Beyond Borders: Trickster Discourse in Louise Erdrich’s Fiction

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Date: 2002
From: Beyond Borders: Re-defining Generic and Ontological Boundaries
Publisher: Winter
Reprint In: Contemporary Literary Criticism(Vol. 354. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,796 words

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[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Martínez Falquina analyzes the breakdown of traditional borders in Erdrich’s work, using as examples the depiction of specific characters in the novels Love Medicine and The Bingo Palace (1994). Martínez Falquina examines how these novels employ a “trickster discourse” to dismantle the opposition between “tradition and assimilation, traditional past and colonized future, and … indian and white identity.”]

Louise Erdrich is one of the most respected contemporary American writers, widely acclaimed by literary critics and the reading public both in the United States and abroad. Although generally classified as a Native American writer, her fiction actually resists conventional labels and places itself beyond their borders: Erdrich is of Chippewa1 and German-American descent, she is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band Reservation in North Dakota; she studied in Dartmouth College and Johns Hopkins University, and is currently learning the Ojibwe language. All of these influences provide her with a double perspective in terms of ethnicity and culture that is clearly reflected in her fiction. Also relevant in her work is the intensive literary collaboration until 1995 with the late Michael Dorris (1945-1997), which, in addition to the co-authorship of The Crown of Columbus in 1991, has enriched her own fiction with a double gender point of view. Erdrich’s authorial position is therefore established in a hybrid space beyond the boundaries that separate conventional definitions of indian and white, dominated and dominating.2 Since simple classifications of ethnicity or culture cannot be applied to her fiction, we need to reconsider these labels as well as the concepts they frame. This paper questions conventional categories such as indian and white, which, as I will argue, have been constructed with and sustained by borders. By rethinking the border and the difference it expresses, fixed concepts of ethnicity and culture will be destabilized, and we will consequently confront the necessity to configure new definitions of identity. In this sense, my approach joins the numerous references in current theory and criticism to concepts such as hybridity, liminality, (in)betweenness, borderlands, postethnicity, and so forth, that presently offer the most interesting and promising ideas. As I will argue, and resorting to Gerald Vizenor’s definition, Erdrich’s fiction is postindian because it subverts the stereotypical images of the indian and establishes a new sense of native presence. Her main strategy in this report is the configuration of a trickster discourse, whose two main features are its double-voicedness and the dismantling of binaries, and which I will analyse by looking at the trickster traits and stories of two of Erdrich’s characters, Lipsha Morrissey and Lyman Lamartine in Love Medicine (1984, 1993) and The Bingo Palace (1994).3

One of the main features in contemporary Native American literature is a constant emphasis on a search for identity. The impulse towards the recovery of a voice for self-definition is common among marginalized groups, and it acquires a special importance in the case of the Natives because of the strong, limited set of images that need to be reconsidered. Native Americans living today still have to confront a representation of the indian originally established from the point of view of the western colonizer, which has resulted in a series of fixed images that characterize the natives as others in relation to the whites, as the margin that opposes the center. According to Gerald Vizenor, the indian is an invention, the construction of a model through a process of simulation of the other, a hyperreality that takes the place of reality and is characterized by the absence of a real referent. The clearest example of such an invention is the term indian itself, a generalization which does not exist in any native language, and which is a western simulation that substitutes tribal names and perpetuates cultural dominance (Vizenor and Lee 1999: 11). The main feature of the indian is that it is based, like ethnicity in general, on “(mental, cultural, social, moral, aesthetic, and not necessarily territorial) boundary-constructing processes which function as cultural markers between groups” (Sollors 1986: 27). According to Fredrik Barth, the focus in ethnic configuration is

the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses. […] [A] dichotomization of others as strangers, as members of another ethnic group, implies a recognition of limitations on shared understandings, differences in criteria for judgement of value and performance, and a restriction of interaction to sectors of assumed common understanding and mutual interest.(Barth 1969: 15)
The resulting definition of an indian identity is based on an essential difference expressed in a boundary between indians and whites, and it is characterized by those limitations, differences, and restrictions of interaction. This construction conforms to the discourse of the colonizer as it is described by Edward Said: the descriptions on which it is based, which rely on rhetorical figures and stereotypes, sustain the belief that we are bringing civilization to them, a group of primitive or barbarian beings whose insurmountable difference makes it necessary to dominate them (Said 1993: xi-xii). Difference is also at the foundation of American civilization according to Roy Harvey Pearce, who describes it as “three-dimensional, progressing from past to present, from east to west, from lower to higher,” and in opposition to the savagism attributed to the indian (Pearce 1967: 49). The indian has therefore been reimagined by the West from the unquestioned preassumption of alterity and he has been continuously fixed in the margin of definitions in relation to the dominant power. Within the essential difference that separates him from the whites, an added one is constructed to divide the native in two groups, the noble and the cruel savage, which, according to the needs of each historical moment, have provided the colonizer with a point of identification and an antagonist respectively. Sympathy for the indian made him a godlike figure, close to the original, purest state of humankind, an idealized image that has served the Americans to identify themselves in relation to the native and the land, and which today serves the colonizer as a redemption of the sins previously committed against him. On the other hand, antipathy for the indian has brought about the negative stereotype of the cruel, howling savage, an image that reached its highest point of popularity during the advance westwards to justify the dispossession of a devilish opponent; nowadays the bad indian stereotype has transformed him into a drunken, lazy figure who has lost all trace of the true indian nobility that he had in the past. As a result of this twofold construction, based on what Gerald Vizenor calls terminal creeds, “beliefs which seek to fix, to impose, static definitions upon the world” (Owens 1989: 144), the indian has been conceived as a homogeneous, static and ahistorical other.4

