of their culture and language, but at times were physically and sexually abused. 

"It seems Christianity has great fodder for commentary," Denomie says. 

Denomie is currently involved with traditional Anishinaabe spirituality, but that came later in life. When he was three or four years old, his parents moved to Chicago as part of the Indian Relocation Act, which encouraged tribal members to move off of the reservations into urban centers. After about a year or so, his parents split up, and he moved with his mom and siblings to Minneapolis. Although he would spend his summers on the reservation, "we weren't exposed to cultural things," he says. This included things like harvesting, spiritual practices, and his traditional language. 

Denomie did go to church occasionally growing up, but religion wasn't a big part of his life. In 1981, he got sober at the age of 34. One of his cousins, who had been part of a movement in reclaiming Native culture and spirituality, got him involved in going back to traditional ways. "She arranged my naming ceremony when I was 35," he says. "That should have happened when I was six months old." 

The movement toward de-coloniztion, Denomie says, is all about reclaiming heritage and learning the language and things that were disconnected through assimilating campaigns and boarding schools. While his grandparents spoke the traditional language, they didn't teach it to his parents, who could understand it but didn't really learn it. 

While he was a student at the University, Denomie got involved with the Native community more. He met a lot of young people who were going back and learning the language, and engaging in things like powwows and storytelling. "It just felt good to be there," he says. He remembers going to a powwow at that time, and listening to the drum, though he didn't have knowledge or experience about dancing. Still, it was a way for him to become more connected. 

For the exhibition, in addition to the Communion painting and The Creative Oven, which Denomie showed as part of his McKnight exhibit last year, most of the pieces in the show belong to his "Dialogues" series featuring the Lone Ranger and Tonto. He began the series four or five years ago, although the paintings presented in the Bockley exhibit are all new. The dialogues are a "great metaphor for conversations between mainstream and Native cultures," he says. They are a way to show both a Native perspective as well his own personal take on the world. Currently, he has about 15 or 20 dialogues conceived in his notebooks, so he has more paintings to come. 

In one of these pieces, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are riding on horses.  "You lied to me,"  Tonto says.

"Get used to it," the Lone Ranger replies. 

Denomie drew inspiration for another piece in the series when he was sitting in a hotel room a few years ago, and there was a story about the image of Jesus appearing on a piece of toast. He thought it was funny, so he made a sketch of the Lone Ranger discovering Jesus on his toast.

"How does it taste?" Tonto replies. 

"He could care less," Denomie says. "It's toast."

The work is about Christianity from a Native perspective. Even though some Native people are Christians, Denomie says that that just shows how "the assimilation campaign has been effective -- I guess that's more of a personal perspective." 

It's work that may very well offend some, but Denomie's arrow-sharp humor pierces generations-long trauma with a surprising freshness. 



The opening reception is this Friday, November 7 from 6-9 p.m.

Bockley Gallery

Through December 13