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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Louise Erdrich (b. 1954)

[7427] Linde, Five Ojibwa Indians: Man, Woman, and Three Children in Canoe—[“Typical Natives”] (c. 1913), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-101332].

Born in Little Falls, Minnesota, Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe of North Dakota. The Chippewa are also called the Ojibwa, or, in their own Algonquian language, the Anishinabe, both of which terms appear in Erdrich’s work. Erdrich’s French-Chippewa mother and her German-American father were teachers for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Wahpeton, Minnesota. Her maternal grandmother was tribal chairwoman on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. After attending Dartmouth College (where she studied under her future husband and collaborator, Michael Dorris), Erdrich received her M.A. from the Johns Hopkins University in 1979 and later edited the Boston Indian Council’s newspaper, The Circle. Erdrich also held a variety of other jobs, such as lifeguard, waitress, prison poetry teacher, and construction flag signaler, which she has said greatly helped her writing. The winner of numerous prizes for her literature, she has published both fiction and poetry.

In 1984 Erdrich published both her first volume of poetry, Jacklight, and her first novel, Love Medicine. The novel, a series of discrete stories spanning the years 1934 to 1984, is told by seven narrators and follows the relations among three Chippewa families: the Kashpaws, the Lamartine/Nanapushes, and the Morriseys. A number of Erdrich’s later novels, including The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), The Bingo Palace (1994), and Tales of Burning Love (1996), focus on various members of these same families and their lives in and around a reservation in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota. As do many writers of American Indian descent, Erdrich attributes her interest in literature in part to her cultural heritage. She has said, “People in [Indian] families make everything into a story. … People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break, and fall, it gets into you somehow.” Tracks (Chapter 2 of which was published as “Fleur” in 1986) is typical of her novels in emphasizing how events are always understood and told by people with particular points of view, with their own assumptions, quirks, and belief systems. The story of the powerful Fleur Pillager is told by the fearful and confused Pauline Puyat, who later in the novel becomes Sister Leopolda and acts as an antagonist to Fleur. “Fleur” (subtitled “Pauline” in Tracks) explores both Fleur’s power and Pauline’s self-deception.

Many of Erdrich’s novels are interwoven with characters or motifs from the Chippewa oral tradition. For the Chippewas the ultimate sources of existence were the manitos—extremely powerful beings who might be roughly characterized as spirits or gods that provided people with food (through hunting) and good health. In addition to Pau-Puk-Keewis, the Chippewa gambler, windigos, Nanabozho (the Chippewa cultural hero/trickster), and the underwater manito—all manitos from the Chippewa oral tradition—appear in Erdrich’s work. Windigos are cannibals made of ice or people whose insides are ice. In other novels in the Love Medicine series, we learn that members of the Nanapush family (including Fleur) may have gone “windigo” during starving times long ago. Nanabozho was important to Chippewas as hunters, and he helped Chippewa culture. Critics have argued that Erdrich’s character Gerry Morrisey is based both on this trickster/ cultural hero (hence his supernatural ability to escape) and on Leonard Peltier—the Chippewa hero and activist. The underwater manito could both save people who fell through the ice and drown those who wandered—one of the worst ways that a Chippewa could die. Fleur encounters the underwater manito and survives, which tells us something about her power.

Teaching Tips

  • Have your students write a character sketch of Fleur. Does she change or surprise us, or is she constant? At what point do we know that Fleur is different from the other characters in the story? What linguistic and literary devices does Erdrich use to call attention to this difference?
  • It may be helpful to fill students in on some background about Fleur and the stories that people in her community tell about her, such as the idea that during a starving time she went windigo or that she met with an underwater manito and survived. One ethnographer reports that the Chippewa of Parry Island say there are spirits everywhere, “or there were until the white man came, for today, the Indians say, most of them have moved away.” Ask students to consider what it means that Fleur maintains this close relationship to the spirit realm even in the face of white settlement. What role does the supernatural play in the story?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why is Fleur so threatening to the men? How do they respond to this threat?
  2. Comprehension: By the end of the story, who does it seem did the actual locking up of the men in the meat locker?
  3. Context: How are we meant to evaluate Fleur? How do the initial supernatural hints inform our feelings about her? What are we to make of her impossibly lucky poker playing? What is her relationship to her Chippewa heritage?
  4. Context: How are we meant to evaluate the narrator, Pauline? What are we to make of her rejection of the Chippewa, her assertion that she “was made for better”? Why does she not help Fleur?
  5. Exploration: What do you make of the fact that the story as originally published is “Fleur,” but that its appearance in Tracks is subtitled “Pauline”? If possible, read the novel to answer this question; however, you might speculate about this apparent interchangeability based simply upon the events and narration of the story.
  6. Exploration: Why does it matter that the main characters here are both women? You might think of the story as an exploration of the range of options that Chippewa women in 1913 had to exercise power. In that case, consider the varying forms of power that both women display and speculate on what you think Erdrich is saying about gender.

Selected Archive Items

[7178] Vera Palmer, Interview: “Erdrich and the Captivity Narrative” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.

Vera Palmer, a distinguished American Indian activist and scholar, earned her Ph.D. from Cornell University. In an American Passages interview she talks about Louise Erdrich’s poem “Captivity.”

[7427] Linde, Five Ojibwa Indians: Man, Woman, and Three Children in Canoe—[“Typical Natives”] (c. 1913),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-101332].

For the Chippewas the ultimate sources of existence were the manitos–extremely powerful beings who might be roughly characterized as “spirits” or gods. The Underwater manito could both save people who fell through ice and drown those who wandered. In Louise Erdrich’s writing, her character Lipsha has been told that his mother tried to drown him but he was saved, perhaps by the underwater manitos. Another character, Fleur, has similarly had encounters with the underwater manitos and survived. See also: Chippewa Songs. Louise Erdrich. Gerald Vizenor. Native American. American Indian. Love Medicine.

[7590] George Catlin, Sha-Co-Pay (The Six), [Chief of the Plains Ojibwa] (1842),

courtesy of Tilt and Bogue, London.

“The chief of that part of the Ojibbeway tribe who inhabit these northern regions, and whose name is Sha-co-pay (the Six), is a man of huge size; with dignity of manner, and pride and vanity, just about in proportion to his bulk.”—George Catlin. This painting is one of 520 that resulted from an eight-year expedition during which Catlin visited over forty-five different tribes, participated in buffalo hunts, and observed ceremonies, games, dances and rituals.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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