by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Louise Erdrich (1954 – ) grew up in North Dakota, where her Chippewa mother and German-American father taught at a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She describes the land as a place where the “earth and sky touch everywhere and nowhere, like sex between two strangers.”
Erdrich is a mesmerizing story-teller, both in prose and poetry, adept at combining elements from both sides of her heritage with memorable imagery.
The Windigo is a flesh-eating, wintry demon with a man buried deep inside of it. In some Chippewa stories, a young girl vanquishes this monster by forcing boiling lard down its throat, thereby releasing the human at the core of ice.
In the hackles of dry brush a thin laughter started up.
Mother scolded the food warm and smooth in the pot
and called you to eat.
But I spoke in the cold trees:
New one, I have come for you, child hide and lie still.
The sumac pushed sour red cones through the air.
Copper burned in the raw wood.
You saw me drag toward you.
Oh touch me, I murmured, and licked the soles of your feet.
You dug your hands into my pale, melting fur.
I stole you off, a huge thing in my bristling armor.
Steam rolled from my wintry arms, each leaf shivered
from the bushes we passed
until they stood, naked, spread like the cleaned spines of fish.
Then your warm hands hummed over and shoveled themselves full
of the ice and the snow. I would darken and spill
all night running, until at last morning broke the cold earth
and I carried you home,
a river shaking in the sun.
Louise Erdrich’s father came to the Turtle Mountain Reservation as a brand-new teacher. He had gone to college on the G.I. Bill after getting his discharge from the Air Force. One of the first people he met at Turtle Mountain was tribal leader Patrick Gourneau, whose name in Ojibwe was Aunishinaubay. They were both gifted talkers and born story-tellers and hit it off. Then he saw Patrick Gourneau’s daughter.
“My mother has always been the reserved beauty to his smitten schoolteacher. I was born when she was nineteen and I’ve always loved having a young mother—she is often mistaken for my sister.”
Erdrich was the oldest of seven children. Raised Catholic, she spent some time in a Catholic School.
“I was very young when I started reading, and the Old Testament sucked me in. I was at the age of magical thinking and believed sticks could change to serpents, a voice might speak from a burning bush, angels wrestled with people. After I went to school and started catechism I realized that religion was about rules…It all seemed so dull once I realized that nothing spectacular was going to happen.
I’ve come to love the traditional Ojibwe ceremonies, and some rituals, but I hate religious rules. They are usually about controlling women. On Sundays when other people go to wood-and-stone churches, I like to take my daughters into the woods.”
I must become small and hide where he cannot reach.
I must become dull and heavy as an iron pot.
I must be tireless as rust and bold as roots
growing through the locks on doors
and crumbling the cinderblocks
of the foundations of his everlasting throne.
I must be strange as pity so he’ll believe me.
I must be terrible and brush my hair
so that he finds me attractive.
Perhaps if I invoke Clare, the patron saint of television.
Perhaps if I become the images
passing through the cells of a woman’s brain.
I must become very large and block his sight.
I must be sharp and impetuous as knives.
I must insert myself into the bark of his apple trees,
and cleave the bones of his cows. I must be the marrow
that he drinks into his cloud-wet body.
I must be careful and laugh when he laughs.
I must turn down the covers and guide him in.
I must fashion his children out of playdough, blue, pink, green.
I must pull them from between my legs
and set them before the television.
I must hide my memory in a mustard grain
so that he’ll search for it over time until time is gone.
I must lose myself in the world’s regard and disparagement.
I must remain this person and be no trouble.
None at all. So he’ll forget.
I’ll collect dust out of reach,
a single dish from a set, a flower made of felt,
a tablet the wrong shape to choke on.
I must become essential and file everything
under my own system,
so we can lose him and his proofs and adherents.
I must be a doubter in a city of belief
that hails his signs (the great footprints
long as limousines, the rough print on the wall).
On the pavement where his house begins
fainting women kneel. I’m not among them
although they polish the brass tongues of his lions
with their own tongues
and taste the everlasting life.
Erdrich credits her father as her biggest literary influence. He gave her a nickel for every story she wrote as a child, and years later, handed her a roll of antique nickels and said, “I owe you.”
“He was in the National Guard when I was a child and whenever he left, he would write to me. He wrote letters to me all through college, and we still correspond. His letters, and my mother’s, are one of my life’s treasures.”
