Yowi – Priest Killer by David Kingdom (2010)
The term ‘intersectionality’ was first introduced into feminist theory by American feminist law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 paper entitled “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics” published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum. In her conceptualisation of the term, she used it particularly to “denote the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of black women’s employment experiences (Crenshaw, 1991, p. 1244).” She describes how the qualitative experiences of black women cannot be adequately described through traditional conceptualisations of the experiences of racism and sexism alone, but rather through the manner in which these systems of oppression and power intersect and consequently reinforce each other (Choo & Ferree, 2009, p. 8; Crenshaw, 1991, p. 1244). In this assertion, intersectionality demarcates the importance of the inclusion of the qualitative experiences of multiply marginalised individuals, particularly black women, in a manner which encourages an analytic shift from the mere addition of multiple independent strands of inequality to a conceptualisation which multiplies and transforms the experienced societal inequalities and unjust social relations through the emphasis on the complex manner in which these inequalities intersect and proliferate rather than layer the effects which they produce (Choo & Ferree, 2009, p. 6).
However, if intersectionality is understood as indicative of all societal interaction, it should be understood as a theoretical and methodological manner in which to assess the complex interactions of domination and subjugation between all social phenomena, not just that of a particular subordinated group (Choo & Ferree, 2009, p. 8). Here, specifically it can be understood as an analysis of the interactions of particular socially constructed systems rather than particular categories such as “racialisation rather than race, economic exploitation rather than classes, gendering and gender performance rather than gender (Choo & Ferree, 2009, p. 12.).”
In relation to this social constructionist conceptualisation of intersectionality, a more discursive definition of intersectionality is outlined by Lykke (2010) in Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing as:
[…] a theoretical and methodological tool to analyze how historically specific kinds of power differentials and/or constraining normativities, based on discursively, institutionally and/or structurally constructed sociocultural categorizations such as gender, ethnicity, race, class, sexuality, age/generation, dis/ability, nationality, mother tongue and so on, interact, and in so doing produce different kinds of societal inequalities and unjust social relations. (50)
In this conceptualisation of intersectionality there is particular emphisis on the interaction between the ‘power differentials’ inherent within sociocultural categorisations which underpin societal inequalities and unjust social relations. This is what Foucault terms “systems of power (Foucault, 1976, p. 381)” – the complex matrix of domination and subjugation formulated within hegemonic sociocultural power structures which are formulated along rigid binaries and necessitate the location of subjectivity within these constructed boundaries of that which it both produces and asserts. Here, intersectionality is a theoretical and methodolgical framework in which to analyse how hegemonic systems intersect to produce and assert societal inequalities, unjust social relations, as well as how individual subjects “negotiate the power-laden social relations and conditions in which they are embedded (Lykke, 2010, p. 51)”.
Perhaps one of the most relevant examples of intersectionality within Erdrich’s novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is that of Catholicism and Obijiwe spiritual beliefs which serves to inform and complicate the hermeneutics and intersections of ontoligical paradigms, spirituality, culture, gender, identity and sex within the narrative. An example of the intersection of Catholicism, Obijiwe spiritual beliefs and gender is seen in the life of Father Damien Modeste, who is a biological female fulfilling the role of a Catholic priest within the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse.
