by José Goris M.A.

Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, on June 7, 1954. She is of mixed Native American descent; the daughter of a French Ojibwe mother and a German American father, the oldest of seven children and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Erdrich's large extended family lived nearby, affecting her writing life from an early age. In her adult life her husband Michael Dorris was an important literary influence. She met him at Dartmouth College, where he was a lecturer; they got married in 1981 and have five children. At present they are separated, and Erdrich lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her three youngest children. Later on, Doris committed suicide.

Her first and highly praised novel 'Love Medicine' (1984; revised 1993) is the poetic story of two Chippewa families living on an Indian Reservation. Their lives are closely connected and linked together. Each chapter of the book is written in the style of one of the characters, reflecting an individual point of view; the various chapters become parts of a colourful and emotional history of the lives of the Kashpaw and Nanapush families. The time span is five decades, from 1934 till 1984. Intertwined in the story are many other reservation residents, all of whom add their own personal contribution. Quite a few are told by the women of consecutive generations in the story, from a female point of view. The most prominent are Marie Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine; they stand out both because of their prominent place in the story and their curious connection to each other through Nector. They are very different personalities, have opposing interests, but their lives remain inevitably intertwined even in their old age. In the first part of the book the love triangle Nector-Marie-Lulu is the main focus. The relationships gradually become evident, secrets are revealed. Events are often retold elsewhere in the book from another person's perspective; as the book progresses the reader gets a full picture of the two women, their hopes and dreams and philosophy about life. In spite of their contention - or perhaps because of it- the two women are drawn to each other, as becomes evident after Nector's death, when a new triangle replaces the old through the person of Lyman. Lyman, Lulu's son, fathered by Nector, Marie's husband.

Underlying the story throughout the book is the connection and sense of the extended family that exists in the community. These family units, consisting not only of parents and children but also of other close relations such as grandmothers, grandfathers and cousins, come about quite naturally, but sometimes far from easily. In our modern, individualistic western world we may feel inclined to idealize the togetherness in this way of living; Erdrich shows us that there is not always a case for this sentiment. For the greater part it is the women who hold all aspects of reservation life together through good and bad times and bear the responsibility of an extra mouth to feed. In addition to housework, baking bread, washing diapers, skimming milk, looking after the children women often have chores on the land: milking the cows, helping with the cattle, assisting the men on slaughter days.

In the chapter titled 'The Beads' Marie Kashpaw relates how her niece June comes to live with her and her husband Nector after June's mother, Lucille, has died. Marie Kashpaw is very poor, has difficulties feeding her own children on Nector's small wages:

I didn't want June Morrissey when they first brought her to my house. But I ended up keeping her the way I would later end up keeping her son, Lipsha, when they brought him up the steps. I didn't want her because I had so many mouths I couldn't feed.

Marie's girl's name is 'Lazarre', she is not of full Indian descent; raised in the bush, she only gets to town for Sunday Mass and school. The convent, on top of the highest hill, attracts her, even if she only has a 'mail-order Catholic soul.' Marie is a strong person, who goes through life undaunted. This becomes clear when we see her in the convent to become a saint. Only fourteen years old at the time, she knows what she wants: to be the first Indian reservation girl to become a saint. She is not prepared for her stay in this convent, this 'catchall place for nuns that don't get along elsewhere;' she is 'ignorant...the length of sky is just about the size of my ignorance'. Yet she holds her own in the ordeal sister Leopolda puts her through: the scalding, the burns, the stabs in her hands, the humiliation. A vision of herself as powerful gives her courage: 'I was rippling gold... I could walk through windows.' It makes her persevere. Afterwards, she looks at herself with a sense of humour: 'Saint Marie of the Holy Slops! Saint Marie of the Bread Fork! Saint Marie of the Burnt Back and Scalded Butt!' This wry sense of humour in the face of disaster is one of her strengths. We see it again in her later life, during the crisis in her marriage when Nector is leaving her. Marie is proud of her husband; he is tribal chairman, their status is 'solid class'.