Erdrich had never been out of the Midwest, had barely been out of Wahpeton when she went to college at Dartmouth. It was a year of difficult firsts – she was in the first small group of women to be admitted to the school; it was the first year of Dartmouth’s new Native American Studies program; meeting her first Native Americans who weren’t Chippewa or Dakota, and discovering how very different their cultures were.
“I was intimidated by the mighty Mohawks; it took me a long time to get to know my serene and beautiful Navajo roommate.”
She missed home, and felt far behind the other students because they were more widely read than she was. Many of her poems are memories of her childhood, which must have seemed so much simpler even at its harshest than the overwhelming world she had abruptly stepped into.
Indian Boarding School: The Runaways
Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.
Boxcars stumbling north in dreams
don’t wait for us. We catch them on the run.
The rails, old lacerations that we love,
shoot parallel across the face and break
just under Turtle Mountains. Riding scars
you can’t get lost. Home is the place they cross.
The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark
less tolerant. We watch through cracks in boards
as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts
to be here, cold in regulation clothes.
We know the sheriff’s waiting at midrun
to take us back. His car is dumb and warm.
The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums
like a wing of long insults. The worn-down welts
of ancient punishments lead back and forth.
All runaways wear dresses, long green ones,
the color you would think shame was. We scrub
the sidewalks down because it’s shameful work.
Our brushes cut the stone in watered arcs
and in the soak frail outlines shiver clear
a moment, things us kids pressed on the dark
face before it hardened, pale, remembering
delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves.
I Was Sleeping Where the Black Oaks Move
We watched from the house
as the river grew, helpless
and terrible in its unfamiliar body.
Wrestling everything into it,
the water wrapped around trees
until their life-hold was broken.
They went down, one by one,
and the river dragged off their covering.
Nests of the herons, roots washed to bones,
snags of soaked bark on the shoreline:
a whole forest pulled through the teeth
of the spillway. Trees surfacing
singly, where the river poured off
into arteries for fields below the reservation.
When at last it was over, the long removal,
they had all become the same dry wood.
We walked among them, the branches
whitening in the raw sun.
Above us drifted herons,
alone, hoarse-voiced, broken,
settling their beaks among the hollows.
Grandpa said, These are the ghosts of the tree people
moving among us, unable to take their rest.
Sometimes now, we dream our way back to the heron dance.
Their long wings are bending the air
into circles through which they fall.
They rise again in shifting wheels.
How long must we live in the broken figures
their necks make, narrowing the sky.
It was at Dartmouth that she met Michael Dorris. He was the first chair of Dartmouth’s Native American Studies program, and nine years older than Erdrich. Dorris became her first literary agent, critic, editor, and later, collaborator. After she graduated, they continued to correspond. And in 1981, after Dorris returned from a year’s sabbatical in New Zealand, they married. He had adopted two sons and a daughter, all with fetal alcohol syndrome, which inspired his book, The Broken Cord. Erdrich gave birth to their three daughters, and they continued to contribute to each other’s work. In 1991, they jointly published the highly successful book, The Crown of Columbus, which enabled Dorris to quit teaching and write full-time.
In 1992, their eldest son was hit and killed by a car. Their other son, who had become estranged from the family, sent a letter to the couple in 1994 threatening to “destroy their lives” and demanding money. They took him to court for attempted theft, but ultimately he was acquitted. The marriage was unraveling, so they separated, and Dorris went for treatment of alcohol abuse. They divorced in 1996, and he fell into a deep depression.
Then their daughters made allegations of child abuse against Dorris. He insisted on his innocence, but after one failed attempt at suicide, he killed himself in April, 1997.
The King of Owls
It is said that playing cards were invented in 1392 to cure the French king, Charles VI, of madness. The suits in some of the first card packs consisted of Doves, Peacocks, Ravens, and Owls.
They say I am excitable! How could
I not scream? The Swiss monk’s tonsure
spun till it blurred yet his eyes were still.
I snapped my gaiter, hard, to stuff back
my mirth. Lords, he then began to speak.
Indus catarum, he said, presenting the game of cards
in which the state of the world is excellent described
and figured. He decked his mouth
as they do, a solemn stitch, and left cards
in my hands. I cast them down.
What need have I for amusement?
My brain’s a park. Yet your company
plucked them from the ground and began to play.
Lords, I wither. The monk spoke right,
the mealy wretch. The sorry patterns show
the deceiving constructions of your minds.