Within Catholicism, the ordination of women to any grade of order – deacon, priest, or bishop is considered a “grave delict”, along with “pederasty, collections of juvenile pornography and violating the seal of confession (Zagano, 2011, p. 103)”. Women are prohibited from ordination in the Catholic Church on account of “theological anthropology (Kalbian, 2005, p. 104)” – in which the Catholic Church argues that since sex has ‘appropriate roles’ dictated by biology and physical stature stemming from anthropological nature, it is reasonable to exclude women from ordination within the Church (Kalbian, 2005, p. 104). In this, men are imbued with the capacity to hold positions of institutional power and authority within the Catholic Church while women are ascribed ‘different roles’. Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholic theology held that women were subordinate to men; as Pope Pius XI proclaimed that “for if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love (Pope Pius XI, 1930, p. 15)”. However, in the post-Vatican II period, the Catholic Church has downplayed the subordinate position of women, as illustrated within the sentiments of John Paul II: “[B]oth man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image (Pope John Paul II, 1988, p. 6)”. Here, while the Catholic Church embraces a rhetoric of egalitarianism it is contradicted by its subordinationist views on the ordination of women. This so-called ‘theological anthropology’ underpinning the exclusion of women from priesthood, reveals the “rigid gender scheme (Kalbian, 2005, p. 10)” of the Catholic Church which views biological sex and gendered attributes as “natural, not socially constructed (Kalbian, 2005, p. 13)”. In this sexed construction, the Vatican is insistent on the femininity of the Church itself – ensuring a metaphorical heteronormative construction between ordained father (male) and mother-Church (female). Here, the exclusion from ordination of women in the Catholic Church ensures the ‘morality’ of sexual ethics within a heteronormative construction (Kalbian, 2005, p. 128).
Thus the position of Father Damien displays the intersection of gender and Catholicism as he a biological female fulfilling the role of a priest in the Catholic Church – an identity which is incompatible with the rigid gender scheme of the Catholic Church which does not view gender as constructed but rather sees gender and sex as interchangeable concepts. Furthermore, it presents a theological problem as it challenges the ‘naturalness’ of ‘God’s creation’ of humans as ‘male’ and ‘female’ and disrupts the heteronormative ‘morality’ of the church itself. However, despite the Catholic Churches decree regarding the position of women in the church, particularly that of the irreconcilability of being biologically female and receiving holy orders; when Father Gregory Wekkle tries to assert Agnes to a female subject position in proclaiming; “You are a woman… a woman cannot be a priest…you’re sacrilege” (206), she rejects his gendered assertion of her and restates her identity as “nothing but a priest” (206). In this, Father Gregory Wekkle attempts to re-inscribe a heteronormative framework onto the identity of Agnes, reflecting the position of the church regarding the ‘synonymous’ relationship between biological sex and gender but also to ‘normalise’ his sexual intercourse with her according to the heteronormative imperative – further inscribing the official doctrine of the church on its position regarding homosexuality. Her assertion of herself as “nothing but a priest” (206) suggests a rejection of gender dualism in favour of an androgynous or rather, an ‘incoherent’ subject position which according to Judith Butler in “Identity, Sex and the Metaphysics of Substance” from Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (2008), “fail[s] to conform to the gendered norms of “cultural intelligibility” (23).
This ‘unintelligible’ subject position outside the binary framework of a dualistic conceptualisation of gender is syncretised by Father Damien’s appropriation of elements of Obijiwe spiritual beliefs into Catholic orthodoxy. In the representation of the gender mixing of Father Damien (seen in the constant shifting from the identity of Father Damien to Agnes DeWitt), Erdrich evokes the historical Anishinaabe conceptualisation of a third category of gender identity which exists outside of “traditional Western understandings of male and female, men and women (Iovannone, 2009, p. 40)”.
