- Getting on with ThingsOntology and the Material in Louise Erdrich's The Painted Drum
Faye Travers, the initial narrator of Louise Erdrich's novel The Painted Drum (2005), has a thing for things. Her work as an estate appraiser gives her a professional interest in material objects, but her inclination is also personal: she is drawn to "the stuff of life" because she seeks in it a refuge from the pain of living.1 The novel's first section, which opens in a New Hampshire children's cemetery, catalogs a series of losses, each a degree closer to Faye. A car accident kills Kendra, the daughter of Faye's lover Kurt Krahe, along with Kendra's boyfriend and a local man, John Jewett Tatro. Faye recalls the long-ago deaths of her father and younger sister, Netta. Living people offer Faye little comfort; her relationship with Kurt is troubled, and she and Elsie, her mother and business partner, keep secrets from one another. A more historically-rooted loss is cultural: Faye is of Ojibwe descent but has no connection to her tribe. Overwhelmed by suffering—her own and that of others—Faye dives into work involving other peoples' possessions. Her "pulse ticks" at the thought of sorting through a deceased person's closets (28). She imagines that in organizing an estate, she is making peace with dead owners who are "safely in the next world" (32). Attention to the material exempts her, she seems to believe, from messy human interactions. When she is hired to handle the Tatro estate, she feels relief. "Finally," she thinks, "to get on with things!" (29).
Yet the Ojibwe drum Faye finds in Tatro's closet confounds her efforts to escape. Like a person, the drum is animate and expressive, and it influences human feelings and actions. Instead of freeing her from emotional involvement, it stimulates her responses to others. It intervenes in her relationships with loved ones and brings her into contact with her Ojibwe community, uncovering a tribal history of violence, survival, [End Page 209] and love. Indeed, as subsequent chapters reveal, the drum has had and will continue to have a profound impact on social worlds, redressing wrongs, rescuing and healing Faye and others, and "gather[ing] people in and hold[ing] them" (180). It is not anthropomorphic but may be considered an "other-than-human 'person,'" a being that, in Ojibwe spiritual tradition, functions relationally alongside humans and other entities to shape existence.2
Faye's initial retreat into the material reflects the Western dualism that draws a firm distinction between humans and other entities, but her encounter with the drum upends this understanding. The drum is "an actor in the present situation, a being with agency and purpose that effects change in the world," as Jean Wyatt argues.3 Its central presence invites Faye, and Erdrich's readers, into an Indigenous ontology in which personhood can inhere in a broad variety of entities, including manmade artifacts. Faye's encounter with the drum shifts her from "the world of commerce wherein American Indian ceremonial objects function as commodities.… into an Ojibwe discourse within which sacred objects replenish the lives of the Ojibwe—as the drum replenishes Faye's spirit."4 More broadly, the centrality of the drum and other significant artifacts in the novel emphasizes the relationality of existence, an ethic central to Ojibwe ways of knowing and being. Anishinaabe scholar Lawrence Gross explains how in traditional tribal understanding, a variety of human and nonhuman entities exist in the world in a web of interdependence; leading a good life, or bimaadiziwin, requires being "a good relative" to human and nonhuman kin.5 Faye, in contrast, has internalized the anthropocentric worldview of European-American culture. In this view, structured by the requirements of colonization and capitalism, humans dominate rather than cooperatively coexist with the nonhuman. In the novel's logic, this orientation causes profound dysfunction. Faye is scarred by traumas associated with the humans in her life—her sister's death, her lover's infidelity, her grandmother's assimilation—but she also suffers because she has failed to be a good relative to things. To suture rifts among...