The construction of the indian has therefore taken place in a binary system of thought based on a border which, by separating and differentiating white from indian, establishes an opposition between center/margin, good/bad, civilized/savage. Such dichotomies, that have consistently been applied to the definition and dominance of marginalized groups, present the two terms as alternatives and ultimately privilege one over the other. Consequently, this sort of categorizations is intimately linked with discrimination and oppression, which explains the attention it has received from postcolonial, feminist and postmodern critics trying to find and subvert the origins of inequality. Once the constructed nature of the binarism as opposed to its naturalness has been recognized, any model that attempts to substitute it without reproducing its negative effects should go beyond this structure based on opposition. An inversion of power such as the one that feminists and postcolonialists argued for in the beginnings of both movements managed to change the privileged term but they sustained the same model of exclusion. A similar problem is confronted by a theory of the border which claims that the mixture of cultures develops into a métissage which is superior to both sources, because this leads to new essentialisms in the same rhetoric of difference and opposition.5 What needs to be theorized is not the crossing of cultures or ethnic groups conceived as pure and essentially different, for the allusion to a space (in)between borders assumes and ultimately confirms the existence of these borders, and this always entails exclusion. As Homi Bhabha points out, “[c]ultures are never unitary in themselves, nor simply dualistic in the relation of Self to Other” (Bhabha 1994: 35-36), and their study needs to concentrate on

a place of hybridity, […] where the construction of a political object that is new, neither the one, nor the other, properly alienates our political expectations, and changes, as it must, the very forms of our recognition of the moment of politics. The challenge lies in conceiving of the time of political action and understanding as opening up a space that can accept and regulate the differential structure of the moment of intervention without rushing to produce a unity of the social antagonism or contradiction.(25)
We need to define a space not just between but also beyond borders, questioning them, showing their construction and with it, that of the conception of the differences that sustain and justify separation and exclusion. Such strategy relates to Derrida’s deconstruction, which underlines not an inversion of dichotomies but a subversion showing their usefulness to sustain power and the interdependence of the two terms that compose them. This does not mean that the hierarchies created by the borders we are dismantling should not be attended to, for natural or not, differentiation does lead to real inequality and discrimination. A balance therefore needs to be found between the deconstruction of difference understood in opposition, and the reconstruction of a coherent identity that is based on equal, integrative relations.

Louise Erdrich’s fiction shows a step in that direction, with a configuration of native and mixedblood identity that is based on a subversion of boundaries, such as the one established between indian and white, and the subsequent questioning of conventional definitions of ethnicity. In this sense, she joins what Gerald Vizenor has argued is the main purpose of contemporary natives. According to him, present-day Native Americans are postindians, for they live after the invention of the indian, and they must confront that colonial invention, overcoming the absence it characterizes and reaffirming a native presence in all its diversity and contradictions: “Postindians create a native presence, and that sense of presence is both reversion and futurity. Yes, and the reversions are tricky and ironic, as they have always been in native stories, but never as easy as cultural victimry” (Vizenor and Lee 1999: 84). Postindians are mainly characterized by what they are not and what they depart from, that is, indians, and the key concept in their definition is the affirmation of a native presence through the simulation of survivance—a combination of survival and resistance (73)—instead of dominance structures, what he calls manifest manners:

The postindian warriors hover at last over the ruins of tribal representations and surmount the scriptures of manifest manners with new stories; these warriors counter the surveillance and literature of dominance with their own simulations of survivance. The postindian arises from the earlier inventions of the tribes only to contravene the absence of the real with theatrical performances; the theater of tribal consciousness is the recreation of the real, not the absence of the real in the simulations of dominance.(Vizenor 1994: 5)
Erdrich’s postindian characters search for and negotiate a voice that represents the reality of living in a place beyond the boundaries separating two ethno-cultural groups, a space where the traditional conceptualization of these is questioned. The main narrative strategy that she uses in order to recreate the real in tricky and ironic affirmations of presence is the trickster and the configuration of a trickster discourse.