On the very day Nector leaves her - merely leaving a letter under the sugar bowl to inform her of this decision - she has gone into the convent to see Sister Leopolda after all those years, showing her how she has come up in the world. 'I would visit Leopolda not just to see her, but to let her see me...I had not been living on wafers of God's flesh, but the fruit of a man.' And now this man has left her, just as she has been bragging to her daughter that he could not keep away from her, and remembering with pride how she had 'snared him' at fourteen. This time she does not get her strength from a vision of herself as capable of miracles, but from her own self-confident view:

They would say Marie Kashpaw was down in the dirt. They would say how her husband had left her for dirt. They would say I got all that was coming, head so proud. But I would not care if Marie Kashpaw had to wear an old shroud. I would not care if Lulu Lamartine ended up the wife of the chairman of the Chippewa Tribe. I'd still be Marie. Marie. Star of the Sea! I'd shine when they stripped off the wax!

She trusts her impulses to get what she wants:

Then I thought very suddenly of what this Mary who was interested in holding on to Nector should do...I did what I never would expect of myself.

She never mentions that cursed letter to him, puts it back exactly as it was, but changes the place from under the sugar bowl to the salt pot:

I would never talk about this letter but instead let him wonder. Sometimes he'd look at me, I'd smile, and he'd think to himself: salt or sugar? But he would never be sure.

Marie is anything but a victim. She is an inventive, practical woman, good at 'taking care of things'. She does not waste time sorting out who is to blame for what, she simply takes her life into her hands and continues where they left off. We have seen how, as a girl, she takes pity on Leopolda, who has abused and hurt her; she now continues to be Nector's caring wife. She does not enjoy revenge, is truly above it and as she grows older, becomes at peace with her rival Lulu; she grants Nector 'his candy': 'He's like a child now. He's just got to have his candy come what might.' Marie is talking about the nature of his old age disease, it is true; but as Lulu points out, 'it might as well have been the times he visited his mistress', each week in the middle of the night. Nector's behaviour illustrates his mother Rushes Bear's philosophy: '... the woman is complete. Men must come through us to live'. He needs women to take his decisions for him, to drag him home from the pub, from his candy, to look after the children he has fathered. He is too indecisive to make a final choice between his wife and his mistress and he never considers the position he puts them or his family in. Marie is the moral winner in the triangle; in her old age she takes her husband's 'candy' into her care to nurse her and help her get back her eyesight. She comes to terms with the past as described in the discussion with Lulu about the eyedrops:

'There's a pattern of three lines in the wood... somebody had to put the tears into your eyes'... It was enough just to sit there without words. We mourned him the same way together. That was the point. It was enough.

Lulu Nanapush has a different history. She loses her mother at a young age and has an unsettled youth. She runs away from the government school several times, is punished for it, and finally returns to the reservation to live with her uncle Nanapush and his wife Margaret Kashpaw. She misses her mother in everything; she misses her laughter, her voice, her consolation, and the old language she spoke. Margaret is nowhere near being a mother to Lulu: she does not like the girl, she is done with raising children and Lulu is ' the last one in her way'. Lulu hates her, later describes her as 'a passionate, power-hungry woman'; she never forgets how hard it was 'to live beneath the stones of her will'. She turns to Nanapush for warmth and comfort:

I ran to Nanapush, buried my face in the cloth of his rough shirt, and breathed the woodsmoke and dried ink, the trapper's musk and sun-heated dryness of his old man's skin. I held him close, around his hard waist. I held him as near as I might a father, the pattern for all other men.

Indeed, we notice Lulu especially for her connections with men. She has eight sons, by different fathers; her behaviour is rather unusual in the reservation. She challenges conventional attitudes, has done so since her visit to Moses Pillager, be it unintentionally: 'in going to Moses Pillager I didn't mean to upset so many people'. It comes to her out of a sense of adventure and to 'disturb old Rushes Bear', but also to forget about Nector, her first love:

Some nights we'd talk behind the mission dance hall, and by midnight we'd have set the date. Then I wouldn't see him as the day grew closer. At length I knew he loved, or at least was taken up with, someone else.

