Representations of Gendered Violence in Monique Mojica’s Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots and Marie Clements’ The Unnatural and Accidental Women
It is widely recognized that Indigenous1 women living in White Settler Societies2 are overrepresented as victims of gendered violence, in both intra- and intercultural contexts (A. Smith, Conquest 170; L. Smith 146; Andrews 919; Brownridge 199; Allen 88; Kociumbas 77-8). For Indigenous peoples, sexual violence, and particularly rape, is a fundamental technology of the colonial project: when deployed in tandem with myths of racial purity and cultural authenticity and the enforced erasure of cultural memory through the residential school system3 and the child welfare systems,4 sexual violence functions as a material agent of genocide. Mindful of the connection between European colonization and the prevalent misrepresentation of Indigenous women in Western cultural production, this paper examines literary/dramaturgic efforts on the part of Indigenous women to resist the representational and manifest violence to which they have been subject both in historic and contemporary times. Despite colonial efforts to silence the voices of Indigenous women, today these “Word Warriors” are telling their stories through literature and drama (Allen 51-183).
Contextually analysing two seminal plays by Indigenous women of North America, wherein sexual violence is represented in a subversive manner, with women portrayed as active agents of resistance, I ultimately seek to elucidate the socially transformative significance of such representations. Monique Mojica’s Princess Pocahontas5 and the Blue Spots and Marie Clements’ The Unnatural and Accidental Women portray sexual violence as an embodied reminder of colonization and cultural genocide. Both works include resistant representations that serve not merely to memorialize colonial transgressions, but also to provide an avenue for individual and potentially cultural healing, whereby Indigenous women writers become self-defined subjects.
As Jo-Ann Episkenew notes, theatre is a “particularly attractive genre for Indigenous people looking for a creative outlet for their stories” (147). Theatrical performance has been duly acknowledged as a tool of self-representation in women’s social movements (Sethna and Hewitt 471). In both activist and literary sites, the staged enactment of personal narrative functions as a means for women to employ their own “accounts as sources of knowledge” (L. Anderson 34). These accounts constitute discursive sites of what Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson refer to as “coming to voice of previously silenced subjects” (27). The colonialist project of cultural erasure, through the removal of Indigenous people from their lands and the regular taking of children from their communities, directly attacks embodied continuity of memory. This project is closely allied with attacks on the hearts and bodies of Indigenous women.
Performing Indigenous histories representationally commemorates the past and, in doing so, helps to maintain cultural memory. The cathartic element of performance facilitates reconciliatory understanding of colonial destruction on the part of audiences. As Australian performance theorist Joy Hooton insists: no tale “has a greater chance of challenging the cult of forgetfulness” than the staging of an Indigenous woman’s narrative (Qtd. in Thompson 23-4). Theatre expert Mimi Gisolfi D’Aponte describes Indigenous “women playwrights as transmitters, as healers, and as transformers,” observing that Indigenous women’s dramaturgic writing “transcend[s] cultural boundaries, while simultaneously transmitting the essence of female victimization and survival of that victimization” (101). She ultimately argues that the final product, the show, allows for the “purging of pity and fear through witnessing tragedy in the theater” (101-3).
Some Indigenous women consider theatrical performance a “strategy for shaping a desirable future” (Battiste 212). Former artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Kuna/Rappahannock actor and dramatist Monique Mojica contends that dramatic representations of colonial violence can be “used to bridge the rupture, and impact on audiences, body to body,” resulting in a “transformation”; “When we make a decision to create from a base of ancestral knowledge,” she writes, “we confront the rupture, the original wound” (“Creation” 3-5). For Mojica, Indigenous women playwrights not only contend with colonial trauma, but envision new ways of “performing possible worlds into being” (“Creation” 2). Co-produced by Native Earth Performing Arts and Nightwood Theatre in 1990 and staged at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots is Mojica’s best known work.
In the play, Mojica focuses on the journey of Contemporary Woman #1 as she tries “to recover the history of her grandmothers as a tool towards her own healing” (136). The plot revolves around this search for identity, with the “blue spot” signifying “Indian blood” (141). Contemporary Woman #1 and her companion Contemporary Woman #2 travel through stories of other Indigenous women, both real and fictional. Their journey intersects directly with the enacted stories of four of these women, each of whom represent a group of women from history. Firstly, there is Mexico’s La Malinche, the partner of the Spanish invader, Hernán Cortez; secondly, the Woman of the Puna/Deity/Virgin of colonial Peru; thirdly, the First Nations wives of the fur traders in Canada; finally, there is Pocahontas herself, represented in various historical and contemporary guises.
