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Louise Erdrich [revised 2004-5]

Love Medicine (1984/1993) 

A more detailed textual analysis of this text can be found at:


In the late 1600s at the time of the first contact with Europeans, there were roughly 200 American Indian tribes. In the twentieth century there are roughly 170. A quarter of all American Indians became extinct as a direct or indirect result of contact with whites, but it would not be true to say that American Indians are vanishing. From 1900 onwards there has been a continuous and accelerating increase in the American Indian population, so that the total figure is now again comparable to that prior white colonization of Indian lands.

This doesn’t mean that Native Americans haven’t suffered considerable disruption and dislocation, and it doesn’t mean that they haven’t transformed in response to white cultural influence and invasion. They evidently have in ways too numerous to mention in one lecture; but I think it is true to say that they have also retained a sense of their ethnic identities.

Not one but many:

More than170 tribes / bands / nations. About half the American Indian languages are lost, but on the other hand, about half of the persistent groups continue to speak a Native American language in the home, and languages are taught in some American Universities. Even more people still have smattering of Native American words, which they use in speech, or include in writing, as Erdrich does on occasion, for example in  The Bingo Palace and Antelope Woman. She has written about her experiences in trying to learn her tribal language, Ojibwe, as an adult; we might see this conscious decision to learn her tribal language as part of a process of choosing her ethnic identity - by "consent" to use Werner Sollors' concept.

We must resist the Hollywood tendency to think of "Red Indians" as if they were all the same. Native Americans are a very diverse group of peoples, with different languages, different religious belief systems and different cultural formations. The largest nation, the Navajo, for example are often the butt of jokes about sheep; the Sioux are sometimes disliked for their policy of reconciliation with the whites in the 19th century, etc. Look at Tony Hillerman, Sacred Clowns,  which is a detective fiction based on the Navaho reservation. On pages 113-14 you will find the anecdote about the making of Cheyenne Autumn whenmembers of one tribe played the roles of another and the apparently solemn language of negotiations was actually a series of bawdy insults to the actor playing the White military commander. The joke being that John Ford the director would not have realized this. The anecdote circulates in various forms in Native American culture, and can be seen as a type of trickster story, as well as a reminder of tribal difference.

Think also about  Nector Kashpaw’s The Plunge of the Brave (Erdrich’s Love Medicine):

Because of my height I got hired on for the biggest Indian part. But they didn’t know I was a Kashpaw, because right off I had to die.

"Clutch your chest. Fall off that horse," they directed. That was it. Death was the extent of Indian acting in the movie theater.

pp. 122-3 (89-90)

Gerald Vizenor has written extensively about the ways in which indigenous Americans are forced to inhabit false versions of themselves as "Red Indians". You might look at Manifest Manners or Fugitive Poses for his discussions on this topic. You might also want to check out some of the late writing by Louis Owens, especially when he writes about John Wayne and the Western genre. The filmic representation gets to be perceived as more "authentic" than the lived reality - by white audiences. You might also want to think how this corresponds to DuBois's definition of "double consciousness."

Chippewas / Ojibwas

The modern US total is about the same as the whole Chippewa population in 1650 and the growth rate is increasing. They are distributed across 15 federal reservations, in half a dozen groups of non-reservation communities, as well as considerable urban migration. In the first half of the 19th century they were reasonably well off, Chippewas’s adapted well to white intrusion and became famous trappers and hunters. However from 1837 onwards they made treaties which sold off much of their land in exchange for annual payments. Then in 1854 a treaty was forced on the Chippewas, which divided their remaining land into allotments allocated to able-bodied males. In 1889, in line with national policy, all remaining Chippewa land was divided into individual allotments, to encourage a white model of civilization. By the early twentieth century much of the timber was logged and stocks depleted, and much of the land was sold off. Also there was a fair amount of disorganization in tribal life, doubtless due to the disruptions and enforced division of tribal land into small parcels. Many Chippewas went onto welfare, and others began to move to the cities, between 1940 and 1970. One can see this tribal disorganization and the associated poverty and deprivation as an inevitable result of the Federal government policy from the 1830s onwards.

AIM & Wounded Knee

It is hardly surprising therefore that Chippewas, together with their near neighbours, the Sioux, were very active in the politicization of American Indians in the late 60s early 70s. Chippewas and Sioux were active leaders in urban community groups, and from this activism developed the American Indian Movement, AIM, which was a militant activist organization, in some ways comparable to the Black Panther Movement amongst African Americans. One of the most famous incidents associated with AIM was the Wounded Knee incident of 1973, when members of AIM occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Wounded Knee was the location of another famous incident in American Indian history, the Massacre of Wounded Knee, which occurred in 1890. The purpose of the Wounded Knee demonstrations was to publicize Indian poverty, bad government management, social and legal injustices, etc.

