Haunted by History: Louise Erdrich's Tracks
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 July 2009
Part German-American and part Chippewa, Louise Erdrich has described the “mixed blood's” quest as a search for parentage, an attempt to understand self by interrogating genealogy. In the opening paragraphs of Tracks, a novel set on a North Dakota Chippewa reservation in the early 20th century, Erdrich reveals that the investigation of background necessarily entails an entrance into the world of ghosts. When the narrator Nanapush addresses the young woman listening to his unfolding account of her familial and tribal past as a “child of the invisible, the ones who disappeared,” he simultaneously connects an awareness of the ghostly presence of the dead with the discovery of identity and the creation of history. The narrator's conjuring of “invisible ancestors and “ghosts” (2) who inhabit tribal woods introduces haunting as Erdrich's central metaphor for the way the past shapes and is shaped by the present.
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- Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1996
1. See Bruchac, Joseph, Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987), 83.Google Scholar “Chippewa” and “Ojibwa” are white-invented names for the people who called, and for the most part continue to call, themselves the Anishinabe (itself a phonetic transcription variously spelled). In Tracks, the older, more traditional Nanapush uses “Anishinabe”; Pauline, who attempts to reject her tribal heritage, refers to the “Chippewa” or the “Indians.” While Erdrich herself uses all three terms, she favors “Chippewa” in interviews (apparently adhering to the general preference of the Turtle Mountain band to which she belongs). I follow Erdrich's choice in using the term “Chippewa.” On the politics of tribal naming, see Vizenor, Gerald, The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 13–21.Google Scholar
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29. This rejection of food in favor of consuming spirits bears superficial resemblance to the Chippewa vision quest, in which adolescents fast in order to induce hallucinations. The purpose of the vision quest is to empty oneself as an invitation to the spirits. One is not possessed by the spirit that appears, but takes its name (a name regarded thereafter as an individual's true name and held in secrecy) and acquires some of the spirit's attributes. In the vision quest, starvation leads to identity. Fleur and Nanapush's starvation, however, is pure possession, a possession that silences and kills, that erases personal identity through radical identification with the dead.
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34. Pauline's identity as a consumer takes other forms. Bonnie Winsbro has noted that Pauline, as the reservation's undertaker, recalls the windigo by metaphorically “feeding off the scraps of her dying neighbors” (Supernatural Forces: Belief, Difference, and Power in Contemporary Works by Ethnic Women [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993], 71–72).Google Scholar
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48. Mooney, , Ghost-Dance Religion, 1028.Google Scholar Mooney notes that the literal meaning of the line, “rendered ‘when you meet your friends again,’ is ‘when you are living together again’” (1028), referring to the reunion of the living and the dead. The trembling of the earth appears in Arapaho and Kiowa Ghost Dance songs (958, 973, 1082).
49. Fleur does manage to win the land back years later (in The Bingo Palace). It is, however, her cleverness rather than her magic that prevails. The Ghost Dance survived the Wounded Knee massacre, though on a much smaller scale. Although the more spectacular claims of the Ghost Dance prophets did not materialize, the movements succeeded to some extent in revitalizing tribal cultures and populations (see Thornton, , We Shall Live Again).Google Scholar
52. Vizenor, Gerald, Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 105.Google Scholar