I have made the Deuce of Ravens my sword
falling through your pillows and rising,
the wing blades still running
with the jugular blood. Your bodies lurch
through the steps of an unpleasant dance.
No lutes play. I have silenced the lutes!
I keep watch in the clipped, convulsed garden.
I must have silence, to hear the messenger’s footfall
in my brain. For I am the King of Owls.
Where I float no shadow falls.
I have hungers, such terrible hungers, you cannot know.
Lords, I sharpen my talons on your bones.
The Strange People
The antelope are strange people … they are beautiful to look at, and yet they are tricky. We do not trust them. They appear and disappear; they are like shadows on the plains. Because of their great beauty, young men sometimes follow the antelope and are lost forever. Even if those foolish ones find themselves and return, they are never again right in their heads.
—Pretty Shield, Medicine Woman of the Crows
transcribed and edited by Frank Linderman (1932)
And again he has heard it
and I have gone burning
to meet him, the jacklight
fills my eyes with blue fire;
the heart in my chest
explodes like a hot stone.
Then slung like a sack
in the back of his pickup,
I wipe the death scum
from my mouth, sit up laughing
and shriek in my speeding grave.
Safely shut in the garage,
when he sharpens his knife
and thinks to have me, like that,
I come toward him,
a lean gray witch
through the bullets that enter and dissolve.
I sit in his house
drinking coffee till dawn
and leave as frost reddens on hubcaps,
crawling back into my shadowy body.
All day, asleep in clean grasses,
I dream of the one who could really wound me.
Not with weapons, not with a kiss, not with a look.
Not even with his goodness.
If a man was never to lie to me. Never lie me.
I swear I would never leave him.
The writer’s dilemma, especially for writer who is also a parent, is how to fit together a ‘real life’ and a ‘writing life’ when they are both so time-consuming and demanding. Here Louise Erdrich offers her solution.
Advice to Myself
Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.
When she was asked if writing is a lonely life for her, Erdrich answered:
Strangely, I think it is. I am surrounded by an abundance of family and friends, and yet I am alone with the writing. And that is perfect.
- “Windigo” from Jacklight, © 1984 by Louise Erdrich – Holt, Rinehart & Winston –
- “Fooling God” Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry, © 1997 Oxford University Press –
- “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, © 2003 by Louise Erdrich – HarperCollins Publishers –
- “I Was Sleeping Where the Black Oaks Move” from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, © 2003 by Louise Erdrich – HarperCollins Publishers –
- “The King of Owls” from Jacklight, © 1984 by Louise Erdrich – Holt, Rinehart & Winston – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43085
- “The Strange People” from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, © 2003 by Louise Erdrich – HarperCollins Publishers – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43082
- “Advice to Myself” from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, © 2003 by Louise Erdrich – HarperCollins Publishers –
- Love Medicine, Holt, 1984, expanded edition, 1993
- The Beet Queen, Holt, 1986
- Tracks, Harper, 1988
- (With Michael Dorris) The Crown of Columbus, HarperCollins, 1991
- The Bingo Palace, HarperCollins, 1994
- Tales of Burning Love, HarperCollins, 1996
- The Antelope Wife, HarperFlamingo, 1998
- The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, HarperCollins, 2001
- The Master Butchers Singing Club, HarperCollins, 2003
- Four Souls, HarperCollins, 2004
- The Painted Drum, HarperCollins, 2005
- The Plague of Doves, HarperCollins, 2009
- Jacklight, Holt, 1984
- Baptism of Desire, Harper, 1989
- Original Fire: New and Selected Poems, HarperCollins, 2003
- Grandmother’s Pigeon, illustrated by Jim LaMarche, Hyperion, 1996
- (And illustrator) The Birchbark House, Hyperion Books for Children, 1999
- The Game of Silence, HarperCollins, 2004
- The Porcupine Year, HarperCollins, 2008
- The Falcon: A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner, Penguin, 1994
- The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year, (memoir), HarperCollins, 1995
- The Paris Review Interviews: Louise Erdrich, The Art of Fiction No. 208
Interviewed by Lisa Halliday (Erdrich quotes from Interview)
- The Poetry Foundation –
- Center for Great Plains Studies –
- Windigo drawing
- Detail, center of flat basket Chippewa tribe, early 1900s
- Lion statue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
- Center of Wahpeton ND
- US-Government Indian School Wahpeton ND
- Great Blue Heron
- Snowy Owl
- Female Pronghorn Antelope
- Dirty dishes in a sink
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud