- Remapping Indian Country in Louise Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife
Gakahbekong. That's the name our old ones call the city, what it means from ways back when it started as a trading village. Although driveways and houses, concrete parking garages and business stores cover the city's scape, that same land is hunched underneath. There are times, like now, I get this sense of the temporary. It could all blow off. And yet the sheer land would be left underneath. Sand, rock, the Indian black seashell-bearing earth.Louise Erdrich, The Antelope Wife
Virtually everywhere one looks, the processes of human movement and encounter are long-established and complex. Cultural centers, discrete regions and territories, do not exist prior to contacts, but are sustained through them, appropriating and disciplining the restless movements of people and things.James Clifford, Routes
In The Antelope Wife Louise Erdrich makes a break from writing about the reservation, a setting that has come to define her fiction, in a move that links her work to the forces of globalization. Narrator Cally Roy's musings about Minneapolis cited above are a reminder that Indian land lies beneath the city, that the urban structures are only temporary. That the land is "hunched" connotes a sense of hiding, of lying in wait. Throughout the novel, Erdrich uncovers and explores multiple layers of history, from precontact into the present. [End Page 54] Characters in the novel gather power—or "survivance," in Gerald Vizenor's lexicon—from the knowledge that Ojibwa civilization predates modern history, as they participate in the recuperation of their history. 1 Erdrich emphasizes the continuance of Indian presence in this place, that Indians in the geographical space of Minneapolis are not a new phenomenon. By extending the boundaries of Ojibwa territory beyond the borders of contemporary reservation designations and across contemporary national borders, Erdrich is reclaiming both space and time. The boundary between city and "rez" becomes blurred in this novel as characters move across that "border" frequently. In fact the dichotomy between city and rez becomes obsolete when the Minneapolis gets remapped as Indian land. Erdrich's novel focuses on movement and exchange—of people, objects (what I am calling "ethnobilia"), and rituals—in a major renarrativizing of the phenomenon of relocation.
The critical project that has been undertaken by scholars in border studies is valuable for theorizing about these relocations. In order to do so, it is necessary to broaden the formulations about the "borderlands" to include all of the spaces of city and reservation, all of which was once Indian land and is now the whole of the Americas. This expansion is made possible by viewing history through what Wai Chee Dimock calls "deep time," which
produces a map that, thanks to its receding horizons, its backward extension into far-flung temporal and spatial coordinates, must depart significantly from a map predicated on the short life of the U.S. For the force of historical depth is such as to suggest a world that predates the adjective American . If we go far enough back in time, and it is not very far, there was no such thing as the U.S.(759)
Using the methodology of border studies and the notion of "deep time," this reading unhinges the notion of Indians as rooted peoples living on reservations, people with unchanging cultures. As James Clifford argues, the category "tribe," which was developed in U.S. law to distinguish settled Indians from roving, dangerous "bands," places a premium on localism and rootedness (x). Erdrich's novel [End Page 55] demonstrates that it is possible—and perhaps desirable—to be both "tribal" and cosmopolitan. She enacts José David Saldivar's description of the border as a "paradigm of crossing, circulation, material mixing, and resistance" (13). And finally, in this novel Erdrich interrogates the borders that were meant to separate Indians from mainstream society.
The Antelope Wife belongs to a recent wave of urban Indian novels that are certainly a reflection of current population demographics. Loss of land base and high unemployment rates in Indian Country resulted in a steady stream of urban migration throughout the twentieth century. The Bureau of Indian...