by Thomas Macdonald
In “Stories from the Body: Blood Memory and Organic Texts,” Monique Mojica writes: “Our bodies are our libraries…Each injury, physical or emotional trauma, muscle imbalance, torsion of the spine, or overstretched ligament tells a story…Our bodies house a body of experiences as clear as tattoos on our skin” (16). Mojica delineates a direct relation between the body and the form through which stories are told. Bodies also constitute the stories of Mojica’s play Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots (1991). The Indigenous women characters are from disparate locales, but share common experiences of abuse and of rape. Their bodies tell these stories. In Mojica’s terms, material and structural violence are the ligaments of the play. Shared experiences of violence construct the content and narratives of the play, binding these women together within the play’s scope. Violence is inherent in how it is told: the language forms of the play, imposed by the colonizers, manifest and perpetuate sexual and discursive violence. This violence has material consequences for the bodies of Indigenous women and affects the stories that their bodies tell. Language defines and constricts these women, obfuscating their own experiences of violence and constructing an inherently colonial narrative. Mojica maps these acts in order to “provide an avenue for individual and potentially cultural healing, whereby Indigenous women writers become self-defined subjects” (MacKenzie).
The most blatant act of formal violence is the splaying of the body across the play through dialogue. The bodies of the Indigenous women are never coherent and whole in language; they are rather referred to in parts, as a collection of “feet” (Mojica 140), “necks” (141), “spines” (141), “legs” (144), “heads” (148), “backs” (151), and “hands” (161, 164). The recurrence of “vaginas” (154; 164) most poignantly manifests sexual violence. Traumatically split and estranged from the body in dialogue, the vagina in the play is the colonial tool that produced “mixed blood nation[s]” and through which colonizers made these Indigenous women “perpetuate the destruction of her own people” (MacKenzie). Malinche asks her mixed descendants:
“My blood cursed you with your broad face? Eyes set wide apart? Black hair? Your wide square feet? Or the blue spots you wear on your butt when you’re born?” (Mojica 143)
This catalogue of body parts is incomplete and anatomically unorganized, moving from head to feet to backside. The Indigenous body is at once intimately familiar and frighteningly disjointed to the characters in the play. The discrepancy is harrowing and traumatic. Contemporary Woman #1 explains:
“When I was born, the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck and my face was blue.
When I was born, my mother turned me over to check for the blue spot at the base of the spine – the sign of Indian blood.
When my child was born, after counting the fingers and toes, I turned it over to check for the blue spot at the base of the spine.
Even among the half-breeds, it’s one of the last things to go” (141).
While she delineates an intimate matriarchal line of corporeal succession, the body — the “neck,” “spine,” “fingers,” and “toes” — seems disassembled and precarious. The blue spots, “the sign of Indian blood,” seem endangered, subject to disappear, leading the women to compulsively “check for” them. Even her attempt to claim a definite line of Indigenous corporeality, a project whose urgency is evident in the anaphora of “when I was born,” results in the haunting estrangement of the body in language. The body is inseparable from lineage, story, and a history of trauma. This violence is understated but nevertheless amounts to a formal dismemberment within the play. Malinche, Contemporary Woman #1, and all female characters negotiate with violent discourses surrounding the Indigenous body in order to reclaim and heal it.
Rape is a violent and political act upon the body that is omnipresent, though rarely explicit, in the play. Rather, violence is implied through metonymy and metaphorical cue, while sexual violence is subsumed in language, manifesting the power relations and sexual politics that mark the body and the stories it tells. Margaret, for example, describes her time in captivity:
“So, we scrub the forts and warm their beds… and their beds… and their beds… and their beds” (159).
She conveys her experience of repeated sexual violence, which is displaced here in language. The displacement obscures the act of rape as “beds”; the implications for the body are clear, but the body is erased from the representation. The metonymy of “bed” instead becomes latent with that violence. In the repetition and ellipses, Margaret struggles to represent her experience and trauma in language. Language also denies Storybook Pocahontas the agency to represent her experience of sexual violence. She performs the narrative ascribed to her:
NO! (hands overhead, on knees) He’s so brave his eyes are so blue, his hair is so blond and I like the way he walks.
DON’T! (arms cradling Captain’s head) Mash his brain out! I don’t want to see his brains all running down the side of this stone.
STOP! (in the name of love) I think I love him.
Oooh He’s so cute. (147)
The obtuse and predictable narrative obscures her cries against her abuser (Arielle Shiri 11.9.2017). Her vulnerable exclamations become acts of heroism, displaced among the syntagmatic axis of the sentence. The colonizer’s imposition of language and a colonial narrative is violating and crushing. But the sexual violence that furthers the colonial project is inherent in those narratives.
