The Native Family Versus the Dominant Culture

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The current interest in what has come to be called “multicultural” literature has focused critical attention on defining its most salient characteristic: authoring a text which appeals to at least two different cultural codes. (Wiget 258)

Louise Erdrich says she’s an emissary of the between-world. (Bacon) “I have one foot on tribal lands and one foot in middle-class life.” Her stories unfold where native family and dominant culture clash yet rarely blend, a kaleidoscope of uneasy pieces. The reader becomes the mediator, an observer on the edges as two cultural codes (Wiget 258) collide.

She creates dyads: shards of interaction as identities reflect patterns from both cultures.

Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, Louise Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Her heritage includes a French-Ojibwe mother and a German father. With encouragement from her father, she learned to write stories and read William Shakespeare’s plays (Giles 44). Her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs School while her grandparents lived on Turtle Mountain Reservation nearby.

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She did not study the Ojibwe language or culture until she moved to New Hampshire with her husband, Michael Dorris. She had taking an anthropology class taught by Dorris at Dartmouth, which stimulated her interest in Native American storytelling. Feeling estranged from her family and heritage after moving away, she decided to learn more about the High Plains setting of her stories. (Habich)

During her lifetime, Erdrich probably experienced racism or prejudice because of segregation laws in the fifties. A member of the first coeducational class at Dartmouth in l972, she earned an MA in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.

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(Habich) She worked at a variety of jobs: life guarding, waitressing, teaching poetry in prisons, weighing trucks on the interstate and hoeing sugar beets. Erdrich found urban life different from reservation life when she became an editor for the Circle, a Boston Indian Council newspaper. She raised several children, some adopted, which provided insight and an understanding of human experience from yet another point of view.

Louise Erdrich reveals the Native American lifestyle and collects truths common to all races in her books of poetry, Jacklight and Baptism of Desire, and novels, The Beet Queen, Tracks, Love Medicine, and The Bingo Palace.

She commented in a 1991 Writer’s Digest interview:

The people in our families made everything into a story. They love to tell a good story. People sit and the stories start coming, one after another. You just sort of grab the tail of the last person’s story: it reminds you of something and you keep going on. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break and fall, it gets into you somehow. (Giles 43)

Family for Native Americans means living as a tribe where all adults share some responsibility for socializing the children. The extended kinship system connects an individual to all members of the society, either by descent or marriage, or through formal religious or social affiliations. (Encyc of No Amer Indians) In “American Horse,” Erdrich combines pieces seeking configuration.

Erdrich’s characters are met the way people in real life are met: you meet them and then you start knowing who their family is and what their background is. (Huey)

Set on the North Dakota Indian reservation, Erdrich creates dyads of conflict where characters interface. A mirroring polarity also occurs between two feminine worlds in “American Horse.” Albertine exists as the mother living in hiding and fear that the authorities will take her son, Buddy. The social worker, Vicki Koob, approaches with clouded notions of what is best for him. In all likelihood, she never has experienced motherhood. Each relates from her culture of inner core values and contradictions.

Through Buddy, Erdrich reveals a mother-son dyad. He is the product of “the man she had loved and let go.” (“American Horse” l96) Erdrich uses visual imagery throughout the story to reflect what is perceived and what is real.

Buddy had been knocked awake out of hiding in a washing machine while herds of policemen with dogs searched through a large building with many tiny rooms.

. . .”Tss,” his mother mumbled, half awake, “Wasn’t nothing.” But Buddy sat up after her breathing went deep again, and he watched.

There was something coming and he knew it. (“American Horse” 196)

The reader has sound and visual cues to determine Albertine’s condition. Is she sleeping or in a stupor? Later the social worker alludes to Albertine as an alcoholic. [But notice that the child only speaks of the sweet scent of powder on his mother, not of alcohol] Buddy is “sitting on the edge” along with the reader. When Erdrich changed the Buddy character to Redford for a chapter in The Bingo Palace, she included the words that he’s been knocked out of a dream where he was hiding in a washing machine. (Bingo Palace 171) providing more insight into how he gained his surrealistic visions. Buddy has a picture in his mind:

It was a large thing made of metal with many barbed hooks, points, and drag chains on it, something like a giant potato peeler that rolled out of the sky, scraping clouds down with it and jabbing or crushing everything that lay in its path on the ground. (“American Horse” 197)

In Bingo Palace, it becomes, “something like Grandma Zelda’s potato peeler” providing a concrete connection to Buddy’s apprehension. Buddy’s vision reveals that he’ll be peeled away from his home.

Buddy’s sexual identity also is awakening. He learns about women through Albertine with visual and tactile clues. The confliction further increases since he has created their situation, even though he realizes his importance in her life.

…he felt like hugging her so hard and in such a special way that she would say to him, “Let’s get married.” there were also times he closed his eyes and wished that she would die, only a few times, but still it haunted him that his wish might come true. (“American Horse” 197)

The narrative sets up for the dominant white culture’s power play, represented by the white social worker, Miss Vicki Koob, two police officers, a tribal officer named Harmony and a state officer, Brackett who have legal papers to take Buddy. They show no respect to Albertine, her maternal or civil rights. The dyad of two women has different visions for Buddy and of human life. One woman will fight for his life; the other becomes more concerned about her hair and sexual excitement with a co-worker. She treats Buddy like a used car:

“I want to find that boy and salvage him,” Vicki Koob explained to Officer Bracket as they walked into the house. “Look at his family life – the old man crazy as a bedbug, the mother intoxicated somewhere.” (“American Horse” 201)

[Notice how she assumes that she can salvage him or that he needs salvaging. She just assumes that she can embrace and hold him and it will be better than the embrace of his mother.]