The trickster figure, especially the Native American, has motivated a wealth of studies, from the compilation of tales undertaken by anthropologists to the postmodern reappropriations in literary discourse and criticism. Andrew Wiget notes that “tricksters seem to be an ancient and universal phenomenon, however uniquely realized and valued from one culture to the next,” and some of his names are Hermes, Prometheus, Lazarillo de Tormes, Gil Blas, Melville’s confidence men, Mann’s Felix Krull, Ellison’s Rinehart, Bellow’s Augie March (Wiget 1990: 86). Carl Jung relates the Native American trickster to the carnival in medieval European Church and to some characterizations in folklore, Greek mythology and even Old Testament Yahweh (Jung 1956: 195-196), therefore he concludes that the trickster is “an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity” (200). Although its features vary considerably according to the context where it appears, the trickster is usually anthropomorphic, but it is sometimes related to a specific animal, and it has the ability to change shapes and to transform itself into a different being. With strong appetites for food and sex, it often engages in forbidden activities and is punished for that reason, whereas in other occasions its powers are beneficial for humankind, bringing along natural gifts and, in some cases, the creation of the world itself. It is therefore a figure that oscillates between fool and hero, and its most outstanding trait is surely its ambiguity and subsequent capacity to embody opposites; according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Paula Gunn Allen, “the trickster […] is male and female, many-tongued, changeable, changing and [it] contains all the meanings possible within her or his consciousness” (Allen 1992: 307).6 This feature has brought about two main types of interpretations of the trickster; on the one hand, it has been seen as a negative example in a story including a morale of what should not be done in a society. Victor Barnow, for instance, interprets many of the trickster stories in his Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales as “cautionary tales” that indicate “tabooed behavior” (Barnow 1977: 52). On the other hand, the trickster has been considered to function “not so much to call cultural categories into question as to demonstrate the artificiality of culture itself. Thus he makes available for discussion the very basis of social order, individual and communal identity” (Wiget 1990: 94). The trickster therefore appears in various contexts all over the world with the common function of allowing for the subversion of established categories, be it the order of a society, the stable definition of the world, or white power in a colonial encounter. At the same time, it is always situated in a particular context from which it cannot be separated, so its culture-specific traits should not be forgotten. Consequently, an analysis of the trickster needs to balance its function as culture-building and as culture-subverting, that is, as simultaneously embodying an affirmation of cultural coherence and the subversion of the idea of culture itself. More recently, the trickster has been reconsidered as discourse by postmodern critics, especially Gerald Vizenor and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. As we will see, Erdrich depicts many of her characters with trickster traits, especially the ones who are descendants of Nanapush, a character in Tracks and Love Medicine, who is directly related to the Chippewa trickster Nanabozho. On the other hand, her narrative can also be defined as trickster discourse, which is mainly characterized by its double-voicedness and the subversion of dichotomies through chance and contradiction. Gates defines in The Signifying Monkey a theory and tradition of Afro-American literature resorting to two trickster figures, Esu Elegbara, “both a trickster and the messenger of the gods” (Gates 1988: xxi), present in the Yoruba cultures found in Nigeria, Benin, Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, among others, and the Signifying Monkey, who is distinctly Afro-American.

These two separate but related trickster figures serve in their respective traditions as points of conscious articulation of language traditions aware of themselves as traditions, complete with a history, patterns of development and revision, and internal principles of patterning and organization. Theirs is a meta-discourse, a discourse about itself.(xx-xxi)
According to Gates, the main feature of Afro-American literature, embodied in the figure of the Signifying Monkey, is its double-voicedness, which refers to its two formal antecedents, the Western and the black, as well as to a strong presence of intertextuality within the black tradition itself, characterized by repetition and revision, or repetition with a difference. Erdrich’s configuration of the trickster discourse is double-voiced in the same way, for she establishes an intertextual relation with both Native and Western literary traditions. The multiple perspective and narrative decentralization characteristic of her fiction are features akin to storytelling as an expression of Native community, but they are also related to postmodern narrative techniques and to canonical authors such as William Faulkner. She also rewrites stories from both traditions, such as the Chippewa origin myth of Nanabozho on the one hand, and the story of Moby Dick on the other. Tricksterlike double-voicedness is also a feature of the indian sign, which Erdrich reappropriates and decolonizes “by inserting a new semantic orientation into a word which already has—and retains—its own orientation” (Gates 1988: 50), that is, by including her own comments on that construction. Elaborating on Bakhtin’s concept of double-voicedness, Gary Saul Morson states that

[t]he audience of a double-voiced word is therefore meant to hear both a version of the original utterance as the embodiment of its speaker’s point of view (or “semantic position”) and the second speaker’s evaluation of that utterance from a different point of view. I find it helpful to picture a double-voiced word as a special sort of palimpsest in which the uppermost inscription is a commentary on the one beneath it, which the reader (or audience) can know only by reading through the commentary that obscures in the very process of evaluating.(quoted in Gates 1988: 50)
The palimpsest reflecting the doubleness in the indian sign as this is treated by Erdrich is formed by both the colonizer’s construction of such a sign as the second term of a series of dichotomies, and on another level, by a process of deconstruction and reconstruction of those first images, and this doubleness is a feature of trickster. This discourse that contributes to a new definition of postindian identity.

