The Antelope Wife
The Antelope Wife
The Antelope Wife
THE LITERARY WORK
A U.S. cavalryman adopts a baby he has rescued during a slaughter at an Ojibwe Indian village. His actions, and those of the baby’s grief-stricken mother, form a mythical-historical backdrop to family relations in modern-day Minneapolis.
An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, Louise Erdrich was born in Minnesota in 1954 and grew up in North Dakota, where her Ojibwe-French mother and German-American father were teachers at the Wahpeton Indian Boarding School. Before earning a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University, Erdrich became a member of both the first Dartmouth College class to include women and the first group of students recruited to its fledgling American Indian Studies program. She launched her literary career in 1984 with Love Medicine (also in Literature and Its Times), which focuses on two interconnected Ojibwe families with homes on the reservation. An award-winning novel, it became the first in a series of four related works about Indian families on and near the reservation in North Dakota. Her sixth novel, The Antelope Wife, moves to urban Minneapolis, where the Indian spirit-world permeates the present and the actions of extended family members hark back to the past.
The Ojibwe people
Called various names, the Ojibwe are known also as Ojibway, Otchipwe, Chippewa, Chippeway, Anishinaabe, Missis-sauga and Salteaux. Historically the group called themselves Anishinabe (plural Anishinabeg) after the language they spoke. Having mostly escaped removal to areas further west, the Ojibwe remain in their ancestral lands, which stretch across the northern Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada westward to present-day Montana and Saskatchewan. More than 100, 000 Ojibwe lived in the United States in 1990, forming the third largest American Indian people. The group consists of assorted bands, who share the same native language and customary behaviors. Never have the bands united into an organized whole. Originally they were organized into discrete groups of families bound by kinship. Everyone also belonged to a totemic clan, whose members had to marry outside the clan. Society was patrilineal—when a man and woman married, the woman joined her husband’s clan. Grandparents and grandchildren had a special relationship, as do Cally and her grandmother Zosie in Erdrich’s novel. Ojibwe life involved woodland gathering (of wild rice, maple and sugar) and hunting (for fish, deer and beaver). During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the woodland Ojibwe became deeply involved in the fur trade with the French and British, who exchanged manufactured goods, such as firearms, metal implements, beads, cloth, and alcohol for furs, mostly beaver. Besides depleting the fur-bearing animals, trading had numerous social repercussions for the Ojibwe, causing extensive intermarriage, especially with the French. Some of the westernmost bands practiced a few different customs. For example, the
French fur traders brought glass beads to North America in the early seventeenth century, when they established trading posts in Quebec. The glass beads quickly found their way into native American artistry. Initially the beads were thought to have magical properties, which helps explain the name the Ojibwe gave to the item: “the word for beads in the old language is manidominenz, little spirit seed” (Erdrich, The Antelope Wife, p. 91). The inspiration for decorative art, the glass beads replaced porcupine quills used in native American quill-work.
Turtle Mountain Band in North Dakota and the Little Shell Band of Montana took up buffalo hunting on the Great Plains. Significantly for the novel, antelope ranged with the buffalo on the Plains.
Religion was a daily presence in traditional life. Manitous (spirits) inhabited rocks, trees, animals, and the earth and sky; Kitchi-Manitou, the Great Mystery, presided over all the lesser spirits. While most manitous were benign, malicious ones existed too, including cannibalistic giants called Windigos (associated with winter and starvation). Of special significance in Ojibwe culture, dreams were regularly interpreted for their significance. A namer would be selected for each child soon after birth. Guided by a dream, this person bestowed a sacred name and an associated benefit or power on the child. Later in adolescence, dreams gained a new importance. Teenagers sought to have dream visions, then bring them into reality with the help of a special talent, which would likewise be discovered through a vision. In the novel, young Cally has a pivotal vision that proves vital to her search for identity in 1990s Minneapolis.