One of the issues you need to consider is the ways in which in some tribal cultures masculine identity and role models are founded on the notion of the "warrior." A young man who becomes a warrior is validated by his society, and has a sense of social identity and personal esteem. This became very complicated in the late sixties / early seventies, when Native American GIs went to fight in Vietnam. Here they discovered, as Michael Herr points out in Dispatches that the American military ideology thought of the Vietnam conflict in terms of Hollywood myths of playing "cowboys and indians." One can see why they might have preferred to take their warrior status to contribute to a struggle for Native American sovreignty instead.

Gerry Nanapush is a fictionalized AIM warrior. An American Indian hero. Erdrich makes this clear through incidental details rather than explicitly telling the reader. So look out for the moments in the text where this identity is confirmed, and think about how that affects the stories around Gerry.

Louise Erdrich is part Chippewa, part European American. She says of herself:

I have a very mixed background and my culture is certainly one that includes German and French and Chippewa. 

Her writing maps the cultural history and cultural geography of her people, the Chippewas; and those of you who have read Tracks for example, will have recognized the significance of a history of disastrous treaties forcing allotments and division of land around able-bodied males, since she explores the impact on the people of white land policies in that novel. And reference is made almost in parenthesis at the start of chapter 2 of Love Medicine, as Albertine travels back to visit her mother:

My mother lives just on the very edge of the reservation [...] I grew up with her in an aqua-and-silver trailer, set next to the old house on the land my great-grandparents were allotted when the government decided to turn Indians into farmers.

The policy of allotment was a joke. As I was driving toward the land, looking around, I saw as usual how much of the reservation was sold to whites and lost forever. Just three miles, and I was driving down the rutted dirt road, home.

p. 12 (11)

Erdrich also explores the ways in which white policies to encourage "progressives" in the early to mid twentieth century further erodes cultural health and stability for the whole people. This theme is announced in Love Medicine, where two brothers Nector and Eli are brought up differently. Nector goes to the white government boarding school, Eli is brought up traditionally. Nector loses his faculties in old age, Eli doesn’t.

This land had been allotted to Grandpa’s mother, old Rushes Bear, who had married the original Kashpaw. When allotments were handed out all of her twelve children except the youngest – Nector and Eli – had been old enough to register for their own. But because there was no room for them in the North Dakota wheatlands, most were deeded parcels far off , in Montana, and had to move there or sell. The oldest children left, but the brothers still lived on opposite ends of Rushes Bear’s land.

She had let the government put Nector in school, but hidden Eli, the one she couldn’t part with, in the root cellar dug beneath her floor. In that way she gained a son on either side of the line. Nector came home from boarding school knowing white reading and writing, while Eli knew the woods. Now, these many years later, hard to tell why or how, my Great-uncle Eli was still sharp, while Grandpa’s mind had left us, gone wary and wild.

Love Medicine, pp. 18-19 (17)

The theme of what to do with the land, and of progressives versus traditionalists continues through The Bingo Palace, with Lyman Lamartine and Lipsha Morrissey and into Tales of Burning Love with Jack Mauser’s buying up the agricultural land and using it for housing development.

Thinking about her description of herself as mixed-blood, or metis, it's worth considering the ways in which she tries to represent her European inheritance in her writing as well. This is particularly true of her recent novel, The Master Butcher's Singing Club.

Narrative Technique

Think about issues of audience and the use of American English. Also think about mediation. (See Black Elk Speaks, transcribed by John G. Neihardt, 1932). The contemporary mixed blood author might have to be both Black Elk, Black Elk’s family (also present at the sessions and probably intervening if they though he got the story wrong), and John Neihardt — as it were. 

JB: You have such a strong narrative line in all your work and stories seem so important to you, stories told by your characters in the poems, the stories of the poems themselves and the structure of story in Love Medicine, which is, in fact many stories linked together. What is story to you?

ERDRICH: Everybody in my whole family is a storyteller, whether a liar or a storyteller – whatever. When I think what’s a story, I can hear somebody in my family, my Dad or my Mom or my Grandma, telling it. There’s something particularly strong about a told story. You know your listener’s right there, you’ve got to keep him hooked – or her. So, you use all those little lures: "And then...," "So the next day...," etc. There are some very nuts-and-bolts things about storytelling. It also is something you can’t really put your finger on.

For Erdrich, according to her response here, both the craft and the art of narrative are important. The provenance of the stories however is complex.