Gerald Vizenor elaborates a trickster discourse theory aimed at overcoming “tragic themes, individualism and modernism” (Vizenor 1989b: 3), monological categories which have reduced, invented and consumed Native America literatures (5). “The trickster is a communal sign, never isolation; a concordance of narrative voices” (12), “a comic holotrope, and a sign in a language game” (Vizenor 1989c: 187). The trickster embodies contradiction, it introduces an element of chance in the world as we know it, and its function is to disrupt in order to allow for change. Vizenor refers to the liberation from dichotomies suggested by Roland Barthes as one of the main trickster features:

Barthes blurs the structural models, a “liberation from the binary prison.” To anyone who does not get into the binary categories of ordinary social reference, and the trickster does not, “the Neutral is the only nonimprisoning hope.” Barthes stands “for many-sided meanings, for the oscillation of value, for metamorphosis,” and he must stand for the comic trickster, the deconstruction reader.(202)
A subversion of dichotomies is the most outstanding example of Erdrich’s configuration of a trickster discourse, and the dismantling of opposites that we are going to analyse can best be seen in the change from an understanding of reality in oppositional terms either/or, to the world seen as the combination both … and … , or even neither … nor. … Conventional definitions of indian and white have been based on the opposition either/or, that is, on binary classifications and dichotomies through which the universe is perceived as dualistic, establishing, moreover, a hierarchy according to which one term, group, or set of ideas is privileged over the other. The subversion and replacement of this system with the addition both … and … reflects the multiplicity present in reality, which is not conceived of as dualistic but in ambiguous, contradictory and changing terms. Throughout Lipsha and Lyman’s stories this change can be observed in the conflict between dichotomies such as hero/antihero, natural/supernatural, and modernity/tradition. Lipsha and Lyman experience the current debate of how to live as Native Americans at the end of the twentieth century, the time of reservation bingo and mechanization, and a time when the influence of tradition has diminished considerably under Western dominance.7 As a result, their search for a definition of identity through their questioning of the role of tradition in their lives becomes the main aspect of their stories and characterizations, giving voice to a necessary debate for contemporary Native Americans. Significantly, the two characters appear complementarily throughout the narrative and the first impulse when analysing them is to classify them in opposition, according to the predominance of Native or Western epistemologies in each of them. Following this dualistic paradigm, Lipsha would be the traditional healer, inheritor of the spiritual leaders, while Lyman would exemplify the assimilation to the white world through the acquisition of economic power. In this way a borderline would be established between the two and the tendencies they each represent, giving shape to a world understood as an opposition between tradition and assimilation, traditional past and colonized future, and ultimately, between indian and white identity. As we will see, through the features of trickster discourse, these pairs of concepts are explored in an opposition that is ultimately left unresolved, for in spite of the obvious differences and confrontation between the two characters, Erdrich invalidates any fixed category of classification and proposes the alternative of an unresolved, dynamic view. She thus makes Lipsha and Lyman escape definitions in binary terms and recover a native voice that subverts stereotypes and images derived from the colonizer’s discourse. At the same time, this strategy proves the impossibility of maintaining an oppositional kind of thinking, breaking with the fixed borders akin to such thinking and presenting hybridity as an alternative.

Of utmost importance in these characters’ identity is the fact that they are both descendants of Nanapush, the trickster of Tracks and Love Medicine, who is named after Nanabozho. Nanabozho is the main trickster figure in Chippewa stories, he is responsible for the recreation of the world and he brings teachings and gifts to the people. Always on the move, Nanabozho transforms himself into different creatures, plays tricks, mostly related to his needs for food and sex, and he is sometimes the victim of tricks too. He ignores all kind of taboos and expected social behavior, killing his brothers and committing incest with his own daughters in some accounts, therefore his actions often disrupt the established order and social structure. Among other powers, Nanabozho counts on a remarkable verbal ability that serves him to ridicule everything and everyone around him.8 Both Lipsha and Lyman have some of this traditional Chippewa power, inherited from their trickster ancestors and from their spirit guardian Misshepeshu: Lipsha has “the touch” (LM [Love Medicine] 231-234) the capacity to heal in his hands, Lyman has “a touch for money” (181), and they both count on the love medicine with women as well as verbal ability. These features are passed on to Lipsha and Lyman through their relation to the lake monster Misshepeshu, who saves them both from drowning, that is, it has chosen them as survivors and has presented itself to them as a guiding spirit in a vision (BP [The Bingo Palace] 149, 218). All these powers, however, are invalid when put to a materialistic or individualistic use, which suggests an emphasis on the transformation akin to the trickster only if this goes together with the continuance of traditional communal identity. This is a feature of trickster discourse, defined by Gerald Vizenor as a communal sign that subverts silence and separation and rewrites the hypotragedies of isolation and individualism (Vizenor 1989b: 9-11).