In one disturbing scene, late in the play, the Contemporary Women discuss acts of violence inflicted upon Indigenous women of the past. The narratives combine in a fast-paced dialogue. Contemporary Woman #2 describes the horrific death of Anna Mae Aquash, the famous activist from the American Indian Movement, “beaten, raped, shot in the back of the head” (164). Following the unsettling story of Aquash’s murder, Contemporary Woman # 2 proceeds to relate the story of a thirteen-year-old Chilean girl who was interrogated and tortured “by inserting a live rat into her vagina” with the tail of the rat “connected to [... an] electrical shock system” (164). “And the rats,” says Contemporary Woman #2, “are really big in Chile” (164).
Such descriptions of sexual violence are disconcerting. However, the scene is not gratuitous and the placement of this crucial dialogue immediately before the play’s conclusion ensures that the coercive sexual violence involved in colonial takeover, and inextricable from the tales of all the women in the play, is brought to the forefront. It is necessary that the reality of the gendered violence to which each woman in the play is subject is made visible. Otherwise, the conclusion, in which Indigenous women Word Warriors are called to arms (168), might supersede the play’s message of anti-colonialism. While Mojica clearly intends that audiences respect the indomitability of her female characters, it is most pertinent that the pervasiveness of sexual violence in the lives of Indigenous women be properly conveyed.
Each of Mojica’s primary historical characters is the original mother to a mixed-blood nation, stigmatized by her own people as inherently degraded, but celebrated by the colonizer for perpetuating the destruction of her people. All of the play’s female characters are traded as property between men.6 Princess Pocahontas is “kidnapped,” removed from her family and left to die, with her “heart on the ground” (148). Despite this, Pocahontas provides her capture, John Rolfe, “with a son, and created a hybrid people” (149). The Quechua woman of the Puna/Deity/Virgin in the Andes is a conflation of “women who refused to become Christianized” with various goddesses, “Nusta Huillac, Tonatzin, Coyolahuaxqui,” and the Roman Catholic “virgins” they were “turned into” (136). She is the mother of Peru’s mixed-blood nation. As Mojica writes, “Of [her] membranes muscle blood and bone” Quechua “birthed a continent [...] whether she was [...] abducted or ran of [her] own free will to the Spanish miner/Portuguese sailor-man [...] creation came to be” (153).
The women in Canada who acted as guides, sexual partners and translators for the early colonists were the “daughters and granddaughters of the founders of this country” and they “birth[ed] the Métis” nation (160-1). Though they built “alliances with [their] bodies/loyalties through [...] blood” (158), the Indigenous wives to the early settlers were also objects of trade: “When there is no more to trade, our men trade us. Fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, trade us for knives, axes, muskets, liquor” (160). Sadly, the mothers of the Métis nation were eventually “discarded” in favour of European wives (161).7
The Métis in Canada were not subject to such disdain as the figure known as Malinali, Doña Marina, or La Malinche, in Mexico, referred to by her own descendants as “‘La Chingada’ – the fucked one” (136). Given to Cortez as “a gift. Passed on … Stolen! Bound! Caught! Trapped” (144), she is the archetypal mistress, the despised concubine, the mother of the Mexican nation. As she responds to a descendant who shouts abuse at her, “You are the child planted in me by Hernán Cortez who begins the bastard race, born from La Chingada! You deny me?” (143). Here, she forthrightly reminds her descendants of their genealogical connection to her and the historical importance of her position as mother of the nation. Subverting denigrating representations of Malinali, Mojica portrays her as a figure of strength.