ERDRICH: I believe that a poet or a fiction writer is something like a medium at a seance who lets the voices speak. Of course, a person has to study and develop technical expertise. But a writer can’t control subject and background. If he or she is true to what’s happening, the story will take over. It was, in fact, hard for me to do that when stories started being written that had to do with the Chippewa side of the family because I just didn’t feel comfortable with it for a long time. I didn’t know what to make of it being so strong. It took a while to be comfortable and just say, "I’m not going to fight it."

Catherine Rainwater explores the effects of her narrative technique on a European or European-American reader. She suggests that we might feel marginalized as readers, since we cannot find out who the major protagonists are. In this respect the narrative structure of Love Medicine could be designed to make the Anglo-American expereince the kind of sense of decentering or marginalization that tribal peoples often feel in dominant cultural situations. I would also suggest that you look very carefully at the technicalities of Erdrich's narrative techniques, and think about the ways in which she varies the point of view and the narrative voice.
"either side of the line"

Erdrich talks of herself being "either side the line", in terms of cultural identity and in particular in relation to the different worldviews offered by Ojibwe religion and Roman Catholicism.

JB. In my own case, being of mixed ancestry, I’m sometimes surprised how strongly those voices speak from that small percentage of my ancestry which is American Indian. That seems to be true of many other mixed-blood writers of your age and my age, that for some reason that’s the strongest voice.

LE. I think that’s because that is the part of you that is culturally different. When you live in the mainstream and you know that you’re not quite, not really there, you listen for a voice to direct you. I think, besides that, you also are a member of another nation. It gives you a strange feeling, this dual citizenship. So, in a way it isn’t surprising that’s so strong. As a kid I grew up not thinking twice about it, everybody knowing you were a mixed-blood in town. You would go to the reservation to visit sometimes and sometimes you’d go to your other family. it really was the kind of thing you just took for granted.

I don’t deal much with religion except Catholicism. Although Ojibway traditional religion is flourishing, I don’t feel comfortable discussing it. I guess I have my beefs about Catholicism. Although you never change once you’re raised a Catholic – you’ve got that. You’ve got that symbolism, that guilt, you’ve got the whole works and you can’t really change that. That’s easy to talk about because you have to exorcise it somehow. That’s why there’s a lot of Catholicism in [my] books.

Love Medicine investigates the double consciousness of living in two cultures simultaneously. It is a set of inter-connected stories, where both the craft and the art of narrative owe their characteristics to both European American and American Indian cultural formations. These are stories written about the borderline and from the borderline. The narrative voice and the characters in the text straddle that border; e.g.: between Catholicism and traditional Ojibwa religious belief; and between two types of consciousness, one of which is grounded in a scientific rationalism, while the other accepts the "supernatural" dimension as part of contingent reality. So, Erdrich says:

ERDRICH: Don’t you, when you go on Indian land, feel that there’s more possibility, that there is a whole other world besides the one you can see and that you’re very close to it? 

The opening chapter plays with references to Catholicism and references to the religious beliefs of the reservation. The novel starts with an incident, which moves ambivalently between these two codes (i.e. Christianity and Shamanism), as it narrates the death of June Kashpaw. The title "The World’s Greatest Fishermen" could refer to Christ’s disciples, who were made "fishers of men", or it could refer to the Chippewa men like Uncle Eli. As you read the novel you will notice that there is a great deal of water imagery, around rivers and lakes, and that the novel ends with an illusion to a Chippewa myth about an ancient ocean "that had once covered the Dakotas". The novel’s opening sentence foregrounds the Christian context:

The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home.

p. 1.

This is firmly set in a Europeanised consciousness; not only because of the references to Easter Sunday, when the crucified god will rise again, but also because of its being situated in western, mechanical clock time. She is waiting for the noon bus. However June does not stay firmly within this European consciousness. Her perception of the motor car transforms it into a natural or supernatural monster:

She felt it open at her shoulder like a pair of jaws, blasting heat, and had the momentary and voluptuous sensation that she was lying stretched out before a great wide mouth.

p. 5

When she walks off into the Easter Sunday morning back to the reservation, at one level she is a sordid drunk who has just had unsatisfactory sex with a drunken stranger in the front seat of his car; but enter into shamanic belief, and she is a native American spirit returning home to the sacred territory to join the tribe and the tribal ancestors:

Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn’t blow her off course. She continued. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn’t matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.

