Faith Might be Stupid, but it Gets us Through: The Syncretic Collision in Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (Part One)

Faith Might be Stupid, but it Gets us Through:
The Syncretic Collision in Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
(Part One)

Louise Erdirch’s novel Love Medicine demonstrates how the collision between indigenous and Christian cultures has decimated the Ojibwa language and religion. Love Medicine abounds with examples of characters whose behavior is influenced by traditional beliefs and practices which have been diluted beyond recognition. But the missionaries and United States government officials who devastated Ojibwa society were unable to entirely replace it with American civic and religious mores. The apostasy of the Ojibwa has created a vast spiritual malaise because many Ojibwa are unwilling to embrace American values yet unable to return to their pre-Colombian world.

Erdrich depicts a society where the aboriginal world of ghosts, gods, animistic automobiles, curses and spiritual healers freely mingles with the Catholic universe of masses, miracles, sacraments, baptisms and holy water. But these rival religious traditions are presented in a tone devoid of reverence. Furthermore, none of the major Native American characters in Love Medicine seriously embraces either of the two religions. So what is the reader to make of the numerous Christian and pagan allusions in Love Medicine? One could view Erdrich’s allocation of Christlike attributes to corrupt and sinful “heathens” either as a Christian allegory or as an ironic parody. Perhaps the book is simultaneously both a tribute to the persistence of faith and a condemnation of its shortcomings. As Lipsha Morrissey pithily observes: “Faith might be stupid, but it gets us through” (245-246).

The protracted efforts by Catholic clergy to save the souls of spiritually content Ojibwa left many of them in a state of profound religious confusion. In their zeal to add to their minions, the missionaries ruptured Ojibwa links to the pre-Columbian world. However, many Ojibwa remain resistant to the white man’s religion, resulting in “conversions to Christianity that have most often been nominal and superficial” (Vecsey 45). This phenomenon has left many Ojibwa in a spiritual no-man’s-land between the conflicting religions. The upshot here is that many of them, “alienated from the ultimate sources of their existence have suffered intense bewilderment and lack of direction” (Vecsey 5).

The exploits of Lipsha Morrissey (an extremely likable and amusing character) illustrate how the vestiges of Ojibwa religion have been diminished to the point of absurdity. For example, Lipsha is believed by many in the community to possess Native American healing prowess despite his near total unfamiliarity with Ojibwa teachings. He claims to have “the touch,” or the ability to heal by the laying on of hands, which he believes is “a thing that you got to be born with” (231). But this assertion betrays his ignorance of Ojibwa religious teachings. While curing was one of the “primary roles of [Ojibwa] religious leaders”, it was not an inherited skill (Vecsey 162). Djessakids (healers) achieve their curing powers by virtue of the potency of their adolescent vision quest, something Lipsha has not experienced.

Lipsha’s ridiculous attempt to create a syncretic love potion for his grandparents by feeding them the hearts from frozen turkeys that he had personally blessed with holy water demonstrates his perfunctory acquiescence to both Catholic and Ojibwa traditions. Like many of the Indians in Love Medicine, Lipsha refuses to let go of the few remaining shards of his Native American heritage, and his superficial Catholicism is more like an amalgam of assorted superstitions than a coherent theology. Lipsha’s predicament is shared by many of the Ojibwa who remain on reservations in North America:

The average Ojibwa has been stripped of much religious knowledge through the centuries and needs a specialist to perform the most basic religious acts. He still feels the need for those religious acts because Christianity has not adequately replaced the traditional religion (Vecsey 173).

Native Ojibwa beliefs continue to coexist with Christianity despite that fact that the reservation Indians are often unaware of their origins. Their perspective towards living things is thus altered by watered-down indigenous notions regarding the nature of existence. Although traditional Ojibwa religion is dualistic, it promotes a worldview which “did not make a sharp distinction between the orders of living beings” (Vecsey 92). The souls of humans are looked upon as identical with those of animals, superhuman beings (manitos) and even inanimate objects. There are several occasions in Love Medicine when characters behave as though they believe–as did their ancestors–that “entities like the sun, flint, and animals acted with living will; they were living persons.” (Vecsey 92) This phenomenon is illustrated by the reverent reaction June’s relatives have to the car which has been purchased with her life insurance money:

So the insurance explained the car. More than that it explained why everyone treated the car with special care….It was as if the car was wired up to something. As if it might give off a shock when touched. Later; when Gordie came, he brushed the chrome and gently tapped the tires with his toe. He would not go riding in it, even though King urged his father to experience how smooth it ran ( 24).

In a chapter entitled Crown of Thorns, a binging Gordie Kashpaw flees his house in order to escape the haunting ghost of his wife June. In his drunken haste, Gordie runs into a deer which he puts in his backseat in the hope that, “someone would trade a bottle for it” (220). But as he continues driving with the animal in his car, it begins to move and Gordie kills it with a crowbar. Later when he looks into the backseat, Gordie suddenly sees June:

She was in the backseat, sprawled, her short skirt hiked up over her hips. The sheer white panties glowed. Her hair was tossed in a dead lack girl. What had he done this time?

Besides exposing how traditional Ojibwa beliefs continue to manifest themselves among the reservation Indians, these two episodes demonstrate how Erdrich’s characters view modernity. Gordie’s vision of June is consistent with traditional Ojibwa beliefs in the “common metamorphisms between human and animal life” (Vecsey 63). But Gordie’s hallucination is more the product of his inebriation than a spiritual revelation. In this fictive world, the sublime and the ridiculous often go hand in hand.

Traditional Ojibwa beliefs, though remote and often barely discernible from their origins, maintain a powerful grasp on Erdrich’s characters. When Henry Lamartine drowns attempting to cross a river, his Brother Lyman is haunted by the knowledge that “(t)he old one say a Chippewa [Ojibwa] won’t ever rest if he’s drowned, a rumor that both scared me and kept me up at night” (298). Like Christians, traditional Ojibwa are dualists who believe in an afterlife, and they also believe that a river must be crossed in order to reach the afterlife. However, the Ojibwa are required to swim across this river. “If one could not cross a stream in life, one could not get to the next world” (Vecsey 64). Henry’s drowning is also evocative of Ojibwa belief in an Underwater Manito which had the power to “cause rapids and stormy waters; it often sank canoes and drowned Indians” (Vecsey 74). Lipsha Morrissey claims that the water monster “was the last God I ever heard to appear” (236).

Despite his Catholic God’s admonition that “You shall have no other gods before me,” Lipsha has incorporated both traditions into his belief system: “Now there’s your God in the Old Testament and there is Chippewa [Ojibwa] Gods as well” (236). Lipsha speculates that the current plight of the Ojibwa is the result of both the limitations of a Christian God who has “been going deaf,” and the Ojibwa inability to communicate with their indigenous God:

by Richard W. Bray

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