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Haunted by History: Louise Erdrich's Tracks

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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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.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1996

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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), 1321.Google Scholar

2. Edrich, Louise, Tracks (New York: Perennial-Harper and Row, 1988), 1Google Scholar; page numbers are hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

3. Rodriguez, Richard, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (New York: Viking-Penguin, 1992), 4.Google Scholar

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25. The cultural ghost story, a genre that has emerged largely in the past quarter-century, attempts to recuperate a people's lost history through the invocation of ghosts. I define the cultural ghost story at greater length in College English (57 [02 1995]: 149–65)Google Scholar, where I argue that the genre is a pan-ethnic phenomenon, registering a widespread concern with questions of ethnic identity and cultural transmission. Other significant examples of the genre include Kingston, Maxine Hong's The Woman Warrior (1976)Google Scholar, Morrison, Toni's Beloved (1987)Google Scholar, Wilson, August's The Piano Lesson (1987)Google Scholar, Boyle, T. Coraghessan's World's End (1987)Google Scholar, and Naylor, Gloria's Mama Day (1988).Google Scholar

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27. Turner, Victor, “Death and the Dead in the Pilgrimage Process, in Religious Encounters with Death: Insights from the History and Anthropology of Religions, ed. Reynolds, Frank E. and Waugh, Earle H. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), 2439.Google Scholar

28. Morton I. Teicher collects windigo folklore and accounts of actual cannibalism (most of which have since been discounted as uncorroborated rumor) in “Windigo Psychosis: A Study of a Relationship Between Belief and Behavior Among the Indians of Northeastern Canada,” in Proceedings of the 1960 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, ed. Ray, Verne F. (Seattle: American Ethnological Society, 1960), 1129.Google Scholar See also Barnouw, Victor, Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977), 120–31.Google Scholar Lou Marano usefully summarizes the anthropological research on the subject in “Windigo Psychosis: The Anatomy of an Emic-Etic Confusion,” Current Anthropology 23 (08 1982): 385412.Google Scholar

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.

30. On windigo belief as a response to ecological stress, see Bishop, Charles A., “Northern Algonkian Cannibalism and Windigo Psychosis,” in Psychological Anthropology, ed. Williams, Thomas R. (The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton, 1975), 237–48.Google Scholar Lou Marano argues that “the windigo belief complex was the the Northern Algonkian manifestation of the collective witch fear that is predictable in traumatized societies” (“Windigo Psychosis” 397).Google Scholar William Asikinack takes a different perspective, seeing windigo stories as traditional cautionary tales intended to warn against greedy excess (“Anishinake (Ojibway) Legends Through Anishinake Eyes,” in Contemporary Native American Cultural Issues, ed. Schirer, Thomas E. [Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan: Lake Superior University Press, 1988], 38).Google Scholar Erdrich develops the windigo as emotional excess in Love Medicine, where the cannibal spirit is associated with consuming passion.

31. For information about the trickster Nanabushu (variously spelled Nanabozho, Nehnehbush, Wenebojo, among other versions), see Vecsey, (Traditional Ojibwa Religion, 84100).Google Scholar Nancy J. Peterson perceptively notes that Nanapush is like the trickster Nanabush in “adopt[ing] the techniques of the oppressor to even the score and to balance the distribution of power” (“History, Postmodernism, and Louise Erdrich's Tracks,” PMLA 109 [10 1994]: 990).Google Scholar

32. Stewart, Susan, Nonsense: Aspects of Inter textuality in Folklore and. Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 62.Google Scholar

33. Nanapush has the ninth and final chapter of the novel, suggesting the completion of a pregnancy. Hertha D. Wong has observed that while the novel's mothers tend to abandon their children, “it is Nanapush … who ‘mothers’ most consistently throughout the novel,” by nursing Fleur and later Lulu through illnesses (“Adoptive Mothers and Thrown-Away Children in the Novels of Louise Erdrich,” in Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities, ed. Daly, Brenda O. and Reddy, Maureen T. [Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991], 185).Google Scholar It is important, however, to recognize that Nanapush's mothering takes the form not only of physical caretaking but of storytelling. Familial descent in the novel is reinterpreted as verbal.

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], 7172).Google Scholar

35. Furlong, Monica, Thèrése of Lisieux (New York: Virago-Pantheon, 1987) 111.Google Scholar

36. Most critics emphasize the antithesis between Nanapush and Pauline. Susan Stanford Friedman, however, points out the parallels between Nanapush's Anishinabe religion and Pauline's Catholic mysticism (the importance of fasting and visions, for example). Friedman persuasively argues that the novel advocates a syncretic, as opposed to fundamentalist, view of Native American identity (“Identity Politics, Syncretism, Catholicism, and Anishinabe Religion in Louise Erdrich's Tracks,” Religion and Literature 26 [Spring 1994]: 107–33).Google Scholar

37. Catherine Rainwater argues that Pauline produces a “marginal and aberrant” Christianity by grafting elements of Chippewa religion “deformed away from their shamanic matrix” onto a Christian framework (“Reading between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich,” American Literature, 62 [09 1990]: 409).Google Scholar

38. Several distinct though related Ghost Dances have been identified, the two largest being the 1870 movement led by the Paviotso visionary Wodziwob, and the 1890 movement led by Wovoka (Jack Wilson), the son of a Wodziwob disciple. The Ghost Dance was known to the Chippewa since 1889 (Vecsey, , Traditional Ojibwa, 195).Google Scholar

39. LaBarre, Weston, The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 230.Google Scholar

40. Mooney, James, The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee (New York: Dover, 1973)Google Scholar; reprint of “The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890,” in the Fourteenth Annual Report (Part 2) of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Smithsonian Institution, by J. W. Powell, Director (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896).Google Scholar Russell Thornton argues that the Ghost Dances of 1870 and 1890 “were deliberate attempts to respond to a threatening situation rather than a phenomenon of mass hysteria” (xi), and that their ultimate goals were a demographic revitalization of diminished populations (through incorporation of the dead into the living population) and reaffirmation of aboriginal cultures (We Shall Live Again: The 1870 and 1890 Ghost Dance Movements as Demographic Revitalization [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986]).Google Scholar

41. Erdrich, , “Bangs and Whimpers,” 1.Google Scholar

42. Mooney, , Ghost-Dance Religion, 1061.Google Scholar

43. Mooney, , Ghost-Dance Religion, 1047.Google Scholar

44. Thornton, , We Shall Live Again, 5.Google Scholar

45. Mooney, , Ghost-Dance Religion, 1028.Google Scholar For another song that refers to a humming that precedes the apocalyptic reordering of the world, see Mooney, (1035).Google Scholar

46. In Ghost-Dance Religion, Mooney cites several songs in which dancers anticipate gambling with ghosts of dead friends (see, for example, pp. 962, 994, 995, 1002, and 1036.

47. Mooney, , Ghost-Dance Religion, 274.Google Scholar For other songs that mention the whirlwind, see Mooney, (970, 1054, and 1055).Google Scholar

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

50. Erdrich, , “Bangs and Whimpers,” 1, 24, 124, 25, 1.Google Scholar

51. LaBarre, , Ghost Dance, 232.Google Scholar

52. Vizenor, Gerald, Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 105.Google Scholar

53. Vizenor, , Manifest Manners, 106.Google Scholar