TORONTO, Canada — Indigenous artist Tank Standing Buffalo (Potawatomi, Black) never expected to be outspoken nor intended to share his experience inside Canada’s prison system through an animated platform.

As a young mixed-identity kid and the eldest of eight siblings, Standing Buffalo found himself on the wrong side of the law and incarcerated for two years. During this time, he was thrown into Tank Standing Buffalo photo by SEANTank Standing Buffalo (Potawatomi, Black). Courtesy Xstine Cook.solitary confinement — or segregation — for six months and was repeatedly abused by guards. It was an experience that ultimately led him down a path of redemption through art and reconnecting him to his spiritual roots. 

“At the time, I didn't realize I was being tortured. I thought that this was the way it was supposed to be,” Standing Buffalo said. 

“Routine beatings by guards, fear tactics and isolation were all part of being in segregation. Years later, upon reading about the long-term effects of prolonged segregation, which include depression and suicidal thoughts, I felt it was time to go back and figure out what happened to me.”  

Recently, Standing Buffalo was approached and commissioned by Calgary Animated Objects Society (CAOS), a nonprofit devoted to creative projects, and its artistic director Xstine Cook to tell his story. In conjunction with Quickdraw Animation Society and the Canada Learning Bond Program, which provides funding to low-income youth for post-secondary education, Standing Buffalo created a five-minute animated short film called “RKLSS.”

Earlier this month, “RKLSS” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival with the intention of shining light on the ongoing, inhumane treatment of inmates in Canada’s prison system. 

“Animation incorporates so many different art forms (like) storytelling and music. I wondered if I’d go off the rails, but Xstine was very encouraging,” Standing Buffalo said of his debut project.

A former tattoo artist who is color blind, Standing Buffalo’s short film is saturated with heavy shadows, vibrant colors, bold linework and overtly stylized characters that are interspliced with real-life photos from his past. His artwork pays homage to his fondness for horror and fantasy genres by delving into the horrific symbolism behind his experience. His humility and humanity are reflected in the artwork and the film’s storyline, as well as his connections to friends and loved ones.

Teaming up with her fiancé, Cara Adu Darko composed and produced original music, playing off of the cathartic nature of the film. Darko’s soulful sound is reminiscent of her Kingston roots with nods to reggae, jazz, ska and Motown. 

“RKLSS” presents the audience with a younger version of the artist drawing in a getaway car while his friends attempt a burglary and throughout a sequence of events are caught by police and sentenced to prison. There, Standing Buffalo reveals the truth behind the treatment of prisoners, even those serving for minor offences, and how art saved his life. 

“How have I survived when so many people I know have not? Friends depicted in the film died in solitary. Many of my past experiences make sense to me now that I understand what I was subjected to was not normal. I want to shine a light on my experience and, through my artistic expression, find some healing in what was a horrible time in my life.”

Solitary Confinement and Prison Justice Day on Aug. 10 is an important date for Standing Buffalo and supporters of justice reform. It commemorates Edward Nalon, a Millhaven Institution prisoner who spent 51 days in solitary confinement in 1974. Nalon died by suicide, and could not be saved due to faulty locking mechanisms. His story serves as a prime example of the mismanagement of the Canadian prison system. 

The film is dedicated to the memory of two of Standing Buffalo’s friends, Yvan Blanchette and Trevor Spooner. Blanchette’s brother J.P., a prison activist, is a featured character and provides voiceover work.

RKLSS short filmAn image from the short film “RKLSS.” Courtesy Xstine Cook.

In a statement, Blanchette said, “Fast forward 29 years, to 2003. My 27-year-old brother Yvan faced the same outcome as Nalon, after almost 12 months of involuntary solitary confinement without being formally charged. Same prison, same cell. Same emergency panic button malfunction when the guards found him. Same sad outcome.”

According to Prison Justice, a group of Canadian organizations for prisoners and justice activism, First Nation people made up 28 percent of all male inmates and 25 percent of all female prisoners in 1976, despite representing only 2 percent of the Canadian population. 

These numbers have increased since then. Indigenous inmates now make up one third of Canada’s prison population. According to The Guardian, “since April 2010, the Indigenous population in prisons has grown by nearly 44 percent, whereas the non-Indigenous incarcerated population has declined over the same period by 13.7 percent.”

Standing Buffalo feels fortunate that he was able to overcome his struggle, and he plans to continue raising awareness about issues Indigenous people face every day.

Support Independent Indigenous Journalism

Native News Online is an independent, Indigenous-led newsroom with a crucial mission:  We want to change the narrative about Indian Country. We do this by producing intelligent, fact-based journalism that tells the full story from all corners of Indian Country.  We pride ourselves on covering the tribes you may have never heard of before and by respecting and listening to the communities we serve through our reporting. As newsrooms across the country continue to shrink, coverage of Indian Country is more important than ever, and we are committed to filling this ever-present hole in journalism.

Because we believe everyone in Indian Country deserves equal access to news and commentary pertaining to them, their relatives and their communities, the story you’ve just finished was free — and we want to keep it that way, for all readers. But we hope it inspires you to make a gift to Native News Online so that we can continue publishing more stories that make a difference to Native people, whether they live on or off the reservation. Your donation will help us keep producing quality journalism and elevating Indigenous voices. Any contribution of any amount, big or small, gives us a better, stronger future and allows us to remain a force for change. 
Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous journalism. Thank you.

About The Author
Monica Whitepigeon
Author: Monica Whitepigeon
Monica White Pigeon (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is a contributing writer to Native News Online. She covers tribes throughout the Great Lakes region as well as Urban Native issues. She can be reached at [email protected]