The imposition of language is also an act of estrangement and entrapment. As Malinche explains:
“I wear the face of Malinali Tenepatl. I see the face reflected in the mirror. Mirror my eyes reflecting back at me. Reflecting my words. It is my words he wants you see…” (143)
His desire for her words is dubious, especially if language and the body are inextricable; “words” here quite literally stand in for Malinche’s “body.” The discrepancy between her conception of herself and her positions as translator and as Cortez’s victim is horrifying: She wears her face. She is estranged from her image and, doubled in the mirror, the representation of it. The successive repetition of the mirror is a form of reflection in itself. The mirror is doubled and broken; it is at once indirect object and verb, thrust together on either side of the period. The word is a broken signifier. Her syntax recoils upon itself. In her assonance and consonance, she strains to achieve meaning beyond the semiotic confines of individual words. But she falls short. She seems trapped within these reflections and repetitions. Through this language, she is unable to achieve undivided meaning and representation. Marie’s assessment of her labor at the French colonial settlement similarly demonstrates estrangement from language and subjectivity. Marie:
“So many moccasins!
1 pair of moccasins per day per man
divided by 4 women
times 15 men on a one-year expedition
equals 5,475 prs moccasins per year.
So many moccasins!
Une paire de moccasins par jour par homme, divisé entre quatre femme, ça fait également… so many moccasins! C’est à dire, 5,475 pairs of moccasins per year” (157).
Her translation highlights how arbitrary these semiotic language divisions are. This is especially evident in the lingual ambiguity of the number 5,475 and her transition between languages in the span of a single sentence. The translation is as transactional and mechanical as the labor she performs, and she is as commodified as the products of that labor. The languages also split her, as she becomes a machine that converts one product, one language, into another. She continues:
make moccasins / string snowshoes / teach them to
walk in the snow / make canoes […]
translate / navigate / build alliances with our bodies” (158)
“We,” meaning indigenous women, are formally estranged from the labor they perform. This formal arrangement calls attention to the act of labeling and assigning tasks, and the appropriation of these tasks into a colonial economic and language system. The slashes underline the rigidity of Marie’s labor and her estrangement from it. The imposition of language also entails an economic imposition, as Mojica equates labor within the colonial economic system with the labor of linguistic conformity in order to demonstrate the consequences of both upon the body of the Indigenous woman.
The contrast between the language of the Deity and that of the Virgin also manifests discursive violence:
I was the warrior woman
creator / destroyer
I wore a serpent skirt
between my breasts skulls dangle
ornamenting my power and
whetting your fear.
Of my membranes muscle blood and bone I
birthed a continent
– because I thought –
and creation came to be
Let me tell you then, how I became a virgin.
Separated from myself, my balance destroyed, scrubbed clean
made lighter, non-threatening
No longer allied with the darkness
of moon tides
but twisted and misaligned
with the darkness of evil
the invaders’ sinful apple
in my hand!” (152-154)
The Deity is nostalgic for a unity of thought and representation. Expressive dashes point to a careful delivery of her language, language that strains to convey the poignancy of this unity. Cause and effect, signifier and signified, are joined within a single couplet: “–because I thought – / and creation came to be.” They are meant to be a single unit, but necessarily split between lines in this language. Through expansive spaces and indents, she attempts to represent the magnitude of her former status through a language that relies upon a linear string of individual semiotic signs. This language defines binaries and rejects the unity of her dual role as “creator / destroyer.” The linguistic binary also splits her character. Through language, she becomes the Virgin. Here, expressive gaps and spaces point to a delivery of these lines that performs the violent imposition of terms to which she must conform. Within the new confines of this language, evident here in cramped lines, her words are ironically also “twisted and misaligned.” She becomes defined by a religious discourse that is incongruous with her understanding of herself. The enjambed “sinful apple / in [her] hand” demonstrates her estrangement from these discourses that now define her body. Discursive impositions have a material effect.
Male impositions in the play also deny women access to and expression through language. Twice does Lady Rebecca defer to the words of a man — “How cam’st I to be caught, stuck, girdled I’ll tell you,” she promises the audience before directly quoting the account given by Captain John Smith (148). He displaces her voice. She cannot herself articulate the processes and interpretations that have produced Lady Rebecca — as opposed to Matoaka, her indigenous identity — as a subject. She has internalized other impositions:
Lady Rebecca: I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen” (149).
This imposed preface occupies a large space in her dialogue, effectively silencing her. The quick succession of clauses and narratives quickens her dialogue. This thrust qualifies her ability to deliver language and convey meaning. Profuse and incomplete, this declaration points to her aggressive inculcation in it, and casts doubt upon her understanding of the language she recites. The preface looms over her succeeding dialogue, affecting her agency as a speaker and her capacity for expression. The troubadour is another male interpretive voice. His songs, as contrived units of interpretation, point directly to language choice and narrative formation. He sings:
“In 1607 the English came across the ocean –
in the name of their virgin queen
they called this land Virginia-O
In the gloom and silence of the dark impenetrable forest –
They might have died if it had not been
for the Indian Princess Pocahontas-O” (147)
His song is melodramatic and has clear sexual implications. The emphatic Os are arbitrary impositions. They make the name “Virginia” sound equally arbitrary, like a conglomeration of extra vowels and syllables. The clunky verse and rhyme scheme make the story predictable, packaging it for consumption and repetition. The song defines a story and circulation in which Pocahontas has no voice or agency. The Troubadour concludes:
“As for our dear lady, English climate did not suit her –
She never saw Virginia again,
she met her end at Gravesend” (150).
