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Spring 2004

Vol. 04, No. 2


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Tracking the personal impact of a noted North Dakota writer

Introduction

I've come to think that stories keep us as much as we keep them, and that the best narratives may have no real beginning or end. We go on, and the tales stay with us, their meanings reshaped as we move forward. Contemporary Native American literature has helped reform the continuum of history's stories, introducing elements that change the ways in which meaning is made. When progress is viewed through the lens of loss, when forgetting is met with continuance, the story inevitably shifts.

The stories that today's Native American writers tell have been there all along. They've been told, recorded, interpreted and lived. But in the last 25 years or so, those stories have circulated more widely. Perhaps after the contentious politics of the 1970s -- the occupations at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, for instance -- the political climate could accept Native voices. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which established a national policy to protect and preserve Native Americans' inherent rights to believe, express and exercise their traditional religions, helped open up an arena in which accounts told by people living those accounts could circulate more freely. Or, it could be that the world was simply ready for a more balanced chorus of voices.

Indigenous people have always told their stories; the telling is a form of preserving. But the space in which the telling takes place is broader now; it includes plays, poetry, films, essays, novels.

The writers who join Louise Erdrich as the leading voices in contemporary Native American writing include Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, N. Scott Momaday. They have much to tell any reader, and bypass categories linked to ethnicity or region; they are writers who have meaningful and memorable stories to tell. They have lessons to teach, as do Winona LaDuke, Thomas King, Linda Hogan, Diane Glancy. Poets Joy Harjo, Luci Tapahonso and Simon Ortiz, who write about contemporary life and its responsibilities, both cultural and political. Other Native writers have made marks with writing that includes critical scholarship: Ward Churchill, Louis Owens, Paula Gunn Allen, Vine Deloria, Jr.

In time, truth is validated in its own way. The truth that many of today's writers tell is one founded in cultural, ecological and spiritual survival. They write in a context of endurance, reminding each reader to remember, to celebrate, to continue.

With this in mind, Tom Matchie, who reminded me as a student of the magic of stories, gives us here a celebration of Native American writing and its evolution, which he has studied for more than 20 years. He brings his life's experience to explore Louise Erdrich's marvelous work, and shows us in the process the careful and meaningful relationship between stories and living. They sustain one another -- but most important, they sustain us.

-- Kathy Freise

In her fiction, Louise Erdrich creates a whole mythology, much as William Faulkner did with Mississippi in the 1930s, but Erdrich uses mainly North Dakota as a base. Her mythic world is built around the interaction of Chippewa and white cultures throughout the 20th century. Into this world she injects a whole coterie of characters who come and go in the different novels, and in the process she addresses issues of great concern to contemporary Americans. These include our relationship to the earth, the importance of religious commitment, expressions of sexuality, the place of gambling in society, the role of women in the church, and the meaning of violence, at home and abroad. Truly, she is as much a contemporary thinker as she is a uniquely beautiful writer.

Erdrich was born and raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota, the daughter of German and Chippewa parents. Today she is one of the leading Native American authors in the nation. I am a literary fan of Erdrich, and I believe she is making profound contributions to how America thinks about itself.

Her birth as a serious creative writer and mine as one who enjoys evaluating and teaching Indian fiction came at the same time. In 1984 she published Love Medicine, which immediately earned her national awards and placed her on the front line as a writer. Having published something on most of her nine adult novels, I want to review not only how she has evolved as a thinker and writer, but why she is so important to me, and I would hope to anybody curious about what Native Americans have to contribute -- aesthetically, politically, spiritually -- to the way we live today, and may want to live tomorrow.

Truly, she is as much a contemporary thinker as she is a uniquely beautiful writer...and I believe she is making profound contributions to how America thinks about itself.

I have a background not only as a teacher for forty years, but also in theology (ten years in the priesthood) and politics (ten years in the legislature), and I am amazed at the way Louise brings these three areas together. When Erdrich treats love, it is not about a list of virtues, or any ideal union. She puts it in a realistic context that is simply disarming. Love Medicine, for instance, framed as a series of stories that alternate between Fargo and a Chippewa reservation (in North Dakota that would be Turtle Mountain, though she later names it Little No Horse), as a whole focuses on what tears families apart, no matter their color, together with the essential power of love that heals.