Her stay with Moses is a combination of looking for intimacy, for sensuality; of a longing to be near him as a lover, but also to regain a sense of connection with her mother, a longing fulfilled by her pregnancy: ' I needed a midwife to guide me, a mother'.

Having to grow up without her mother has not prevented Lulu from becoming more and more like her; she becomes 'a Pillager kind of woman with a sudden body, fierce outright wishes, a surprising heart'. She simply loves what she sees; 'I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms'. The people of the reservation have a different interpretation, though; they see her as ' a cat, loving no-one, only purring to get what she wanted '. She is a determined woman, ignoring the gossip around her, living her life with her men and looking after her eight children. She can be very frank about her love life, as in the instance when she talks to Beverly about the strip poker game; the reader gets to see her as an actively sensual, feminine woman. At the same time she is a remarkable housewife:

Even with eight boys her house was neat as a pin. The candy bowl on the table sat precisely on its doily. All her furniture was brushed and straightened....She seemed to fill pots with food by pointing at them and take things from the oven that she'd never put in.

Lulu's way of living is liberated in some aspects, yet traditional in others. Like Marie, she devotes her energy to the household and children, and they both strive to keep their men happy. Their life stories connect with contemporary women's movement findings, which have focused on the role of women in society, scrutinizing the role of minority women, too. Indian women repeatedly deny their interest in, or need for, 'liberation'; they say they cannot afford the luxury of feminist goals such as building a career or study, because they must devote their energies to keeping the family intact. In 'Love Medicine' this makes sense; we see how both Lulu and Marie become emancipated women in later life, when their children are adults and Nector has died. As Lulu's son Lyman puts it, 'In marriage they fiercely raised their children. It was in age that they came into their own'. Lulu looking modern with make-up, high heels and low-cut dresses, Marie wearing baggy old-time skirts, with Nector gone they are both free 'to concentrate their powers'. We see Lulu active in politics on behalf of Indian Affairs. She is an independent woman, driving her own car and advising Lyman on his enterprise to set into motion a tribal souvenir factory. Modernization has reached the reservation, too; Lyman has worked up a machine to replace manual work, 'one worker operating this machine could produce, in a day, the winter's work of a hundred Chippewa grandmothers'. Both Lulu and Marie, being such grandmothers, have employment as consultants and instructors in beadwork, each having 'territory to control'. At the same time, their sense of independence brings out old Lazarre - Kashpaw - Nanapush - Pillager family feuds, hidden for so long under the surface of the 'love triangle'.

Erdrich has received criticism from her peers, who feel that 'Love Medicine' falls short of being a realistic representation of the hardships of Native American life'. She was not raised on a reservation herself, but grew up in a town that was near a reservation, the origins of her mother. It was a mixed kind of town with people of different backgrounds. Indians traditionally lived on tracts of lands bounded by the lakes, rivers and hills, owned and used by different families as hunting grounds. Whites who lived alongside Indians found it difficult to accept that native hunters enjoyed any sense of property; all this changed once Indian tribes had surrendered to the whites. They were allotted a certain amount of acres; the U.S. government started them raising gardens and taking up farming. The land was not their property by right, and moreover, many Indians could not make ends meet. During the time span of Erdrich's stories, many American Indians, who had a hard time making a living in their reservations, tried to move to urban areas. Army life and jobs in industry attracted them. The federal government's policies during the 1950s promoted their flight away from the reservations, to the cities: Eisenhower's administration called for the government to end the Indian 'status as wards of the United States' and grant them all of the rights and privileges pertaining to American citizenship'. The aim of this plan was to 'terminate' Indians' dependence upon the national government and to do away with the reservation system.