The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.

p. 7 / 6

Shamanic religions believe that the boundary between the natural and the supernatural is easily crossed in both directions, that the person’s spirit can converse with the ancestors, with totemic animals, with the spirit world, that the self can fly to mountain tops and beyond, or dive down deep underwater. Thus later in the novel, in a sequential reading, but immediately after in ceremonial time, June’s divorced husband, Gordie, kills her in the back seat of his car. The deer that "fit nicely, legs curled as if to run, still slightly warm" (p. 220 / 180), is both June and not June, depending on which side of the threshold you are standing.

The allusions to coming home might be elucidated by reference to William Bevis's classic essay on "homing in." He suggests that Native American or mixed blood narrations are more likely to have centripetal plots rather than "lighting out" stories.

Trickster aesthetics & Liminal consciousness.

See what I said about Tricksters, in relation to Invisible Man. And check out an entry on the Bibliography section of my NAWW web site: for a useful text to consult. Gerry is a trickster, as is Jack Mauser in Tales of Burning Love. More importantly, Rosier-Smith argues, and I would agree with her, that Erdrich is a trickster narrator. 

As liminal beings, tricksters dwell at cross-roads and thresholds and are endlessly multifaceted and ambiguous. Tricksters are uninhibited by social constraints, free to dissolve boundaries and break taboos. Perpetual wanderers, tricksters can escape virtually any situation, and they possess a boundless ability to survive. 

This definition of the trickster figure forms the basis of Jeanne Rosier Smith’s argument. By emphasising their quality of liminal beings she is able to make a convincing case for their significance in the literary aesthetics of American women of color. Rosier Smith’s thesis is that the figure of the trickster is a more satisfactory trope than for example magic realism, especially since it signifies many of the features of post-modern narratives, including narrative indeterminacy and double-voiced or polyvocal stories, and also because it allows authors to assume ambivalent positions in relation to marginal and mainstream culture and in relation to gender politics and ethnic identity.

Most important proponent of trickster aesthetics is Gerald Vizenor. He would argue that:

Freedom is a sign, and the trickster is chance and freedom in a comic sign; comic freedom is a "doing," not an essence, not a museum being, not an aesthetic presence. The trickster as a semiotic sign is imagined in narrative voices, a communal rein to the unconscious, which is comic liberation; however, the trickster is outside comic structure, "making it" comic rather than inside comedy "being it." The trickster is agonistic imagination and aggressive liberation, a "doing" in narrative points of view and outside the imposed structures.

Erdrich is a trickster, because she refuses to stay trapped in the prison of conventional form; she has an exuberant energy, which breaks out of normal categorization. Tales of Burning Love rewrites the opening chapter of Love Medicine so that a very marginal and despicable character there, becomes a protagonist and focalizer in the later novel. June becomes an abiding presence, in retrospect Jack Mauser’s first wife. But Tales of Burning Love also rewrites The Bingo Palace, so that we see events in The Bingo Palace from Lipsha’s point of view, and thus from Gerry Nanapush’s, which happen in the same narrative time as the narrative present of Tales of Burning Love. And the concept of a tale of burning love is introduced in The Bingo Palace in relation to Zelda, a character we first meet at the start of Love Medicine.

One could compare Erdrich to Faulkner, in the way in which she creates a whole community, which carries over several novels; but I believe the effect is more striking, more "postmodern" in Erdrich’s work. Vizenor has said:

The postmodern opened in tribal imagination: oral cultures have never been without a postmodern condition that enlivens stories and ceremonies or without trickster signatures and discourse on narrative chance – a comic utterance and adventure to be heard or read.

Erdrich’s art is in telling the story as it might be told in an oral culture, but of course altering or transforming it in the transcription into American English. In oral culture Shamans will know extensive story cycles, but won’t tell them in the same way on any two separate occasions. They will pick and chose stories and incidents to suit the occasion and their audience. In a way Erdrich does this all the time: one senses that the stories could be told endlessly in endless transformations; that there is a lake of stories to be dived into and fished out, but that she will never reach the bottom of it. Nor will she ever get to the truth of it all; for tricksters teach us there is no truth, instead there are just as many ways of seeing and telling a story as there are people to tell it. Excect that there are more, because, as Tales of Burning Love illustrates, the way you tell a story depends on your situation, your immediate audience, and your emotions. Memory is also a trickster and as transformative as human passion: it’s never quite the same again.

To take an obvious example, namely the first chapter of Tales of Burning Love, written from the point of view of the character known as "Andy" in Love Medicine. The scenario is the same, the latter version includes some of the dialogue reported in the first version, for example, June’s declaration: "You’ve got to be different." But this is a fuller version, which volunteers more information than the first treatment of the incident, so that paradoxically we learn more about June’s death, twelve years after Love Medicine was first published, and from a character who was portrayed as totally unsympathetic at the time.

Helen M Dennis