In a constant search for a self-definition, Lipsha uses his trickster power to reflect on human nature and to question everything around him, especially Chippewa traditions and Catholicism, and he does so often in depth but never without irreverence towards all pre-established notions. He is ambiguous, sometimes unexpected, combines the serious with the humorous, and he accomplishes the trickster’s function of “keeping us on our toes, unsettling our comfortable views” (Smith 1997: 102), thus opening the reader’s mind through the subversion of all static truths:

You see how instantly the ground can shift you thought was solid. You see the stop signs and the yellow dividing markers of roads you traveled and all the instructions you had played according to vanish. You see how all the everyday things you counted on was just a dream you had been having by which you run your whole life.(LM 252)
Lyman’s trickster power, on his part, is mostly directed against western socioeconomic control, for he tries to subvert existing hierarchies of power making use of federal law to build a bingo hall in order to take money from the whites who have stolen everything from the natives (LM 327). Combining traditional gambling with materialism, therefore, Lyman plans a direct answer to discrimination and destruction:

They gave you worthless land to start with and then they chopped it out from under your feet. They took your kids away and stuffed the English language in their mouth. They sent your brother to hell, they shipped him back fried. They sold you booze for furs and then told you not to drink. It was time, high past time the Indians smartened up and started using the only leverage they had—federal law.(LM 326)
Lipsha and Lyman undergo constant change, they are continuously being redefined, and their unfinished nature “provides an escape from essentializing definitions” (Smith 1997: 77). Even though the Chippewa tradition is recreated through their link to the trickster stories, in an effort to escape the possibility of objectification or essentialization Erdrich does not restore such tradition as stable or fixed. One of the trickster’s transformational abilities related to its dynamic definition is its control of boundaries, including that of the body, so that “[t]hose characters gifted with Nanabozho’s ability to control, or dissolve, their own physical boundaries have the strongest identities” (Smith 1997: 73-74). Lipsha and Lyman do so—“I grow beyond the borders of my own body into one larger, sweeter, more skilled”—in a world where “[t]here are no perfect boundaries, no natural borders except winding rivers” (BP 80). Such a liberation from restraining borders hinders the possibility of any stable identity and represents the paradoxes inherent in any definition. The first of the oppositions that Lipsha and Lyman subvert is that of hero/antihero, winner/loser, and it is established as a response to the individualistic plot that derives from the narrative master codes of the dominant culture, whose political agenda, as Elizabeth Ammons notes, is committed to “the preservation and maintenance of elite male power” (Ammons 1994: viii). The main question debated at the end of Love Medicine and throughout The Bingo Palace is, which of the two characters should be the future leader of the tribe. A first classification under the shape either/or, or the protagonist/antagonist plot, would give us alternative options between Lipsha’s spirituality and Lyman’s materialism, that is, between either tradition or assimilation. The most convenient leader could be Lipsha, inheritor of the powers of the traditional Fleur and Nanapush, who has the healing touch in his hands, considers money a lifeless thing (BP 101) and believes in the goodness of simple values (102). The alternative would be Lyman, who lives for and is eventually saved by money, thinks it is a being with its own life and sexuality, that can make people better (101-102) and will facilitate salvation and survival for the Chippewa. According to this opposition between the two, we should have one winner in whose hands the future of the tribe could be left. The heroic aspirations of both of them are projected on the character they both fight for: Shawnee Ray, whom Lipsha defines as “the best of our past, our present, our hope for a future” (13), and who is associated with the native tradition and represents the spiritual power that would make them tribal guides.

Contrary to the protagonist/antagonist pattern expectations, though, neither of the two will clearly be chosen as hero, and the fight for both the love of Shawnee and spiritual leadership is left unresolved. This lack of resolution is best exemplified by the ambiguity at the end of The Bingo Palace, when we have no way of knowing if Lipsha survives the snow storm or dies in it, and which establishes openness instead of narrative closure.9 Lipsha makes a tricksterlike comment on the nature of this strategy when he points out that if this were a Greek tragedy, one of the two would have to die, “[b]ut us Indians, we are so used to inner plot twists that we just laugh” (BP 17). This is a metacritical statement that rejects the border between literary and criticism and which is double-voiced in the sense that it simultaneously relates to postmodern fiction and to the native tradition of storytelling, where, as Dennis Tedlock explains, the