The production of mixed-blood peoples who can be constructed by the colonizer as impure or inauthentic, “Not really Indian,” or “only half,” is integral to colonial success, as such peoples can be assimilated (K. Anderson 26). While condemned by their own people as corrupters or traitors, these mothers of mixed-blood nations have been praised by colonial entities as “Indian Princesses” (K. Anderson 101). Kim Anderson’s description of the cultural impact of the “Indian princess” myth relates directly to Mojica’s satiric representation of her as “Princess Buttered-on-Both-Sides,” Captain Whiteman’s “buckskin clad dessert” (146). As Anderson writes:
“Indian princess” imagery constructed Indigenous women as the virgin frontier, the pure border waiting to be crossed. The enormous popularity of the princess lay within her erotic appeal to the covetous European male wishing to lay claim to the “new” territory. This equation of the Indigenous woman with virgin land, open for consumption, created an Indigenous female archetype which, as Elizabeth Cook-Lynn has pointed out, could then be used for the colonizer’s pleasure and profit. [...] It is possible to interpret characters like Pocahontas, Sacagawea and La Malinche as strong Indigenous leaders, but the mainstream interpretation of these mythic characters is quite the opposite: Indigenous women (and, by association, the land) are ‘easy, available and willing’ for the white man, the ‘good’ Indigenous woman who willingly works with white men is rewarded with folk hero or ‘princess status.’ Racism dictates that the women of these celebrated liaisons are elevated above the ordinary Indigenous female status. [...] But not in their own communities. (101-02)
Mojica’s play explicitly aligns itself with the work of mestiza women including Gloria Anzaldua and Cherríe Moraga, Word Warriors who attempt to reconfigure the reputations of the mothers of the mestizas, degraded over time by colonial misrepresentations. Princess Pocahontas sets out to recuperate these historical figures from across the Americas as leaders, mothers, grandmothers and icons, liberating mestizas and Indigenous women to reclaim the legacy of their ancestors. In Princess Pocahontas, sexual violence is employed productively as an agent of collective recollection and cultural renewal, reminding readers/spectators of the strength of the mestiza foremothers.
Cree/Métis playwright and actor Marie Clements’ evocative and powerful The Unnatural and Accidental Women was first read for an audience in 1997 at the Women in View Festival, Vancouver. The initial production was staged at the Firehall Arts Center, in 2000. The play represents a series of femicides committed in Vancouver’s downtown eastside between 1965 and 1987, all by the same man using the same modus operandi. The women’s deaths were all ruled by the coroner, who found “no evidence of violence or suspicion of foul play,” to be “unnatural and accidental” (Clements 363). The play is both a critique of the systemic negligence by which the investigation into the women’s deaths was characterized and a reconfiguration of the tragic scenario. Like Princess Pocahontas, the conclusion portrays an audacious revenge sequence that offers a sense of hope for the future.
Instead of representing the women as mere victims8 of sexualized violence, Clements diverts focus from the horrific murders by endowing her characters with strength and humour, even in death. Unnatural and Accidental consists of short biographies of the women, with the family memories and surreal dreams of each interspersed throughout. By evoking the souls of the lost women on stage, blending the real and supernatural, Clements sensitively reveals the way in which each woman is overcome by colonial/patriarchal damage prior to being murdered. The centring of the play’s action in the consciousness of the women allows audiences to empathize most intimately. Rose, the play’s receptionist provides “an eternal connection between the women’s voices and worlds,” as she tries to connect the dead women with their living relatives (371). Rose is unable to connect as she herself is mysteriously murdered, leaving Rebecca, the female protagonist, to remember her story.
Rebecca is the daughter of Aunt Shadie, another one of the murder victims. Act I revolves around Rebecca’s childhood, as she uses her blossoming writing talent to tell the tales of the murdered women. The figure of Rebecca is metonymically aligned with the younger generation of Indigenous people, equipped to relate the tales of their ancestors. In Act II, Rebecca comes to understand the reason her mother abandoned the family. Aunt Shadie, married to a White man for years, came to feel “invisible in his eyes”; fearful of becoming invisible to Rebecca as well, she left her husband and child. “White is blindness,” utters Aunt Shadie, reminding audiences of the ethnocentrism at the heart of the White settler genocides (424).
A symbol of the continued impact of misogynistic colonial violence, the murderer appears at periodic intervals throughout the play. Gilbert Paul Jordan, the killer upon whose crimes the play is based, was a barber9 and, keeping with reality, Clements stages his lair as a barber shop. Before he kills Marilyn, one of his final victims, “He places a bottle between her legs and tenderly begins to braid her hair in one long braid. He suddenly grabs her braid roughly and takes his scissors to cut it”; struggling to the end, “She grabs it back in a tug of war” (380). In some Indigenous cultures, “long hair holds special significance” and wearing a long braid can be “considered performing part of Indigenous identity” (Fitzgerald 177). The barber’s cutting of the women’s hair suggests broader cultural destruction inflicted upon Indigenous cultures by colonialist patriarchy. Therefore, it is of particular significance that Marilyn refuses to give up her hair without a fight. While none of the women, with the notable exception of Rebecca, escape the Barber, they all fight vigorously to survive.
In the play’s final scene, the Barber tries to seduce Rebecca in his shop. The whole scene could be considered a dream or a projection of Rebecca’s writing. Rebecca discovers the braids of the victims in one of the Barber’s drawers: “She picks her mother’s braid up and buries her face in it and sobs” (455). Overt calm masking her internal rage, Rebecca seduces the barber into his own chair, shaves him and “braces” herself to “cut his throat” (458). The act of retributive vengeance, however, is performed not by the real Rebecca, but by Aunt Shadie and a whole chorus of the dead women now revealed as trappers.
