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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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1. Native Voices   

1. Native Voices

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Chippewa Songs
- Louise Erdrich
- Ghost Dance Songs
- Thomas Harriot
- Black Elk & John G. Neihardt
- Simon J. Ortiz
- Leslie Marmon Silko
- Stories of the Beginning of the World
- Luci Tapahonso
- Roger Williams
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Louise Erdrich (b. 1954)

Five Ojibwa Indians: Man, Woman, and Three Children in Canoe
[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].

Louise Erdrich Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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