teller is not merely repeating memorized words, nor is he or she merely giving a dramatic “oral interpretation” or “concert reading” of a fixed script. We are in the presence of a performing art, all right, but we are getting the criticism at the same time and from the same person. The interpreter does not merely play the parts, but is the narrator and commentator as well.(quoted in Vizenor 1989c: 199-200)
In one of the stories that accounts for the Chippewa creation myth, the two children born of the first woman destroy themselves and cause a flood to inundate the earth. The next two children born to this woman fight ritually for a pipe, the tribe’s sacred center, but it all ends in peace and balance (Wall 1994: 107). Lipsha and Lyman also fight for a traditional pipe as well as for the love of Shawnee, and their conflict ends not in one winning over the other, but in a new situation of balance and complementarity. Native tradition as represented by Erdrich subverts conventions like the one that assumes the presence of one winner, and shows us that one person’s identity, like the trickster, includes hero and antihero, tragedy and comedy, the high and the low. Since “the backwardness, the wrongness, the brush of heaven to the ground in dust, is a part of our human nature” (BP 37), this explains that Lipsha, with his good nature, humor and spiritual power, can also be a lazy, cowardly and squeamish antihero, which provokes various anticlimaxes and changes of tone in his interventions. It also helps us understand how Lyman, typical winner who fulfills every expectation as father, businessman and traditional Indian, can also be a selfish ludopath who often manipulates appearances for his personal aims.

Another significant fact that hinders a simple opposition between Lipsha and Lyman is their relatedness, that makes them inseparable and complementary. As Lipsha states, the two are so related that “[t]here aren’t enough words on the reservation for our line of kin anymore” (BP 38), and, elsewhere, “His real father was my stepfather. His mother is my grandmother. His half brother is my father. I have an instant crush upon his girl” (16). Their identities are defined in terms of their relation to each other and to their relatives, including their ancestors: Lipsha is “the hinge of bloods” (LM 318), a mixture of several families, and Lyman depicts himself as the combination of a Kashpaw face, his brother’s memory, Shawnee’s wishes, his mother’s hands, his father’s tracks: “He was everybody else’s creature but his own” (BP 148). This leads us to the dismantling of a second border, that separating the living from the dead. According to Wendy Kolmar, when the supernatural appears in traditional western literature, the binarisms “rational/irrational; human/ghostly; known world/unknown; natural/supernatural” are normally established, with the first element ruling over the second and confirming a system that perceives the world as dualistic (Kolmar 1991: 236). In the works we are analyzing, however, the dead appear together with the living, as we can see in the important role that Lipsha’s mother June and Lyman’s brother Henry Jr., both dead, play in their respective lives, participating and conditioning their choices. Therefore, and in what is another strategy to subvert the master narratives, the supernatural in these works is not seen as other but as belonging to experience at the same level as what is natural and present, which results in a worldview that is not dualistic but multiple, composed of “liminal, ghostfilled spaces of possibility” (Kolmar 1991: 248). This sort of representation corresponds to mythic verism, one of the characteristics of trickster discourse as defined by Gerald Vizenor, who states that

[v]erisimilitude is the appearance of realities; mythic verism is discourse, a critical concordance of narrative voices, and a narrative realism that is more than mimesis or a measure of what is believed to be natural in the world. […] The trickster is imagination, an agonistic sign in narrative voices; mythic verism is a concordance, the discourse we choose to hear and believe in literature.(Vizenor 1989c: 190)
The importance of one’s ancestors is a decisive element of a narrative of community, which in The Bingo Palace is personified in the first person plural chorus that opens and closes the text, and it is underscored in a definition of identity that includes a relation to both the dead and the living where the two are included in the universe and not understood in opposition, for as Lipsha says, “[i]f I see a ghost, possibilities will open” (BP 54). Lipsha and Lyman’s relation to each other and to their relatives and ancestors expresses an idea of identity in dialogical terms, where, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, “‘self’ can never be a self-sufficient construct, […] [for it] is dialogic, a relation” (Holquist 1990: 19). The oppositions between protagonist/antagonist, natural/supernatural are dismantled and so is the basic binarism self/other; this results in a subversion of the master narratives and in a definition of identity as relational, where there is conflict but also balance and complementarity, and where community is underlined.