This ‘third-gender’, often referred to in English as “two-spirit” or “berdache” is referred to by an array of indigenous names documented in “over 155 (Laframboise & Anhorn, 2008)” different Native North American tribes such as I-coo-coo-a (Sauk and Fox tribes), Agokwa (Ojibwa tribe), Hee-man-eh (Cheyenne tribe), Ougokweniini (Anishnawbe tribe), Winkte (Sioux and Lakota tribe), Ihamana (Zuni tribe), Nadleeh (Navajo tribe), Tanowaip (Shoshoni tribe), Kwidó (Tewa tribe) and Manly Hearts (The North Piegan tribe) (Paige, n.d.). In the novel, Erdrich uses only the Native North American terms Winkte and Wishkob and uses neither the term “two-spirit” nor “berdache”. The term “berdache” remains a term used by anthropologists, but is considered to be a European, racist slur, indicative of the history of colonial oppression of Native North Americans by European colonists (Paige, n.d.). In order to distance Native North Americans from the derogatory connotations of “berdache” as well as the reductionistic nomenclature of the LGBTIA+ community (such as gay, transgendered etc.), the term “two-spirit” was adopted during the annual intertribal Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference of 1990 as a calque of the Ojibwa phrase niizh manidoowag (“two spirits”) (Němečková, 2008, p. 35). Here, the traditional nomenclature of the LGBTIA+ community in terms of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, asexual and ‘other’ do not adequately describe the nature of “two-spirit” – a third category of identity which exists outside of traditional Western understandings of male and female. It refers to individuals who “partly or completely take on aspects of the culturally defined role of the other sex and who are classified as neither women nor men, but genders of their own, referring to gender variant roles, rather than a complete crossing over to an opposite gender role (Iovannone, 2009, p. 40)”, it is thus a “separate gender within a multiple gender system (Němečková, 2008, p. 40)”. It is because such individuals are not considered to be male or female, that they cannot correctly be categorised as “homosexuals” (lesbian or gay identities), nor can they be categorised as “transgendered” (although this is the closest term in LGBTIA+ nomenclature) as they do not have an incongruous sex and gender identity as Native North Americans regard them as occupying a natural and accepted gender identity and furthermore the nature of “transgender” implies a dualistic conceptualisation of gender – which is incompatible within the Native North American conceptualisation of multiple gender identities. In addition, the term “transgendered” does not communicate the important spiritual role associated with such individuals who are regarded as “emissaries from the Creator (Laframboise & Anhorn, 2008)”, sacred and gifted among all beings because they harbour two spirits (Laframboise & Anhorn, 2008). However, on account of European colonisation and the adoption of the ‘moralistic’ code of Christianity, the “existence of the two-spirit community has been systematically denied and alienated from their Aboriginal identity (Laframboise & Anhorn, 2008)” and as a result, two-spirit people are often viewed as perverted and have lost their relevance to Native North American American society.
It is this spiritual role of the “two-spirit” individual which Father Damien channels in the assertion of the identity of “nothing but a priest” (206) – a role which displays similar significant spiritual significance to that of the traditional role of the “two-spirit” person – arguably situating Father Damien as a hybridised subject, situated at the intersection of Catholic Orthodox views on the role of women and the Obijiwe cultural conceptualisations of gender identity. This syncretism is alluded to wherein Father Damien, in his letter addressed to the pontiff asserts that the “the ordinary as well as esoteric forms of worship engaged in by the Ojibwe are sound, even compatible with the teachings of Christ” (49). Here, the concerns of the text create a compatible relationship between Catholicism and Obijiwe spiritual beliefs/culture through a “complex web of borrowings, reappropriations, and transformations (Chapman, 2007, p. 149)”. This syncretic appropriation of Catholic Orthodoxy and Obijiwe spiritual beliefs is epitomised within Father Damien’s mingled prayer to both a holy figure from Catholic hagiography as well as to the central Anishaabe trickster god; “Saint Augustine, Nanabozho, whoever can hear me, give me a little help now” (266). This blending of Catholic hagiography and Obijiwe spiritual beliefs represents the intersection of Catholic hagiographic elements and Obijiwe spiritual beliefs within the novel. Here, St. Augustine and the central Anishaabe trickster god, Nanabozwe form symbolic representations for the complex identity of Father Damien/Agnes DeWitt/Sister Cecilia. The figure of St. Augustine forms a significant symbol as within Catholic hagiography as he is honoured for his “conversion from a former life (Catholic Online, n.d.)” – an archetype similar to the conversion of Agnes DeWitt to the priest Father Damien Modeste – labelled the “transfiguration of Agnes” in the first part of Erdrich’s novel. This labelling of the identity conversion as the “transfiguration of Agnes” moreover, alludes to the biblical transfiguration of Christ, wherein Christ transfigured into radiant glory upon a mountain and signifies the “point at which human nature meets God (Lee, 2005, p. 2)” – ironically also the point at which Agnes transfigures as she believes she met God in human form after the flood which took the lift of Father Damien Modeste I. The evocation of the Anishaabe trickster god, Nanabozwe is similarly significant as the figure of the trickster is a mythological figure who “shift[s] shape or gender (Hynes & Doty, 1997, p. 17)” – symbolising the gender mixing or ‘shifting’ of Father Damien/Agnes DeWitt. This, moreover, reveals the point of intersection between Catholic hagiography and Obijiwe oral tradition.