Post-Civil War Indian policy
By the end of the Civil War, one of the only areas in the western United States not entirely open to white settlers was Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Continuing native resistance to white incursions prompted debate over the best Indian policy to pursue: should the United States “feed” or “fight” the Indians? The U.S. Indian Service argued for feeding them on the grounds of economy and humaneness, and Congress agreed. It would be cheaper to subdue resistance by negotiating the fulfillment of treaty commitments than by continued warfare. The decision led to the establishment of a peace commission in 1867, charged with convincing Indians to move onto reservations and the mandate to use volunteer troops to force compliance if persuasion failed. This approach to Indian affairs, known as the Peace Policy, drove the remains of tribal nations onto reservations in pursuit of the official goal—assimilating them into mainstream American culture. Intended to create dependence on mainstream modes of existence, the strategy of assimilation entailed the destruction of traditional Indian ways—for example, the age-old Indian custom, practiced by the Ojibwe, of hunting wild game for food. White settlers in the region during the post-Civil War era slaughtered buffalo and antelope, which coincided well with an effort on the part of U.S. authorities to destroy the subsistence base of Indian peoples and force them onto reservations: “Sportsmen shot the beasts from train windows. Railroad crews ate the meat… . And demand for buffalo bones for fertilizer and hides for robes and shoes encouraged” the slaughter (Nash, p. 588). Depleting the wild game and confining the tribes to reservations made them vulnerable to other forms of coercion too. Attendees of the Lake Mohonk Conference in 1890 plainly discussed starvation as a strategy to compel tribal people to accept white ways:
Question: If the rations were stopped, the people would starve, you say. If they cannot be taught [to farm and raise stock] until they starve, what would you do?
Mr. Riggs: I fear we should practically have to starve them until we got them taught.
(Proceedings of the Lake Mohonk Conference in Wub-e-ke-niew, p. 57)
What emotional effect did the forced removals, erosion of traditional lifeways, and starvation have on the Indians? The policies engendered a desperation that in part accounted for the enormous appeal of the Ghost Dance religion, which took hold among various Indian nations, in a fervor that swept the country during the 1870s and again in the 1890s. Founded by a Paiute Indian named Wodziwob in the late 1860s and revived by Wovoka, another Paiute, two decades later, the Ghost Dance was a religious ceremony centered on circular dancing, with the aim of resurrecting dead ancestors and restoring lost lands and animals. Wovoka’s followers included the Dakota Sioux, who took up the Ghost Dance on reservations during a time of widespread hunger. Although U.S. agents had promised to increase rations in exchange for the Indians’s consent to a reduction in their land-holdings and the creation of six separate reservations, rations were cut precipitously. U.S. officials grew alarmed as thousands left the reservation and took up ghost dancing in hopes of bringing back their loved ones, the buffalo, and the old lifestyle, and of making the whites, who had destroyed this lifestyle, disappear.
In December 1890, a surrendering band of ghost dancers led by a Minneconjou Sioux chief, Big Foot, was massacred by the U.S. Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek. The massacre led to the deaths of a confirmed 153, but a more likely total of close to 300, mostly Sioux women and children. The opening action of The Antelope Wife invokes this era of violence: Scranton Roy’s U.S. Cavalry unit attacks an Ojibwe village because they mistake it “for [a] hostile [camp] during the scare over the starving Sioux” (Antelope Wife, p.3).
In a discussion of Indian policy that took place in Washington D.C. in 1891, just days after the Wounded Knee massacre, Captain Richard Henry offered his opinion on what should be done to resolve the “Indian question”: “every plan should have in view the idea of separating the Indian from his tribe,” he said; “The Indian tribes can be and ought to be made to disappear” (Pratt in Wub-e-ke-niew, p. 58). Pratt’s view both reflected and shaped U.S. Indian policy of the period, which sought tribal submission through a new form of cultural destruction. The General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) of 1887 aimed to ingrain in Indians notions of private rather than collective property and destroy group relationships to the land. The Act broke up shared tribal holdings, then granted 40 to 160 acre parcels to heads of families and other individuals, also conferring U.S. citizenship on them.
