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  • The Trickster and World MaintenanceAn Anishinaabe Reading of Louise Erdrich's Tracks
  • Lawrence W. Gross (bio)

Catherine Rainwater developed one of the more insightful analyses of Louise Erdrich's writing, arguing that the cultural codes at conflict within the characters of her novels leave the reader with a sense of alienation (442). Reading her essay, however, it is evident she was addressing an audience that did not have personal knowledge of or experience with the social and political traumas presented in Erdrich's works, particularly the loss of land and genocide of a people. There is a group of individuals, however, who can relate firsthand to the events in Erdrich's writing: American Indians in general and the Anishinaabe in particular. If Erdrich's writing is supposed to generate a feeling of alienation on the part of the reader, what about those readers—American Indians—who already feel a sense of alienation? Is the expectation that Indians reading her works will become more alienated? Or, is it the assumption that Indians have no interest in written literature, do not participate in mainstream culture at all, and so will not read Erdrich in the first place?

The challenge, then, is not to contradict Rainwater's interpretation; in fact, she makes a valuable contribution to understanding the writings of Erdrich. The analysis can be expanded, however, by providing a reading from an Anishinaabe point of view, a reading that generates within the reader a feeling of empowerment, not alienation. If there is one overriding characteristic of the characters in the corpus of Erdrich's works, it is that they are survivors. Despite all the attempts by the government and mainstream society to undermine Anishinaabe culture and, essentially, conduct genocide against the [End Page 48] Indians, the Anishinaabe survive. Nonetheless, as an Anishinaabe and a scholar of religion, one of the main issues I see at work in Erdrich is not simply the survival of the Anishinaabe, but the manner in which that survival occurs. Especially in the case of her novel Tracks, it is evident that those individuals best survive who adapt mainstream culture to Anishinaabe culture and their own personal interests.1 By the same token, they also adhere to traditional culture while adjusting themselves to broader society. In essence, these characters can be said to embody the personality of the trickster, Wenabozho, the hero of story and legend among the Anishinaabe of both yesterday and today.2 It is the tricksters who survive to build a new world on the ashes of the old.

The Anishinaabe Apocalypse

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.

Louise Erdrich, Tracks

These are the first words of Tracks, spoken by Nanapush, the middle-aged man of some fifty years, who, because of the deaths in the tribe, is now seen as an old man. In fact, his words in the opening two pages of the work describe the Anishinaabe apocalypse. This was not simply a difficult time for the Anishinaabe; it is also not a description of a people being "marginalized," as the scholarship often describes genocide (Bak, Rainwater, Tidwell). It was the end of the world as the Anishinaabe had known it. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the word "last" is repeated so often. Nanapush speaks of the last buffalo, bear, beaver, and birch, all "other-than-human" relations who live with the Anishinaabe (T 2). From the Anishinaabe point of view, the earth, sun, moon, animals, and plants are all relations (Hallowell, Ojibwa Ontology 45). Nanapush tells of their dying. Instead of a world where the Anishinaabe live and work with their relations, a new world has come into existence, one dominated by outsiders, as represented by the "wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers" (T 1). [End Page 49]

The apocalypse also brought about the end of entire family groups. In the case of both Nanapush and Fleur, they were the sole surviving members of their respective families. Much like the loss of animal relatives, the end of the Anishinaabe world saw the loss of human relatives. So, not only was the world made void of animal...


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