The intersection between Catholic hagiography and Obijiwe oral tradition is particularly illustrated within “wall of books” (198) that serves as a barrier between Father Damien and Father Gregory Wekkle. Here, the books represent the print culture of Catholic hagiography which is in opposition to the orality of Anishaabe culture. It is only when this “wall of books” collapses during the night as a result of Father Gregory Wekkle’s “dream-thrashing (Rowe, 2004, p. 207)” that they are brought together sexually. It is particularly significant that it is through dreaming that the barrier between Father Damien and Father Gregory Wekkle is broken down, a non-print mode of communication which is directly related to the unconscious and the orality of Anishaabe culture where the boundaries of language, like that of gender and heteronormative sexual ethics collapse. This break-down of the linguistic barriers within the realm of the unconscious through dreaming evokes the Kristevian conceptualisation of the “semiotic” which is closely related to the Lacanian ‘pre-mirror’ stage – that is that which is pre-symbolic and not constituted within a linguistic dimension such as dreams, emotions and music. Significantly, the Lacanian mirror stage heralds an important step in the process of ‘ego’ formation as the subject develops a unified selfhood (Olivier, 2005) – it is similarly through the “violation of the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church in terms its scriptural doctrines and its mission to convert ‘pagans’, like the Obijiwe that Father Damien discovers his true sacred vocation (Rowe, 2004, p. 208)”.
In the same way, it is through the interaction with the semiotic that Sister Cecilia transforms into Agnes DeWitt. Here, her piano performances of Chopin represent an “alternative economy of sexual desire (Iovannone, 2009, p. 61)”, situated within the pre-linguistic dimension of music. In her performance of Chopin, Sister Cecilia experiences a sexual climax:
One day, exquisite agony built and released, built higher, released more forcefully until slow heat spread between her fingers, up her arms, stung at the points of her bound breasts and then shot straight down…. she […] experienced a peaceful wave of oneness in which she entered pure communion… Chopin’s spirit became her lover. His flats caressed her. His whole notes sank through her body like clear pebbles. His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue. His pauses before the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane. (15)
This physical orgasm at the keyboard represents “Erdrich’s version of a saint’s mystical rapture (Chapman, 2007, p. 156)”and experience of ecstasy, however, in this instance the rapture is catalysed by Chopin instead of a vision of God. This representation of musical performance as erotic complicates the binary models of gender and sexuality in that the erotic mode of desire and sexual orgasm experienced through music is “not defined by a gendered subject (Iovannone, 2009, p. 61)” or gaze, but rather, the fluid and aural realm of music conceptualised within the Kristevian “semiotic”. The erotic nature of her performance of Chopin is described by Berndt Vogel:
It became clear … as the music slowly wrapped around him, that he was engaged in something for which he would have had to pay a whore in Fargo…a great sum to perform. (21)
It is perhaps this inclination toward the aural, fluid realm of music within the “semiotic” situated outside of the linguistic dimension that “predisposes Agnes DeWitt/Father Damien for the successful integration (Hein, 2009, p. 135)” into the Obijiwe community which itself exists outside of the realm of linguistic intelligibility of Euro-American and Catholic ontological paradigms. This fluidity perhaps alludes to Father Damien’s assimilation of the role of the “two-spirit” – a role which similarly exists outside of the realm of “cultural intelligibility (Butler, 1990, p. 23)” Furthermore, this fluidity presents a challenge to what Luce Irigaray in The Sex Which is Not One (1985) describes as the traditional monolithic masculine concepts of linearity, unity and oneness and subsequently problematises the ‘systems of power’ imbued within the doctrine of the Catholic Church itself.