Aunt Shadie, acting as the unofficial leader of the chorus of women speaks of her youth in northern Canada:
I used to be a real good trapper when I was young. You wouldn’t believe it now that I’m such a city girl, but before when my legs and body were young and muscular I could go forever. Walking those trap lines with snow shoes. The sun coming down, sprinkling everything with crystals some floating down and dusting that white comforter with magic. (88)
Following Aunt Shadie’s memory speech, Rebecca changes herself into a trapper as well, shifting to embody the image of the northern Indigenous woman. The heroine literally transforms, reconnecting with her mother so they might prevail over the common enemy, while the audience is invited to observe the melding of identities: old woman/young woman, predator/prey, victim/perpetrator. With the barber repositioned as “an animal caught,” Aunt Shadie becomes the hunter, as she “emerges from the landscape... [and] puts her hand over Rebecca’s hand” (458). The murder of the barber is the only killing shown on stage. After his death, Rebecca “hands each woman her braid” (458).
As the lights come up again on the closing scene, the dead women, all trappers now, sit at a long table under a slide that announces “The First Supper. Not to be confused with The Last Supper” (458). Despite the ominous connotations of Christ’s Last Supper, this supper is a joyous feast, one celebrating life. In the “Apartment area,” Rebecca and her policeman boyfriend are seen having a “romantic dinner” (459). The “Barbershop area” is lit, revealing the murderer now dead for quite some time (459). The final sound effect is that of “a tree hitting the ground with a loud thud” (459). The murdering man is dead – “thud” – and the women have found resolution in the “happy hunting ground and/or heaven” (459). Rebecca has freed herself from mourning and found a possible future with Ron.
The final image of Rebecca and Ron seems to suggest that a loving relationship between men and women is possible if male violence can be overcome. The tragic story of the women’s deaths is magically transformed, while the love story implies future happiness. Maintaining a factual base, Clements gives the murdered Indigenous women an embodied presence that allows them posthumous agency. In reality, Gilbert Paul Jordan was only sentenced for one of eleven murders and released after serving a mere six years (see “Predator”).
Clements revises the story in a manner that empowers those women who lost their lives to Jordan. Because the playwright does not stage the murders of the women, audience attention is drawn to the hours before they were killed. To this extent, the play focuses on the women’s lives, rather than their violent and untimely deaths. The information that the women have been murdered is conveyed through a series of slides that reveal the coroner’s reports, all of which state that the women died of “unnatural and accidental” causes (363). Clements, like Mojica, manages to foreground the atrocity of gendered violence without demeaning the women involved. Both playwrights reconfigure trauma of the past, commemorating victims of violence, while simultaneously reinstating Indigenous women as figures of power and dignity.
Degradingly violent portrayals of women have functioned historically in the service of maintaining gendered hierarchies and reproducing patriarchal cultures. Such portrayals contribute to the perpetuation of rape and murder as the gendered and raced technologies of colonialism and ethnic cleansing, not emblematically, but materially and literally. Colonial texts have too often portrayed Indigenous women as hyper-sexual, irresponsible and impulsive. The propagation of these images reinforces discourses that inferiorize Indigenous cultures generally and Indigenous women particularly. It is expressly because of the reality of sexual violence that aestheticizations of this violence must be used very carefully and with a great deal of accountability.
Images of misogynistic violence are often disempowering for women, even when the female victim is portrayed sympathetically. Nevertheless, it remains crucial to combat the “politically charged strategy of forgetfulness” that has “characterized white settler history” with images that make evident the continued impact of “cultural dispossession” (Hooton Qtd. in Thomson 23-4). As Sherene Razack argues, it is impossible to “change the world and stop the horrors” without “first bringing them to light”; to wit, “If the solution is neither to stop looking nor to stop feeling, then it is clear that something else must accompany looking and feeling” (389). Eschewing colonial deprecation and emblematism, representations of violent trauma in Indigenous women’s plays act as reminders of the continued impact of colonization and cultural genocide.
Indigenous women’s testimonies regularly present revisionist historical accounts and empowering self-representations that deconstruct the detrimental ideological work performed by colonialist stereotypes. Mojica and Clements represent racialized and gendered violence as a material reality, but one which can be overcome by reclamation.10 What the works discussed herein suggest also is that within Indigenous women’s cultures in the Americas, writing, particularly writing for the stage, has become a mechanism through which Indigenous women can form coalitions, intertextually supporting one another.11 So too do these texts provide a medium through which métissage can be recuperated, not just as an emblem, but as a tool of resistance against colonial misrepresentation.