To implement the Dawes Act, federal agents had to compile formal membership rolls for each tribal group living on a reservation. Although the act itself did not specify membership criteria, authorities defined tribal membership along racial lines. They disregarded traditionally inclusive tribal methods of determining group membership, which took into account not only heredity but also cultural practices, such as intermarriage and outright adoption. In contrast, federal agents implementing the Dawes Act used biology to identify who was Indian. Generally only those who could prove at least one-quarter-blood—and more often half-blood—ancestry of a particular Indian people were eligible to receive land. Large numbers of mixed-bloods were thereby denied both land and federal recognition of their tribal identities. In the case of the Ojibwe, many had difficulty meeting blood quotas because of heavy intermarriage with the French as a legacy of the fur trade. Not only did such realities inspire resentment against white authorities; the policy also caused resentment within the tribal community as to definition of Indians.
Further divisiveness resulted from a second policy. The authorities issued land deeds outright to those with some measure of white blood but held onto deeds for full-bloods, stipulating that these grants were to be administered by federal agents. Such favoritism toward mixed-bloods led to bitterness against them and, in extreme circumstances, to the attempted expulsion of mixed-bloods from tribal societies.
In the end, allotment created more damage than just reducing tribal land holdings (which it did by 65 percent, with the “surplus” opened to other uses, including homesteading by whites). It also created deep ruptures with formerly inclusive tribal societies.
To enact the policy of forced acculturation, U.S. officials concentrated on young as well as adult members of Indian tribes. Education became the forum for reaching the young, or more exactly, the Indian boarding school. The same Captain Pratt who wanted to extinguish the existence of tribes came up with a practical means of doing so. He founded the Carlisle Indian School from a former military base in Pennsylvania in 1879, his aim being to “kill the Indian and save the man” in each student. At boarding schools, children were isolated from their families for several years at a time, forced to accept Christianity, and forbidden from speaking their own language or wearing customary dress. The Antelope Wife brings to mind these dictates of the missionary-run boarding schools in the naming of twin daughters. Left behind by their mother “to the chances of baptism,” they are named Mary, “after the good blue-robed woman [mother of Jesus], and Josephette, for the good husband. Only the Ojibwa tongue made Zosie of the latter name. Zosie. Mary” (Antelope Wife, p. 15). The boarding school strategy seemed to U.S. authorities to be a wise one, and, following Pratt’s example, they embraced it. By the late 1920s, less than 20 percent of native children were receiving traditional upbringing outside the boarding schools. Dr. Lyman Abbott articulated the rationale for boarding school policy in this keynote address at the Mohonk conference in 1888 “Education for the Indian”: “Schools are less expensive than war. It costs less to educate an Indian than it does to shoot him” (Abbott in Wub-e-ke-niew, p. 109).
From reorganization to termination and relocation
By the 1930s, strict assimilation policies had been relaxed in favor of keeping remaining tribal lands in trust for the tribes. In response to the reformist efforts of John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933-45, the U.S. government reversed itself on many elements of Indian policy and passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. Presented positively as native self-government and the “Indian New Deal,” the Act nevertheless was criticized by some as having a negative effect on traditional ways. It replaced the remains of existing traditional tribal governments with new tribal constitutions and governments patterned on Euro-American models. Each of these new governments was to become “an agency and instrumentality of the Federal Government” (Collier in Wub-e-ke-niew, pp. 138-39). While each reorganized reservation had to prepare and ratify its new constitution, the process had the effect of codifying the views of those who had been educated at Indian boarding schools in English and Euro-American ideas and values at the expense of the views of traditionalists who spoke only their native language and operated on the basis of native standards and definitions. For example, the constitutions defined tribal membership in terms of blood quotas, transferring to tribal documents the fractional blood requirements that originated in U.S. government documents. Federal policy would change yet again. In 1948 the Hoover Commission declared that assimilation should once more be the goal of federal policy towards Indians. Conservative congressmen pressed for cost-cutting measures such as the termination of federal ties to Indian communities and an end to federal support for tribal governments. At the same time, the “heirship problem” became evident. Individual allotments of land to federally recognized Indians diminished in size, becoming so divided by inheritance that many proved too small to be usable. In The Antelope Wife, Cally’s twin grandmothers, Mary and Zosie, share such a tract on the “reservation homestead” in northern Minnesota, “the old allotment that belonged to their mother” (Antelope Wife, p. 198). Now the authorities faced a new question—how could Indians support themselves on plots that were so small?