At the heart of the novel is a gesture Lipsha Kashpaw makes toward his grandfather, who in trying to live like a two-faced white man, has made a mess of it. Lipsha as a young medicine man endeavors to bless the aging grandfather with a gift of turkey hearts, which turn out to be frozen rather than the real thing, and the grandfather chokes to death. What comes through is the phony things we do to cover our inadequacies. But even such a fault does not diminish the love Lipsha has for someone he cherishes. I think it is the irony inherent in Lipsha's symbolic gesture which epitomizes the genius of Erdrich -- and my attraction to her -- representing both our failure and triumph as human beings for whom love is so important, yet somehow so difficult to manage.

I grew up in a small family, with two brothers and a sister, living near Jamestown during the Depression. This might explain part of my attraction to a novel similar to Love Medicine entitled The Beet Queen. It's set in Argus (Argusville?) and it's also about the internal rhythms of family life at that time. I'm amazed at how Erdrich can modulate between worlds. This time three white children are deserted by their mother, who flies away with a lover, sending them to live with an aunt and uncle in Argus where they grow up to experience betrayal, jealousy, competition, and sexual abuse as they strive to survive as individuals. Ultimately, it is Dot, the Beet Queen, who flies off in an airplane, much as the children's mother did at the beginning. In the end, however, unlike that first flight, Dot returns to her part-Indian mother, Celestine James, who has stuck by her daughter through all her violent moods and antics. Dot returns for the love she could not find -- much less understand as a young girl -- but needed, and still needs, so desperately. What makes this story is not only the time and place, but without preaching or moralizing, Erdrich is able to put love medicine in a realistic context that is simply awesome.

One of my interests as a farmer's son has been North Dakota's soil, and that's the context in which I read Tracks, Erdrich's most political novel. It's about the land, but especially trees. It cemented my interest in the environment -- locally and globally. In Tracks Erdrich focuses on some key characters, including Fleur (meaning flower) Pillager, who seems to be part fish -- one with the water as she is with the earth. Her story is told by Nanapush, a Chippewa trickster, who is as funny as he is dedicated to Fleur.

His narrative is juxtaposed with that of Pauline Krupat, who earlier in Argus felt Fleur's love, but back at the reservation is a lonely soul who joins the convent as Sister Leopolda. Again, a person in need of love, she seeks her salvation in feigning whiteness in order to convert the Indians, while ignoring their own sense of what is spiritual. In the process she becomes one of Erdrich's psychological grotesques -- a caricature of what it means when religious people, however well meaning, undercut their own mission of understanding and love in the guise of self-righteousness. This is the author's most scathing critique of a Christian missionary spirit when it tries to convert the so-called pagan, who might have more to say about the significance of the land than the conscienceless entrepreneur.

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As a teacher at North Dakota State University in Fargo for more than thirty years, my favorite character is Twain's Huckleberry Finn. In the pre-Civil War days, Huck challenges the whole system of slavery through his love for a black slave, Nigger Jim. Erdrich appeals to me in a similar way in The Bingo Palace where she takes on a political issue, in this case gambling, through the vehicle of a young man's love. Here Lipsha has dissipated his life in Fargo, at one time making his way from the Metro Drug to a dumpster outside the Sons of Norway looking for his runagate father. Like Huck, naive yet perceptive, Lipsha is still growing up. Returning to the reservation for rejuvenation he falls in love with a jingle dress dancer named Shawnee Ray Toose.

Again, the book is about love medicine, not money, which is a difficult gamble in anybody's life.