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Haskins, Victoria, and Margaret Jacobs. “Stolen Generations and Vanishing Indians: The Removal of Indigenous Children as a Weapon of War in the United States and Australia, 1870-1940.” Children and War: A Historical Anthology. Ed. James Marten. New York: New York U Press, 2002. 227-41. Print.
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Mojica, Monique. “Birdwoman and the Suffragettes: a story of Sacajawea.” Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots: Two Plays. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1991. 66-85. Print.
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Mojica, Monique, and Ric Knowles. “Creation Story Begins Again.” Performing Worlds into Being. Ed. Ann Elizabeth Armstrong, Kellie Lyon Johnson, and William Morgan. Oxford, OH: Miami UP, 2009. 2-6. Print.
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---. Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools: A Comparative Study. New York: Secretariat of United Nations, 2009. Print.
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Stevenson, Winona. “Colonialism and First Nations Women in Canada.” Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-Racist Feminist Thought. Ed. Enakshi Dua and Angela Robertson. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1999. 49-80. Print.
Thomson, Helen. “Aboriginal Women’s Staged Autobiography.” Siting the Other: Re-visions of Marginality in Australian and English-Canadian Drama. Ed. Marc Maufort and Franca Bellarsi. Brussels: Peter Lang, 2001. 23-38. Print.
Sarah MacKenzie is currently completing her second year of study as a Women’s Studies doctoral student at the University of Ottawa. She has an M.A. in Women’s Studies and a B.A. Honours in Classical Civilization and English Literature. Her research interests include postcolonial feminist theory, Canadian history, Aboriginal women’s writing in Canada and Indigenous theatre.
1. While I use Indigenous and Aboriginal interchangeably when referring to the Canadian context, I employ Indigenous alone to refer to other native populations. In Canada, the term Aboriginal refers to Indian, Inuit, and Métis people, recognized in section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982, wherein Aboriginal and treaty rights are affirmed.
2. It is true that European colonization impacted Indigenous populations throughout the world, but for the purpose of conciseness, this paper limits its scope to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. As the texts under analysis were written and published in Canada, the primary focus of the paper is Canada, with other nations considered secondarily.
3. The common policies of colonial governments concerning the removal of Indigenous children from their families for the purpose of institutional education is well documented. For a comparative analysis, see Andrea Smith’s Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools: A Comparative Study.
4. The child welfare systems, implemented in the mid-twentieth century, in America, Australia/ New Zealand and Canada, furthered the processes of assimilation initiated by the boarding school systems by placing young Indigenous children in state care. Such policies culminated in the production of what is today referred to as the “stolen generations” (Haskins and Jacobs 227).
5. In a well-known historical anecdote, Pocahontas, born Matoaka (1595-1617) of the Powhatan band of Virgina, is said to have saved the life of Englishman John Smith, by placing her head upon his own when her father, Chief Powhatan, raised his war club to execute him. For an interesting discussion of the Pocahontas tale, see Linwood Custalow and Angela L. Daniel’s The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History.
6. In Mojica’s Birdwoman and the Suffragettes, Sacagawea, translator and guide to the American Lewis and Clark expedition, is first a “[c]aptured. . . slave girl” to another tribe (69), and then “won gambling” (73) by a man who is “[w]ell known for raping Indian girls” (72). Later, her child is taken from her by Clark – in a deal with her husband – to be “educate[d]” (79) in the ways of the colonizer.
7. Cree scholar Winona Stevenson explains that “[m]arriages between French fur-traders and Indigenous women were initially common practice and, for a short time, became French policy” (51), yet as the fur-traders became increasingly comfortable with the landscape, “they depended less on Indigenous women and increasingly disregarded them as marriage partners” (55).
8. For the purposes of this paper’s arguments, the word victim is employed to descried individuals – mainly women – subject to overt or covert violence. A passive victim is a figure who is harmed, whether physically or psychologically, without mounting any apparent resistance.
9. The tale of the notorious “barbershop killer” has also been represented in film and television. The details of these murders were fictionalized in the first episodes of the television series DaVinci’s Inquest. Also, in 2006 Carl Bassai produced a film adaptation of Clements’ play.
10. Kim Anderson explains that “for Indigenous women, reclaiming tradition is the means by which we can determine a feminine identity that moves us away from the western patriarchal model” (157).
11. See, for example, the concluding scenes in both Mojica and Clements’ plays, in which real women Word Warriors are marshalled to arms against racialized gendered violence.