“Not one thing escaped Vicki Koob’s trained and cataloguing gaze.” (Indian Horse 202) Vicki, in her focus on details, misses the family productivity seen in quilts made from salvaged wool coats. She sees only the television sets in various states of repair, and the minimal food in the refrigerator. Never reacting with the compassion of a woman nor a mother, her perception has limited vision.

Harmony vacillates in his identity as Indian and member of the white man’s world as peace officer. Harmony cannot achieve his own name. “Nor is it to be expected that the identity eventually achieved will be associated with any recognizable single culture.” (Caws 372) As a tribal officer who could be counted on to help out the State Patrol, Harmony thought he always had to explain about Indians or get twice as tough to show he did not favor them. (“Indian Horse” 199)

With the battle lines set, Uncle Lawrence comes eye to eye with Miss Koob.

“The eye bulged impossibly wider in outrage when he saw the police car. But the eyes of the two officers and Miss Vicki Koob were wide open too.” (“Indian Horse” 199) Lawrence’s vision extends beyond all of them. He must appear crazy to survive even though he knows they will take him away. Erdrich inserts a bit of comic relief and develops Lawrence as a trickster. “It’s impossible to write about Native life without humor – that’s how people maintain sanity.” (Bacon)

Uncle Lawrence wore a thick white corset laced up the front

with a striped sneakers’ lace. His glass eye and his set of

dentures were still out for the night so his face puckered

here and there, around its absences and scars, like a damaged

but fierce little cake. (“Indian Horse” 199)

In the final conflict between Albertine and Harmony, he shows a “dreamy little smile of welcome.” Albertine appeals to ancestral wisdom, her father’s power and grace:

[her father] American horse took the butterfly, a black and yellow one, and rubbed it on Albertine’s collar bone and chest and arms until the color and powder of it were blinded into her skin. “For grace, ” he said. (204)

She removes her belt to defend herself, swinging the turquoise butterfly that protects from negative energy. A Native American symbol of power, it represents life itself. A personal fetish was usually a crude representation of an object seen in a dream, either by the wearer or by someone who transferred it to him, together with the powers or benefits accruing from the dream (Callahan). She flings her final vestiges of power:

Her father’s hand was on her chest and shoulders lightening her wonderfully. Then on wings of her father’s hands, on dead butterfly wings, Albertine lifted into the air and flew toward the others. (American Horse 205)

Albertine expects to be shot but Harmony only hits her on the head and leaves her behind. To him she is trouble and not worth taking.

The last paragraph sets the scene for the helpless Native American, forced to assimilate into the dominant white culture. Albertine is knocked out on the ground. Miss Koob gives Buddy a candy bar while he rides in the back seat of the police car. Then Buddy reflects:

There was no blood on Albertine, but Buddy tasted blood now at the sight of her, for he bit down hard and cut his own lip. He ate the chocolate, every bit of it, tasting his mother’s blood. And when he had the chocolate down inside him and all licked off his hands, he opened his mouth to say thank you to the women, as his mother had taught him. But instead of a thank you coming out he was astonished to hear a great rattling scream, and them another, rip out of him like pieces of his own body and whirl onto the sharp things all around him. (“American Horse” 206)

Does Buddy taste the blood of his fallen ancestors from years of domination? Will Albertine rise again to find him? Erdrich leaves the final judgments to the reader in the hopes the story does not play out as it always has before.

[Use hanging indents for the Works Cited page – see example below]

Works Cited

Bacon, Katie, “An Emissary of the Between World.” A Conversation with Louise Erdrich, Atlantic

Unbound, January 17, .

Callahan, Kevin, “An Introduction to Ojibway Culture and History “

Caws, Peter. “Identity: Cultural, Transcultural and Multicultural.” Multiculturalism. A Critical Reader. David Theo Goldberg,Ed. Malden, Massachusetts:Blackwell Publishers. 1994 371-386.

Childrearing. Encyclopedia of North American Indians

Erdrich, Louise. “American Horse.” Stories from the Promised Land A multicultural anthology of American fiction, Eds. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea Books, 1991. 196-296.

Erdrich, Louise. The Bingo Palace. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Giles, James R. and Wanda (ed). The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, Incorporated, 1995.

Habich, John. Louise Erdrich: 2001 Artist of the Year “Star Tribune” December 30, 2001.

About Louise Erdrich.

Huey, Michael, “Two Native American Voices: Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Christian Science Monitor, March 02, 1989.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Spillman, Robert. “The Creative Instinct.” The Salon Interview. (9 July 1997).

Wiget, Andrew. “Identity, Voice, and Authority: Artist-Audience Relations in Native American Literature.” World Literature Today. Volume: 66. Issue: 2.1992, 258.

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The Native Family Versus the Dominant Culture. (2016, Jul 16). Retrieved from

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