The most significant contrast in these two works is that between tradition and modernity, which is the third subverted dichotomy under analysis. This element is the key that might serve to categorize the two characters in an opposition-based reading, Lipsha being the traditional, Lyman being the one who chooses assimilation. According to Victoria Brehm, “[o]n Lipsha Erdrich lays the burden of cultural leadership in his generation, passed on to him by Fleur and Nanapush, by positioning him in opposition with Lyman […] and to Lyman’s plans to achieve capitalistic success by building a casino on Fleur’s land” (Brehm 1996: 697). In the same line of thought, Allan Chavkin contrasts “the cynicism of the assimilationist Lyman with the inveterate idealism of Lipsha” (Chavkin 1999b: 109). In spite of the explanatory usefulness of descriptions in either/or terms such as these, a profound analysis of the two characters does not allow for such simplification. The truth is that Lyman searches for traditional spirit power too, and he finds it in his visions of Fleur and Henry, Jr. At the same time, we cannot forget Lipsha’s attempts at obtaining easy money to acquire objects and comfort, materialism being immediately associated with western civilization. The conflict brought about by the contrast between tradition and modernity does not clearly oppose Lipsha and Lyman, but it takes place in both of their personalities, expressing “the problematical situation of the contemporary Native American, who is torn between his need to maintain his allegiance to the beliefs and values of his heritage and the desire to assimilate and become a ‘successful’ modern American” (Chavkin 1999b: 107). Traditional elements associated to the two characters, such as the sacred pipe, the vision quest and sweat lodge ceremonies, tobacco offerings, gambling and dancing, and the presence of Native spirits like the lake monster Misshepeshu, appear simultaneously with Western objects such as cars, television, videogames, slot machines, as well as a significant presence of money and the material. In his first date with Shawnee Ray, Lipsha “found that he was looking hopefully and peacefully into Shawnee’s eyes as into a beautiful and complicated new computer game whose pleasures and secrets he could not yet and might never measure” (BP 33). Similarly, Lyman is playing at the slot machine and “all of a sudden, Shawnee’s face flashed into the little video square” (147). Love, chance and the native tradition are represented in close relation to the new, mechanical world, and the resulting debate between such tendencies is one that affects the whole tribe.

Moreover, the characterizations of Lipsha and Lyman both combine the symbolism of the road and the river: the road is associated with western order and measurement, whereas the river is related to chaos and Chippewa tradition. Lyman, who, according to Lipsha “never slips off course” (BP 38), and whose face “was lodged at the bottom of the river where his brother Henry had jumped in and drowned” (148), and where the car they both used to share is placed too, is thinking at one point of jumping off a bridge into the river which reflects his mood, “too weak to flow, too shallow to run” (94). At the bridge that joins the road and the river at the end of Love Medicine. Lipsha finds sense in what his mother June did to him, forgiving and understanding. When Marie comes back from her short walk on the death road, Lipsha “asked was there any stop signs or dividing markers on that road” (LM 253). He wants to know if there are any indicators, borders to simplify the way, which corresponds to his search for “staying power” (234) and is set up in contrast to the chaotic, immeasurable river: “I want to keep that firm ground, that knowledge, but my dreams are frightening water” (BP 52). The juxtaposition of the road and the river suggests a symbolic space between chaos and order, the traditional and the modern, and a combination of indian and white symbolism that can be further observed in these two characters’ view of religion.

The religious debate is particularly explored in Lipsha, who experiences the uncertainty of his lack of a firm union with one religious system. Lipsha finds that the Christian god does not listen to or help the Chippewa, at the same time as he realizes that because of the influence of Catholicism, their native gods do not manifest themselves as often as they used to. He continuously wonders which of the two religions is the true one: “Which afterlife? Whose God will I have to face if there is one, whose court?” (BP 53). Not wanting to be kept out of heaven, whichever heaven he is destined to, he tries to get ready for both, which gives way to an “unholy mixture, […] a religious practice concocted from two systems of belief at odds with each other in the service of a man inclined to bend the rules of both” (Egerer 1997: 78). As a good trickster who is looking for the easiest solution, Lipsha blesses the turkey hearts he is going to use for his love medicine with water stolen from the church (LM 240-252), thus mixing indian and white beliefs. He also makes the sign of the cross as a protection before talking to the traditional Fleur, who scares him (BP 128), and he reads the bible for advice, which results in a witty, tricksterlike criticism of Catholicism (154). In his story, Erdrich hinders the possibility of maintaining both worlds separated, and Lipsha’s trickster role allows for ridiculing the utilitarianism and static nature of beliefs.

Lyman experiences a vision that can be considered hybrid in a similar sense. At a certain point in his life, he finds a reason to live, which he had lost after his brother’s death, thanks to a modern vision with various traditional elements. After several months of physical and moral decadence, he finds a fiscal document and he realizes that he has a life in bureaucracy, numbers, and back accounts: “Out of a typo, I was formed. Out of papers, I came to be” (LM 301). In combination with a western content and chronology, his vision has a traditional structure: Lyman, with the right age for a vision quest, like the youngsters who wait for a vision buried in the ground, says “I went lower […] until I sank to a place I didn’t move from” (299). He has also undergone the previous fast necessary for a revelation: “My jeans almost slithered off my skinny hips. I looked down at my caved-in stomach” (300). What Erdrich does with this hybrid vision that combines indian (fast, vision quest, revelation), and white elements (numbers, papers, bureaucracy) is to question the separation of both and destabilize their static conceptualization, proposing the alternative of a relation of incorporation.