Erdrich uses magic realism for the first time in Bingo Palace. Lipsha's dead mother, June -- whose spirit permeates many of the novels -- returns in a car to give Lipsha tickets by which he wins a van at the Bingo Palace. It is important to know that gambling has a long history in Chippewa culture where the context makes it good or bad, right or wrong. Here Erdrich juxtaposes gambling with -- what else? -- love medicine. In the novel Lipsha wins and loses his van and his girlfriend -- who chooses to go off to college. But the key to the novel is a vision quest Lipsha makes with his cousin and boss at the bingo palace. In a humorous episode on that spiritual quest Lipsha happens to sleep with a skunk. In his dream the skunk tells him "It ain't real estate," suggesting that Lipsha has to question his own motives of what is right or wrong for him in work and in love. Again, the book is about love medicine, not money, which is a difficult gamble in anybody's life.

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Nothing is more important to a college teacher than the discovery of new ideas, ways of viewing reality, a factor almost equivalent to Columbus' original sighting of America. That's the way I felt after reading Erdrich's Crown of Columbus, written with her husband, Michael Dorris, in 1992. As writers, Erdrich and Dorris were devoted to breaking stereotypes of all kinds, particularly relating to Indians, many of whom were taken as slaves by Columbus. The characters in the novel risk treachery, violence and the unknown as serious human beings for whom knowledge is not only abstract and academic, but experiential.

Erdrich's novels all deal with the quest for truth about many things -- history, race, gender, sexuality, religion, the environment, war and peace. For her, Columbus, in spite of his treatment of Indians, is the paradigm for such a quest. I think that, too, is a type of love medicine, and it's what underpins my own life as a teacher and writer.

Huckleberry Finn is my favorite novel, The Scarlet Letter is a close second. That's why I was surprised, but elated, when Louise published her most erotic novel, Tales of Burning Love. For me it is as important as Hawthorne's masterpiece as a commentary on America's preoccupation with sex. Burning Love is set in Fargo, and captures part of Fargo's history -- the blizzard of 1984 -- as it brings together many of the characters and themes of her earlier novels. In this one four women are trapped on 19th Avenue North in a snow storm and each tells of her marriage to Jack Mauser. The book is about relationships -- sexual, physical, psychological, spiritual, communal. In a sense it is Erdrich's contemporary Scarlet Letter, where each of the women is one of Hester Pryne's many selves. What emerges from the novel is an insightful, multi-faceted, tale of the many faces of love between and among adults. It is a non-judgmental treatise that is at once as real as it is penetrating, as the author combines the sexual and spiritual in a contemporary setting that is as convincing as Hawthorne's tale of love and sex 150 years ago.

As a teacher, one of the most challenging subjects, especially during the last twenty years, has been the role of women in society. For me, Erdrich has been a great help simply because her novels contain so many different kinds of women -- from the rigid Leopolda vs. the insightful Fleur in Tracks to the erotic Eleanor Schick vs. the professional Dot in Tales. But her most powerful statement on the subject is the characterization of the women (and men) in The Antelope Wife. Sweetheart Calico, the antelope wife, is fascinating. The setting for this novel is Minneapolis, where Erdrich now lives, and it begins with a former soldier, Scranton Roy, who with his own breast nourishes a child he finds on the back of a dog following the Sioux massacre in Minnesota in 1862. If he represents Erdrich's German heritage, the Chippewa side starts way back with Blue Prairie Woman, living an animal-like existence close to the earth. The novel is complex, involving many kinds of characters, male and female, caring and manipulative, as the two ethnicities -- German and Anishinabe -- come together. This book is Erdrich's most feminine statement, for Calico emerges as independent as she is tied to her roots, to the earth and to her very name as an antelope. This book is not just about genealogical strains, or passion in its many forms, but about the balance of what is masculine and feminine in all of us, no matter one's gender, or the relationship of the sexes. For this author the feminine is born of the earth, and needs its rightful place in the human drama.

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As a former priest, piano player (I gave a graduate recital in high school) and long time student of Indian history and culture (including visits to Turtle Mountain), I literally jumped for joy when I read Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. For me it juxtaposes a positive Catholic spirituality with that of the Chippewa people. Here a woman masquerades as a Catholic priest on the Chippewa reservation we know from Tracks. Agnes DeWitt, a former nun who plays Chopin on the piano, discovers the body of Father Damien Modeste after a flood on the Red River near Fargo and takes his place, posing as him, at Little No Horse. Here she comes under the influence of Nanapush, a Chippewa trickster whom she sees as "a priest's priest" because of his relation to the land, its people, and to Fleur.

