Posts Tagged ‘Ojibwa’

Faith Might be Stupid, but it gets us Through (Part 2)

April 12, 2010

Louise Erdrich

Faith Might be Stupid, but it gets us Through
(Part 2)

Erdrich uses Lipsha’s preposterous theology to demonstrate how “Christianity has helped destroy the traditional Ojibwa religion but has not replaced it as the center of Ojibwa life.” (Vecsey 58) No Christian who believes in an omnipotent God could entertain the thought that He might be hard of hearing. But the alcoholism, disease, subjugation and extermination which has accompanied the white man’s conquest of the Ojibwa led many to question the power of their original gods. Erdrich uses the irony of a “deaf God” to reveal the spiritual abandonment that many Ojibwa feel.

While Erdrich clearly enjoys joking about the deafness of the Christian God, the preponderance of Christian references and imagery throughout Love Medicine creates an ethereal, almost otherworldly atmosphere. Yet Erdrich maintains that she is not a “Catholic” writer. She has stated in an interview that she writes about Catholicism in order to “exorcise” it from her system (Purdy 94). But the Christian symbolism woven so intricately into the fabric of Love Medicine betrays an ambivalence to Catholicism which Erdrich seems less than willing to acknowledge. There is even room for some reviewers to discern a hint of Christian allegory in Love Medicine:

Given all the obvious Christian references here, one might feel the urge consider to June a “Christlike” figure, one who has been sacrificed to the sins of history (Purdy 87) .

Although Love Medicine is obviously not a Christian allegory in the sense that, say, Crime and Punishment is, the overabundance of biblical images is obviously not arbitrary: Characters walk on water, wear crowns of thorns, and even achieve “sainthood”. And many of the chapter headings–Saint Marie, Flesh and Blood, Crown of Thorns, Resurrection and Crossing the Water evoke Christian imagery. But what effect is Erdrich trying to achieve here?

The last sentence of the first chapter reads: The snow fell deeper than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home (7). Later in the novel a character named Moses walked across the lake and appeared in town (75). These are clearly references to Christ. But they are not the kind of images which would bring comfort to pious readers. Instead, Erdrich assaults Christian sensibilities by comparing these two sinful, lascivious heathens to Christ.

Erdrich forges her most vigorous assault against the Catholic Church in the depiction of the struggle between “St. Marie” Lizarre and Sister Leopolda. This conflict can be viewed as a microcosm of the missionary enterprise. The sadistic nun who burns, beats and cuts an innocent Indian girl embodies the worst excesses committed against the Ojibwa by the Catholic Church. But Marie is determined to endure Leopolda’s torment in order to achieve sainthood despite her inferior status as an Indian girl who possesses a “mail-order Catholic” soul (44). Marie uses her guile to convince the nuns that the wound on her hand which she received from Leopolda is actually the result of a “holy vision” (60). The irony of Marie’s duplicitous achievement exposes Erdrich’s hostility for the Catholic Church. Despite Erdrich’s angry tone, however, the impact of Catholicism upon Erdrich and her characters is not easily dismissed. The cogent Catholic imagery in Love Medicine and the manner in which it shapes the lives of the Ojibwa in the novel attests to durability of faith, even in the minds of professed nonbelievers.

Erdich is certainly not a Catholic writer such as Flannery O’Connor who succumbs to the glorious masochism. But Erdrich wrestles with God in much the same manner as that oddly sincere Catholic writer, Graham Greene. The ridiculous yet compelling nature of Erdrich’s literary Catholicism reminds us of so many of Greene’s hopelessly flawed creations who tragically, and often comically, grope after grace.

Curiously, it is in the often ludicrous theology of Lipsha Morrissey where we find Erdrich’s most eloquent declarations on religion:

I thought how we might have to yell to be heard by the Higher Power, but that’s not saying he’s not there. And that’s faith for you. It’s belief even when the goods don’t deliver. Higher Power makes promises we all know they can’t back up, but anybody ever go and slap a malpractice suit on God? (245)

The incongruity of these words being delivered by the same person who substitutes the hearts of frozen turkeys for goose hearts in his love potion is striking. The irony here is that this persuasive testimonial of faith is delivered by someone whose actions rarely demonstrate any real religious convictions.

Native Americans have every reason to deny the existence of God. The most heinous crimes–murder, rape, larceny, and genocide–have been perpetrated against them in His name. And their indigenous gods were helpless against this onslaught. Yet faith, albeit “stupid” faith, persists in the minds of Louise Erdrich’s Ojibwa.

The various manifestations of God in Love Medicine, Catholic, Ojibwa and syncretic combinations thereof, are the results of Erdrich’s attempt to make sense out of her experiences. The people she portrays are, like all of us, both heroic and absurd, as are their explanations of God.

by Richard W. Bray


Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1993.
Purdy, John. Building Bridges: Crossing the Waters to a Love Medicine”, Teaching American Ethnic Literature Maitino and Peck, eds. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
Vecsey, Christopher. Traditional Ojibwa Religion and Its Historical Changes. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1983.

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

April 10, 2010

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