7. Landscape and Language: Louise Erdrich (B. 1954)
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150 7 Landscape and Language Louise Erdrich (b. 1954) We have been shaped not only by our human ancestors but also by the environments in which they lived.  — ​Joan Halifax, The Fruitful Darkness We are words on a journey not the inscriptions of settled people.  — ​W. S. Merwin, “An Encampment at Morning” Part of the trip is always the return.  — ​Louise Erdrich, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country Louise Erdrich is one of the most accomplished and highly esteemed of contemporary Native American writers. The National Book Award she received in 2012 for The Roundhouse confirmed her place among the nation’s major novelists. This chapter addresses a work especially important to her ongoing exploration of identity in relation to her Ojibwe heritage, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, her second memoir, published in 2003. Her account of a canoe trip on the Boundary Waters of southern Ontario, Canada , known as Lake of the Woods, is essentially autobiographical, although it might equally be termed ecocultural.1 Erdrich contemplates the relationship between natural and cultural resources, pondering how Ojibwe language and tradition are linked to this particular landscape; by acquiring a language native to the region she traverses, she reflects on how culture intersects directly with the natural world. Composing this work, much like 151 Landscape and Language: Louise Erdrich making the journey itself, constitutes not only an exploration but a resto­ ration of an important portion of her cultural heritage, a localized mode of knowing, involving an ancient and enduring attunement to place. In this literary travelogue she bears witness to indigenous history  — ​ particularly the ancient rock paintings left by ancestral Anishinaabe. The trip Erdrich recounts is expressly predicated on language revitali­ zation, paddling through the Boundary Waters with a group dedicated to studying Ojibwemowin. She had initially been tantalized by listening to fluent elders on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and then resolved to learn to speak it herself. On this journey to Lake of the Woods, she seeks to further her study in the place the language evolved, visiting the region with members of the Ojibwe Language Society, a group that meets weekly at Lac Court Oreilles. Traveling with her infant daughter and the girl’s father, Tobasonakwut, who also serves as her mentor and guide, she describes the experience in terms of cultural, linguistic, and, importantly, natural history, learning words in Ojibwemowin that correspond to the landscape of these ancestral homelands. They set out for an isolated library of Native American historical and cultural documents improbably housed in a remote wilderness setting, where this group of teachers and serious students of Ojibwemowin will gather to practice. Erdrich hopes to engage in linguistic reclamation herself by learning to speak the language as a source of cultural and ultimately ecological memory. In the process, she discovers how indigenous languages are inextricably linked to particular landscapes and ecosystems. Books and Islands depicts the trip as a kind of pilgrimage, expressing veneration for the natural world in conjunction with indigenous language and culture. Places held sacred by the Ojibwe, including the locations of ancient rock paintings dating back hundreds  — ​even thousands — ​of years, remain in living memory to this day. While clearings for traditional villages and Grand Medicine society, or Midewiwin, lodges, for instance, have been swiftly reclaimed by a succession of northern woodland trees, within a­ single generation of being abandoned shortly after World War II, those locations are still known to the Ojibwe tradition bearers, such as Tobasonak­ wut, among the last to have been born and raised at Lake of the Woods. Above all, Erdrich senses an enduring connection between this Native American language and the natural world in the region where it originated. In addition to contemplating the origin of native languages in relation to place, Erdrich describes being utterly enthralled by the ancient rock 152 Native American Novelists paintings, known as mazinapikiniganan to the Ojibwe, found throughout much of the Boundary Waters region. The pictomythic glyphs in the rock paintings she encounters  — ​ each a repository of cultural memory  — ​ corre­ spond to traditional songs that often incorporate images derived from ­ visions and dreams, and so represent a microcosm of indigenous­ cosmology. She recognizes that these images painted on the islands in Ojibwe country trace a sacred relationship to nature that reflects an ethic that sustained a people. This history deepens her desire to discern the remaining traces of an ancient legacy still embodied by Ojibwemowin and still intelligible today. Erdrich and her party traverse part of a park that...