In response to renewed support for the policy of assimilation and to the perceived problem of a “surplus” Indian population, the U.S. Congress implemented two new policies—termination and relocation. The Termination Act of 1954 ended the trust relationship between tribal people and the U.S. government. While the Act terminated federal control of more than 100 tribes and bands, it also ended official recognition of and support for these tribes and bands. The federal government meanwhile initiated an intensive effort to relocate people from reservations to urban areas. But there was confusion over which agencies were required to provide social, economic, and educational services for those who relocated and little infrastructure in place to furnish these services. The Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to take responsibility for the needs of re-locatees until the U.S. Supreme Court forced the Bureau to do so a couple of decades later. By this time, U.S. policy had again changed. The newest strategy, still in use, called for the U.S. government to transfer control of Indian services to Indian peoples themselves while continuing to pay for these services.
Urbanization and the Minneapolis Ojibwe
The effect of termination and relocation was to create large urban populations of American Indians. In 1900, 90 percent of federally recognized Indians lived on reservations; by the late 1990s only about 33 percent did. Although the U.S. government chose not to target the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul as an official destination for federal relocation efforts (precisely because the area was close to so many reservations), many Ojibwe moved there in the post-World War II years. By the last decade of the century, almost 48, 000 Ojibwe were members of the seven Ojibwe reservations in Minnesota (1993). Meanwhile, almost 24, 000 Indians of any type lived in the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities, over 12, 000 within the city limits of Minneapolis (1990). Indeed, most of these metropolitan-area Indians are Ojibwe. Included are many intermittent residents who travel periodically between the urban centers and the reservations. City life, in the minds and hearts of many of the relocatees, left much to be desired. The first decade of relocation, the 1950s, saw nearly half the migrants return to reservations.
Those who remained in the cities had to face a number of problems: joblessness, extreme poverty, alienation, social ostracism, racism, and physical violence. First the migrants had to adjust to separation from their larger Indian communities (which included not only members of immediate and extended families but animals, plants, and the land). Second they were faced more directly than before with values such as individualism, which conflicted with traditional tribal belief systems. The experience left the Indians disoriented, especially in the 1950s. Outside the reservation environment, many refrained from passing on old customs to their children. Many parents were themselves children of the repressive boarding-school system. Now their foremost aim was to protect their children from inequities that they had suffered; to this end, they did not pass on traditional knowledge.
How their children experienced this silence, according to one researcher who interviewed urban-raised Anishinaabe (Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi) people living in an undisclosed Great Lakes city, was with “confusion and frustration at their parents’ reluctance, unwillingness, or inability to really speak about being Indian” (Jackson, p. 192). When this silence was combined with the fact that urban Indians were often separated from other members of their culture, and thereby denied access to tribal knowledge and traditional practices, members of the urban-raised generation experienced a sense of longing and loss:
The majority of us [city-raised Indian people] walk around with this hole in our heart. We know we’re different, that there’s a piece of our life that is missing. And once we can [find out] what’s missing, and fill that hole ourselves, then we see a whole person emerge. We start asking questions, and we become these enormous sponges, and we just want to absorb, absorb, absorb. And it fills that hole.