It is then perhaps significant that Agnes DeWitt adopts the identity of Father Damien Modeste after he drowns in a flood and she is “washed away from her existence as a farmer and piano player into her new life (Hein, 2009, p. 139)”. Here, the motif of water represents her fluid identity which is beyond “cultural intelligibility (Butler, 1990, p. 23)”, but also serves to destabilise and transcend the binary framework constructed within the rigid doctrine of Catholicism which precludes the multiplicity and fluidity of gender identities and sexualities. Furthermore, it evokes the Christian sacrament of baptism by immersion in water – which signifies purification from original sin, admission into the Church as well as name-giving; much in the same manner in which Agnes believes she has been visited by the spirit of God in human form and renames herself as Father Damien Modeste shortly thereafter. This motif of the baptismal quality of water and its faculty for spiritual ‘rebirth’ through the transformation of Agnes to Father Damien Modeste with “new eyes” is described by Agnes in her letter to the pontiff:
I met the undertow, a quick dark funnel not visible from shore. It must have pulled me farther down the stream, for when I came up, I was floating swiftly, moving in a grand swell. The current crested at the surface and all I had to do was paddle lightly. Even in my swirling gown, it took almost no effort. My dress caught air and floated behind me like a wedding train. It could have dragged me under, but instead I was pushed along. Buoyant, I dropped fear, dropped worry, went beyond cold into a state beyond numb. The rush was so swift and strong. Blessed One, I now believe in that river I drowned in spirit, but revived. I lost an old life and gained a new. Memories resurfaced. Berndt’s square hand in mine. The careful baritone of his warm voice. Perhaps, soon, I would join him. Then again perhaps I would live. The latter prospect suddenly intrigued me. I looked at the banks as I swept by and I wondered why Agnes was sad in such a strange world. Things look different from the middle of a flooded river. In the flow, time is erased. I had new eyes. (41)
Herein, water serves as a metaphor for the spiritual birth of Father Damien – much like the breaking of water signifies natural birth. The old life of Agnes as a farmer and piano player is washed away and ‘drowned’ and she emerges from the water with a new identity – that of the priest Father Damien Modeste. In the symbolism of her “dress” being “caught in the air” and floating behind her “like a wedding train” and threatening to “drag her under” but instead being “pushed along”, Agnes describes how her new identity as Father Damien is free from the constrains of womanhood –as both Agnes DeWitt and as Sister Cecilia were, as women, outside of the patriarchal hegemonic systems of power, with Agnes being held up to the societal expectations and demands of marriage by Berndt and Sister Cecilia being denied the capacity to hold a position of institutional power within the Catholic Church.
The motif of water as a metaphor for the spiritual birth of Father Damien is brought full circle in his burial in water. Here, Mary Kashpaw, Agnes’s/Father Damien’s Obijiwe housekeeper and friend who is aware of his female biology, buries his body in water:
Towing her priest in his damaged rowboat, holes hacked in the bottom, she paddled out into the lake. She stopped where the water was of an anaerobic cleanliness, cold, black, and of an endless depth. As the sky filled with light, she watched the old heavy rowboat slowly fill and then sink. Father Damien’s slight figure, serene in its halo of white hair, lay just under the waves. As the dark water claimed him, his features blurred. His body wavered for a time between the surface and the feminine depth below. (351)
Here, once again, Father Damien lingers between the liminal space of masculinity and “feminine depth” – the incomprehensible location of the Obijiwe “two-spirit”. He is born from water and is returned to water – a reinscription of the Biblical assertion that men are born from dust and to dust they shall return. This cyclic conclusion of the life of Father Damien appropriately ends in the manner in which it began but also mirrors the manner in which it ended.
Thus Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse presents a multiplicity of intersections between Catholic religion, Obijiwe spiritual beliefs, culture, gender, identity, sex, Catholic hagiography and Obijiwe oral tradition illustrating the manner in which these intersections construct the interaction between these systems “not as a simple dialect, but as a complex web of borrowings, re-appropriations and transformations (Chapman, 2007, p. 151)”.
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