While pursuing this termination of dependence, the government also set up plans to get more Indians into urban areas. Their program helped Indians move to one of ten cities with 'field relocation offices' and paid living expenses until they could earn their wages. Within about a decade, a large number of Indians migrated from reservations to urban centers; however, termination and relocation greatly disrupted Indian life. Some terminated tribes, now subject to state tax requirements, fell upon hard times. Others sold tribal lands to private developers. Indians who moved to the cities found themselves not up to the transition from their rural existence in tribes to the isolation of life in a big city. The government hoped they would become assimilated into American life, but this turned out to be more complicated than expected. Certainly there was more to it than just a geographical move. A considerable number of relocated Indians eventually returned to the reservations; their number would probably have been greater if the reservations had offered better job opportunities. Few Indians were happy with the policy of termination and relocation, and they protested fiercely against the break-up of reservations. During the 1960s the government altered the plan and started an attempt to provide better job opportunities on the reservations rather than force Indians to leave.

Author Louise Erdrich responds to the charge by saying she does not claim any political cause as her own. 'I don't write political issue books,' she says in a 1985 interview with Laura Coltelli, 'I don't think they work'. She gives an account of Indian life as she finds it. In 'Love Medicine' even the tribal head Nector has slim wages and through the generations there is a struggle to improve employment in the reservation. There is Lyman who has taken up work after his death, planning a new enterprise and pondering about his people: 'It was time, high past time the Indians smartened up and started using the only leverage they had- federal law.' They see no sense in relying on a government 'whose ears was stopped' as Lipsha puts it. At the same time they surprise everyone by imaginatively exploiting the white man's get-rich-quick ideas and initiate Indian gambling in the bingo hall. For many Indian communities the greater challenge was to develop an economic and political foundation for self-sufficiency in the modern business world, and yet to remain traditional in their personal lives. In the novel this is illustrated in 'Lyman's Luck', where Lyman conjures up a workable formula to exploit such a venture:

Try gambling casino, try monolith of chance. Try a draw for prizes so vast that Canadians would leave their homes, forsake their families and crops, drive down fifty and a hundred and two hundred miles to sit on a highchair sinking money in a slot machine ... It was going to be an Indian thing, too, a place where people mixed and met, a place that provided steady employment ... Gambling fit into the old traditions, chance was a kind of an old-time thing. He remembered people in a powwow tent playing at the hand games, an old-time guessing event.

We get to know his ideas of doing business, of becoming independent, of providing employment for both men and women in the reservation through his thoughts and fantasies.

Erdrich considers herself a story- teller, a writer. Her point is made clear through her characters and their everyday lives. Her own life story provides the food for her work. Her father introduced her to William Shakespeare's plays and encouraged Louise and her sisters to write their own stories. Erdrich comments in a 1991 Writer's Digest interview: 'The people in our families made everything into a story. They love to tell a good story. People just sit and the stories start coming, one after another. You just sort of grab the tail of the last person's story: it reminds you of something and you keep going on. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break and fall, it gets into you somehow.' The exposure to storytelling has a great influence on Louise's shaping and creation of a plot; it is in fact one of her most important sources.

The tradition of story telling is an important feature of Indian life. Carol Miller, an American studies associate professor at the University of Iowa, who often teaches of Erdrich's books, says Erdrich has done a service to the American Indian community. 'For Indian readers, she has reconnected traditional storytelling to the real lives of contemporary Native people,' Miller says. 'Erdrich's work also always insists that Indians cannot be consigned to victim-hood, have not 'vanished' and are in fact working out their own destinies using the ages-old cultural strengths of humor, tenacity and kinship.' We have seen humor and tenacity in both Marie and Lulu, and we have seen the kinship that has bound their lives together.

To top


Norman L. Rosenberg - In Our Times: America since World War II
Peter Nabokov - Native American Testimony
Gretchen M. Bataille and Kathleen M. Sands - American Indian Women
Native American Authors: Louise Erdrich
A Feature Story, April 11, 1996: More Love Medicine
The SALON Interview: Louise Erdrich
Voices From the Gaps: Women Writers of Colour