(Duncan in Jackson, p. 195)
The pain of cultural loss has contributed to disproportionately high rates of suicide and alcoholism in American Indian communities, both of the post-World War II generation and later generations. Between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s, American Indian suicide rates almost tripled; urban suicide rates were the highest. A 1996 article reported the involvement of alcohol in an estimated 75 percent of suicides by American Indians; rates of death attributed to alcoholism among Indians ranged from three to thirty-one times as many as those of the general U.S. population (May, pp. 246-47). These alarming rates can ultimately be traced back to the social, cultural, and economic legacy of colonization and more than 200 years of shifting federal Indian policy. As one urban Anishinaabe woman from the Great Lakes region explains, her father’s alcoholism was a consequence of his self-denial, and his self-denial stemmed from humiliation at the punishment he received—such as beatings for speaking his native language in Indian boarding school—“for being who he was”:
My father was an alcoholic. A very sad man. Even though he tried not to be. And I understand now that it was because he was denying who he was. He was denying who his children were. And there was a lot of anger he suppressed over the years. And to get rid of that anger, he drank. And my father got in many fights [with co-workers], because they would call him “Chief,” or they would make derogatory comments.…
(Duncan in Jackson, p. 198)
Efforts to heal these cultural wounds have been underway in Minneapolis since the first half of the twentieth century and have gained momentum since. Aside from giving Indians more control over the programs that benefited them, federal Indian policy after the 1960s increased federal support for Indian services. Cities saw pan-Indian groups gain control over the administration of community programs. In keeping with this trend, American Indians in Minneapolis founded such institutions as the Upper Midwest Indian Center (1954); the American Indian Movement (1968); the Heart of the Earth Survival School and Red School House (founded by Indian parents and the American Indian Movement in 1971); and the Minneapolis American Indian Center (1975). Many actively participate in powwows, which are pan-tribal social events based on group singing and social dancing. The powwow circuit, made up of numerous powwows which are held at various locations and times of the year, continues to provide a bridge between different tribal cultures and between members of reservation and urban communities. The survival schools of contemporary Minneapolis provide an educational forum that encourages urban Indian youth to reclaim and reconstruct their tribal heritage.
Narrated by several different voices (including that of a clever, irreverent dog), the 1990s part of the novel’s plot, which takes place in Minneapolis, is interspersed with comic interludes, tragic events, and multiple stories from the mythical-historical past. Each of the novel’s four sections begins with a glimpse of a continuing creation story about a pair of twins’ beading the world. One sews with light beads, the other with dark, each sister trying to outpace the other to upset the balance.
The narrative is rooted in past events, which resonate beneath the modern-day happenings. In the post-Civil War era, during a U.S. Cavalry raid on an Ojibwe village, Private Scranton Roy bayonets an old woman, who sacrifices herself to save some village children. Dying, she mysteriously draws him into the moment of his own birth and utters a word, “Daashkikaa”—“cracked apart”—which conjures a vision of his own mother and sets him fleeing west (Antelope Wife, p. 4). Scranton Roy soon begins to follow a dog with a baby in a cradle board strapped to its back, evidence of the desperate attempt of a mother (Blue Prairie Woman) to save her baby. Roy rescues the baby, adopts her, and miraculously breast-feeds her.
Blue Prairie Woman is consumed with grief in the following years as she imagines what has happened to her forsaken child. Transformed by her restless searching, Blue Prairie Woman is renamed Other Side of the Earth. She has more children, twins called Mary and Zosie, but abandons them to search for her forsaken daughter. Just when Blue Prairie Woman finds the child, the mother dies of “mottled skin sickness,” a possible allusion to smallpox (Antelope Wife, p. 17). At the side of her dead mother, the young girl, wearing a necklace of the beautiful blue beads that had once hung from the brow of her cradle board, is approached by a herd of dreamlike antelope, which she begins to follow.
The story resumes several generations later, developing two main plot lines centered on the difficult relationships of the descendants of Scranton Roy and Blue Prairie Woman: the first plot line concerns Klaus Shawano and Sweetheart Calico (the antelope wife of the title); the second plot line concerns Richard and Rozin Whiteheart Beads.