The sloppy internal rhyme is bathetic and disparaging. The Troubadour has sole interpretive power over Lady Rebecca’s death, packaging it deliberately so as to trivialize her death. Male impositions of language and interpretation upon indigenous women reflect, and are inseparable from, male abuse and sexual violence.
Clichés and kitsch also enact discursive violence through commodification and the obfuscation of meaning. They are superficial, lacking depth, so overused that they are meaningless. As the manifestation of settler perceptions of indigenous women, Princess Buttered-on-Both-Sides embodies both. Contemporary Women #1 and #2 sing:
“Contemporary Woman # 1: Princess, Princess!
Contemporary Woman # 2: Princess, Princess, calendar girl,
Redskin temptress, Indian pearl,
Waiting by the water
For a white man to save,
She’s a savage now remember –
Can’t behave!” (141)
This little jingle is commercial-ready, packaged for consumption. The calendar and the pearl are literal commodities. And as with the Troubadour, the verse is clunky and predictable. Little agency is assigned to Princess Buttered-on-Both-Sides. There is no unity or organizing principle in the rhyme or meter. Through the repetition of “Princess, Princess,” her character becomes slippery and indefinite. She is at once multiplied and divided, devoid of depth and definite presence. The repetition quickens the pace of the song and denies the character a fixed, stable identity. And while the title “princess” is conspicuous and exclusive, its repetitions render it further a cliché. Food is another kitsch commodity and cheap metaphor. It represents consumption and stands in for and trivializes the sexual appetite and violence of the colonizer:
“Princess Buttered-on-Both-Sides: Oh Captain Whiteman, you’re the cheese to my fondue
Be my muffin, I’ll be your marmalade.
Be my muffin, I’ll be your marmalade.
Be my muffin, I’ll be your marmalade” (146).
It becomes more meaningless with every repetition. The metaphors obfuscate the violence of the relationship between settler men and Indigenous women, making it literally palatable to settler audiences. The food items are falsely complementary and imply a symbiotic exchange between white colonizer and Indigenous woman that never existed. Even her name, Princess Buttered-on-Both-Sides, confuses consumption, commodification, and sexual abuse. The name suggests a flat surface, grossly lathered so as to become appetizing and slippery. Mojica proves, however, that Princess Buttered-on-Both-Sides is not as one-dimensional as the settler would believe. The first and last figures in Transformations 1 and 10, respectively, she and the Host significantly frame the interceding narratives. Though kitsch, the Princess encapsulates all the complexity, relationships, and dialogue of the Indigenous women whose stories and voices constitute the play. Princess Buttered-on-Both-Sides is the embodiment of the formal violence enacted upon Indigenous women. Her figure depends upon the sexual violence subsumed in the colonizer’s language.
Mojica does not simply display formal and discursive acts of violence in the play, she engages with them and undermines them. The Contemporary Women, in particular, represent a lineage and teleology. They draw these violent discourses through time and into the present. As Mojica specifies of Contemporary Woman #1:
“A modern, native woman on a journey to recover the history of her grandmothers as a tool towards her own healing” (136).
Moving through and in discussion with Indigenous women of the past, the Contemporary Women together interact with discursive violence. The Women are in dialogue with each other, endowing the play with a dialectical thrust that anticipates resolution. Ending the play in Transformation 13, the pair moves beyond the discursive violence of Transformations 1 through 10 and demonstrate the possibility of healing its afflictions upon language and the body. Mojica demonstrates that through sisterhood and active identification of formal and discursive violence, healing can begin.
MacKenzie, Sarah. “Representations of Gendered Violence in Monique Mojica’s Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots and Marie Clements The Unnatural and Accidental Women.” Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature, 2, 2, 2012, Web.
Mojica, Monique. Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots. Staging Coyote’s Dreams: an Anthology of First Nations Drama in English, ed. Monique Mojica and Rick Knowles, Playwrights Canada Press, 2003, 133-169.
Mojica, Monique. “Stories from the Body: Blood Memory and Organic Texts.” Alternative Theatre, 4, 2, 2006, 16-20.
Shiri, Arielle. McGill University, ENGL 313, 9 November, 2017.
Photo: “Magic Red Blue White” by Nancy Wood, https://www.behance.net/gallery/29693559/Magic-Red-Blue-White