Erdrich's novels all deal with the quest for truth about many things -- history, race, gender, sexuality, religion, the environment, war and peace.

The book covers nearly a century, during which Damien writes to the pope who wants to canonize Sister Leopolda. But Damien knows from the confessional (where she is bound to secrecy) that the nun is a fake. Not only is Leopolda's missionary zeal misdirected, but she has murdered Napoleon Morrissey, with whom she has had a child. Meanwhile, the pope's envoys to Little No Horse come to respect Damien, one of them falling in love with her, though she chooses her vocation as priest rather than as lover. In this tale Erdrich reverses many biblical myths, as when Damien plays Chopin, causing snakes (the principle of evil in Genesis) to rise up in praise, which says something positive about a divine spirit in all creation. At the end, Damien decides to take her own life on an island rather than reveal her true (feminine) identity which might scandalize the people she serves. Erdrich may be a critic of Catholic culture, but she is theologically sound. If the essence of the Gospel is love, that is a medicine Damien exudes. Though some might take issues with her "paganism," Erdrich is also quite Catholic in that she uses (sacramental?) images as a key to the divine.

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My final connection to Erdrich relates to something that's on everybody's mind today -- the Iraq war. Is it justified and are the effects worth it? Erdrich's latest novel, The Master Butchers Singing Club struck a sympathetic chord with me. Here Fidelis Waldvogel, a butcher like Louise's own grandfather, sells sausages as a means to leave Germany for America after World War I. In that war he served as a German sniper randomly killing American soldiers. As a butcher in Argus, he and his wife Eva raise four boys. At the same time he forms a singing club, uniting all the men of the community -- including a rival butcher, Pete Koska. In short, he turns death into a loving approach to life, though in his old age later in the novel he comes to see the process reversed.

The novel is filled with violence and intrigue, and in the end the family is split when two of the boys are taken to Germany by their Aunt Tante to save money during the Depression. Here they join the German army, where one is killed and the other -- to Fidelis' dismay -- remains loyal to Germany after World War II. In America, the other two boys join the U.S. Armed Forces, where one is maimed in an accident after surviving as a fighter pilot. As Fidelis' health and spirit fade, Delphine, the novel's central female character, remains strong, now balancing many people and events on her shoulders. She regrets America's sending boys to war where literally families are fighting against families. In this novel the author examines the history of violence, going back to Wounded Knee. But the book is mainly about contemporary families and two world wars. Recently Erdrich has voiced her opposition to the war in Iraq, but Master Butcher is a story from the viewpoint of families, where violence can be in the house next door, as well as on the global sphere. In any case, it undercuts the importance of the love medicine so basic to her prose. How can a nation so given to the ethic of love, she seems to ask, be so prone to violence -- in the past, present, and apparently into the future?

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For nearly twenty-five years Louise Erdrich has grown and matured as a novelist and poet. She has also written significant books for children and adolescents, like the Grandmother's Piegon and The Birchbark House. And she continues to write significant poetry, as with Jacklight and Baptism of Desire. Lately, she has produced other kinds of literature, like Islands and Books, where she reveals her trip to the Minnesota boundary waters with guide and baby, giving readers a taste of the Chippewa country she loves so much, indeed has mythologized in her fiction. Bluejay's Dance is an early biographical work and her latest effort is a series of biographical essays entitled Winter Reader, 2003-2004. She has also written numerous short stories for magazines and anthologies, all of which capture the poetic quality of her prose.

For this author the feminine is born of the earth, and needs its rightful place in the human drama.

But nothing is more important in my mind than the development of her art and thought which comes through her novels, starting in 1984. They are above all realistic encounters with issues that face all Americans, no matter one's politics or religion. If they are ambiguous at times, they make us think about ourselves, our failings as well as triumphs, our need for love medicine, and in her unique way what a Chippewa culture has to contribute to that end.


Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.