Out on the powwow circuit in Montana, Klaus uses magical antelope medicine to trap a beautiful woman. Separating her from her children and the open plains, he brings her to urban Minneapolis, where her misery drives her to muteness and alcoholism. “I’ll do anything for her,” he says, “except let her go” (Antelope Wife, p. 30). Called Sweetheart Calico (after the piece of cloth Klaus uses to bind her to him), she drives him crazy with her strange, other-than-human power. Klaus becomes a homeless alcoholic, and his brother, Frank Shawano, the owner of a bakery, takes in Sweetheart Calico.
A woman who “alters the shape of things around her and… changes the shape of things to come,” Sweetheart Calico indirectly sets in motion the tragic events in the Whiteheart Beads family (Antelope Wife, p. 106). Fascinated by Sweetheart Calico, a mixed-blood Ojibwe woman named Rozin enters the bakery and meets Frank. This moment marks the beginning of their explosive love. When Frank is diagnosed with cancer (from which he later recovers), Rozin tells her husband, Richard, she is leaving him to be with Frank. In jealousy and despair, Richard, starts to asphyxiate himself. He abandons the attempt but not before inadvertently causing the death of one of his twin daughters, Deanna, who has secretly climbed into the truck in the sealed garage.
Sorrow and guilt over Deanna’s death consumes each of her parents. Although she and Richard have not been together since Deanna’s death, Rozin refuses for years to see Frank again, believing her infidelity has brought a curse on her children. Her husband continues to self-destruct, first joining Klaus as an alcoholic on the streets, then committing suicide—with a gun in the doorway of Rozin and Frank’s room on the night they finally do marry. Life turns out more happily for Klaus. Saved from accidental death by a mysterious dog, he decides to stop drinking and to release Sweetheart Calico, who has been broken and nearly destroyed by his need for her.
Much of the story is told by Deanna’s surviving twin sister, Cally, who searches for her identity in the patterns of family stories. One of her twin grandmothers, Zosie, holds the key to Cally’s spirit-name, that is, the sacred name given to her by a chosen namer, who dreams the name for a person and bestows it, along with a special power or benefit tied to the name.
The novel concludes with a return to the past, to the family’s heritage. Private Scranton Roy, in an effort to appease the spirit of the old woman whom he had bayoneted to death, brings his grandson Augustus to the remains of the village that he had helped destroy. Augustus marries Zosie and then falls victim to the machinations of both twins, becoming, in his mysterious disappearance, the unwitting reparation for the long-past actions of his grandfather.
The Antelope Wife involves an effort to discover and shape a mixed-blood identity by finding and reworking a connection to the past. In its focus on identity, the novel touches on an issue of major importance to contemporary urban mixed-blood youth: how to rediscover a tribal heritage under historical and environmental circumstances that seem to negate it.
TWINS IN THE FAMILY—TIMES THREE
Blue Prairie Woman Matriarch of the mid-to-late nineteenth century; an Ojibwa woman, she bears a set of twins about whom not much is known.
Zosie Showano Roy Granddaughter to Blue Prairie Woman, also a twin.
Rozin Roy Whiteheart Beads Great-granddaughter to Blue Prairie Woman and daughter to Zosie Showano Roy, has a twin sister.
Cally Whiteheart Beads Great-great-granddaughter of Blue Prairie Woman, daughter of Rozin Whiteheart Beads; a twin herself, Cally narrates much of the story.
Cally’s search, as an urban Indian, leads her to family stories, her spirit-name, and the land. Her quest is precipitated by an Ojibwe word that recurs in her head, daashkikaa. Asking her grandmothers the meaning of the word, Cally learns the story of Zosie’s naming dream, which turns out to be the source of Deanna’s and her own spirit names. In Ojibwe tradition, children “were given special names, dream names, at birth,” which “were sacred and were not revealed to strangers” (Vizenor, p. 13). These names were “like hand-me-downs” that still bore “the marks and puckers” of other owners and their lives (Antelope Wife, p. 217).
Cally’s spirit-name is a “stubborn and erase-less long-lasting name” that “won’t disappear”: Blue Prairie Woman (Antelope Wife, p. 217). The name connects Cally to her ancestral history and gives her an identity to both take up and alter. Because the name is handed down through the stories and dreams of her ancestors, it also links her to a sense of her tribal heritage that, as an urban child in contemporary Minneapolis, she has lost. Cally longs for something she misplaced in childhood—her birth holder, a turtle-shaped beaded buckskin “indis” her mother made from a few raw materials (her birth cord, sage, and sweetgrass). Her longing reveals her sense of a rapture between the past and future.
Cally’s discovery of her spirit-name leads her to another revelation related to her search for identity: an understanding of the continuity between past and future as it is embodied in the land. This revelation comes, indirectly, through Sweetheart Calico. Hearing Zosie’s naming dream, Cally learns that her own spirit name goes with the extraordinary “northwest trader blue” beads that, as it turns out, Sweetheart Calico has held in her mouth, under her tongue, for all her years of silence as a captive of Klaus Shawano. Pulling the beads out of her mouth, Sweetheart Calico trades them for her liberation; her first spoken words to Cally are “let me go” (Antelope Wife, p. 218). Though Klaus is the one who must finally liberate Sweetheart Calico, she and Cally roam the city all night, ending up in community gardens at its edge, where immigrant Chinese grandmothers are cultivating their plots. It is in these gardens that Cally feels renewed longing for her birth holder. The object represents her connection to tradition—to her mother, grandmothers, and the past, and ultimately to the land. “Once we no longer live beneath our mother’s heart,” says Erdrich, “it is the earth with which we form the same dependent relationship, relying completely on its cycles and elements, helpless without its protective embrace” (Erdrich, “Where I Ought to Be,” p. 50).
The land provides a connection between past and future. The smell of soil rising in the warmth leads to Cally’s epiphany—it is the “same even in the city, that dirt smell” (Antelope Wife, p. 219). Also it enables Cally to suddenly make sense of her mother’s adolescent dream vision, a vision that her mother had wondered about all her life. Cally recognizes her own special power—“I see this: I was sent here to understand and to report”—at the moment she interprets her mother’s vision: “What she saw was the shape of the world itself… . Gakahbekong. [The old-time Ojibwe name for] the city. Where we are scattered like beads off a necklace and put back together in new patterns, new strings” (Antelope Wife, p. 220). Though the city has obscured the land, in the gardens Cally realizes that what lies beneath it is the same land that was once a trading village, the same land that was once infused with the stories of a people.
The land is a locus of identity in the Ojibwe worldview. “In a tribal view of the world,” says Erdrich, “where one place has been inhabited for generations, the landscape becomes enlivened by a sense of group and family history… . People and place are inseparable” (Erdrich, “Where I Ought to Be,” p. 50). The urban environment, constantly changing and obliterating natural features, seems to provide little potential for such a tribal conception of identity. Nevertheless, Cally is able to reclaim a sense of the storied environment by recognizing the impermanence of the city on the land: “There are times, like now,” Cally says, “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” (Antelope Wife, p. 125).
Cally’s vision restores her sense of cultural continuity, becoming an antidote to her sense of a family, culture, and life-world “cracked apart” by recurring patterns of violence. Although people are no longer connected in the same patterns, in the city they are put back together, like beads, in new designs. Through her vision, Cally reclaims a heritage and identity being created in her own time.
Erdrich has said in interviews that her writing is inspired by the storytelling practices of her Ojibwe-French mother and German-American father. Her complicated plots derive, she quips, from “a mixture of the Ojibwe storyteller and the German system-maker” (Erdrich in Sprenger). Erdrich’s own bicultural background provides a potential model for the psychological predicaments of her characters, many of whom have divided identities. In her earlier novels, Erdrich explores divided cultural, religious, and gender identities; in The Antelope Wife she goes even further, introducing characters who are part human and part animal/spirit.
Erdrich’s novels have been influenced as well by the traditional stories of the Ojibwe, but she makes no claim to be retelling those particular stories. “The Ojibwe have been telling stories through and in spite of immense hardship,” she says, “[b]ut these are the narratives Ojibwe people tell among themselves, in Ojibwemowin” (Erdrich in Bacon).
The urban mixed-blood characters of The Antelope Wife are no doubt at least partly inspired by Erdrich’s own urban experience. After college, Erdrich became editor of a Boston Indian Council newspaper, the Circle. According to Erdrich,
Settling into that job and becoming comfortable with an urban community—which is very different from a reservation community—gave me another reference point. There were lots of people with mixed blood, lots of people who had their own confusions . …. it was something I wanted to write about.
(Erdrich in “Louise Erdrich”)
A more haunting similarity between Erdrich’s own life and that of her characters occurs in the relationship between Rozin and Richard White-heart Beads. In the story, Richard attempts suicide after his wife tries to leave him and succeeds only after accidentally causing the death of their child. In Erdrich’s own life, her long-time collaborator and husband Michael Dorris, writer and former Chair of the Native American Studies program at Dartmouth College, committed suicide in 1997 amidst their divorce proceedings (see Dorris’s A Yellow Raft in Blue Waters , also in Literature and Its Times). They had lost their oldest adopted child in 1991, the trauma of which Erdrich later identified as the beginning of their marital troubles. Although The Antelope Wife was published a year after Dorris’s suicide, it was, according to a prefatory note in the book, completed before his death. In a 1998 interview, Erdrich explained: “It was written by a writer who was afraid of what was about to happen and didn’t know how to stop it”; “it was written out of dread” (Erdrich in Stone, p. 69).
Most reviewers praised The Antelope Wife for its lyrical language and powerful intermingling of myth and realism. Several critics lauded Erdrich’s return to the non-linear, magical style of her first novels.
One reader suggested that, with its emphasis on contemporary, urban, and non-traditional characters, The Antelope Wife would go a long way toward answering objections leveled at Erdrich in the past. One such objection was to her earlier work’s portrayal of full-blood reservation Indians by someone who is of mixed-blood, East-coast educated, and urban.
Whereas reviews of Erdrich’s earlier novels often focused on their political aspects, despite Erdrich’s insistence that she did not write political-issue books, many reviews of The Antelope Wife touched on the personal, registering the eerie similarities between tragic incidents in the novel and events in Erdrich’s own life. “But there is light as well as darkness in this fictional universe,” asserted one reviewer; “encountering it offers pain and exhilaration in equal measure” (Postlethwaite, p. 6).
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Erdrich, Louise. The Antelope Wife. 1998. New York: Perennial-HarperCollins, 1999.
Jackson, Deborah Davis. “This Hole in Our Heart: The Urban-Raised Generation and the Legacy of Silence.” In American Indians and the Urban Experience. Ed. Susan Lobo and Kurt Peters. Walnut Creek, California: Altamira Press, 2001.
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“Louise Erdrich.” Contemporary Authors Online. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. 18 November 2001. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (20 Jan. 2002).
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Postlethwaite, Diana. “A Web of Beadwork.” New York Times Book Review 103, no. 15 (April 1998): 6.
Stone, Brad. “Scenes from a Marriage: Louise Erdrich’s New Novel—and Her Life.” Newsweek 131, no. 12 (March 1998): 69.
Sprenger, Polly. “More Love Medicine.” The Minnesota Daily. 11 April 1996. http://www.daily.umn.edu/ae/Print/ISSUE25/cover.html (2 February 2002).
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Wub-e-ke-niew. We Have the Right to Exist: A Translation of Aboriginal Indigenous Thought, The First Book Ever Published from an Ahnishinabaeo Jibway Perspective. New York: Black Thistle Press, 1995.