As we see, the conflict between traditional Chippewa religion and Catholicism, and between tradition and modernity is explored but not resolved in a unitary, monolithic interpretation, and Lipsha and Lyman face the impossibility to separate two religious and epistemological codes in a hybrid context. The future, as Lipsha significantly states, “[i]s more or less a gray area of tense negotiations,” for “[i]t’s not completely one way or another, traditional against the bingo. You have to stay alive to keep your tradition alive and working” (BP 221). This is Lipsha’s conclusion to the opposition between tradition and modernity, which have to be kept in balance and complementation in the contemporary world. As we learn this with these trickster characters, we also realize that truths are not static and fixed but always open and ambiguous as “we call our lives to question” (274), as Erdrich outlines in the last words of The Bingo Palace, with which she ends the work without closing it. The two tricksters’ main function is therefore to integrate traditional strategies in the modern world, besides subverting any simple epistemological or religious position.

The ethno-cultural relations between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and those of European origin have traditionally been determined by a rhetoric of separation that has led to an imaginary border between the definitions of indian and white, two terms that have therefore been conceived as essentially different. The inequality of the power system where this model is created has favored a use of terminal creeds in a series of inventions and definitions of the indian that have been claimed to support discrimination. In order to subvert this master narrative, and to recover the power of representation, the postindians like Louise Erdrich first need to confront the previous set of images and inventions that labelled the natives as static, ahistorical and stereotypical others. Erdrich’s strategy to do so is the configuration of trickster discourse, which embodies and dismantles opposites, replacing the old either/or rhetoric with a both … and … system. This leads to a subversion of borders that can be seen in the double-voicedness of such discourse, at the level of the literary tradition referred to, as well as of the representation of the indian sign. The space between and beyond borders that is defined in this way opens the questioning of indian/white conceptions, which are shown to be not naturally given but constructions of ethno-cultural difference that have served the political purpose of power confirmation. As Homi Bhabha notes,

[i]t is only when we understand that all cultural statements and systems are constructed in this contradictory and ambivalent space of enunciation, that we begin to understand why hierarchical claims to the inherent originality or “purity” of cultures are untenable, even before we resort to empirical historical instances that demonstrate their hybridity.(Bhabha 1994: 37)
As we have seen in Erdrich’s fiction, no definition of pure indian or white identity can be found in these works, and any expectations in that direction that we may have are necessarily subverted. The natives that I have analyzed are tricksters who rebel against stereotypical images as well as to a characterization as victims by being depicted in all their contradictions and ambiguity. The trickster in these contemporary texts serves the same purpose as the traditional trickster tales, where, as Andrew Wiget states,

[m]any stories suggest that the very attempt to impose order and structure on human experience is laughably presumptuous. […] The very absurdity of the situation highlights cultural categories we all use for ordering experience but which we have so successfully internalized that we never perceive them as social phenomena; they seem merely the way things are. Trickster’s foolishness unhinges such assumptions, displacing the ordinary from the realm of commonality and making it available for contemplation.(Wiget 1990: 91-92)
The trickster’s purpose is to make us rethink borders that used to be taken for granted, definitions that went commonly unquestioned. But at the same time, it is not limited to a mere subversion or disruption; Lipsha and Lyman’s stories reconstruct a sense of identity beyond borders that is dialogical and relational, integrating all elements of experience. Above all, the trickster is alive and working, like Lipsha’s idea of tradition, which is the opposite of dead and static; it is a presence in all its diversity and contradictions; a tricksterlike presence of Native Americans, and a presence beyond the absence in borders.


1. According to Gerald Vizenor, both Ojibwa and Chippewa are terms which were initially coined by non-Indians and although they refer to different tribal locations, they are often interchangeable. The original Native name is Anishinabe. Erdrich normally uses the term Chippewa, and only occasionally uses Anishinabe, which has determined my own choice here.

2. I will use italics to refer to the terms white/indian as ethno-cultural constructs in a dichotomy, and the border will be represented by the symbol /. Gerald Vizenor also resorts to italics, which relates to Derrida’s proposal to represent certain terms sous rature in order to show their simultaneous need and inadequacy (Sarup 1993: 33 and Norris 1982: 69).

3. Louise Erdrich’s tetralogy, composed of Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, and The Bingo Palace, was further complemented by Tales of Burning Love, which once again refers to the same group of characters and stories. The relation of her texts to one another goes beyond the borders of closed, self-contained novels. The edition of Love Medicine I am working with is the last one, expanded and revised. For an illustrative analysis of the differences between the two versions, see Allan Chavkin. 1999b Love Medicine and The Bingo Palace will be referred to as LM and BP for quotes within the text.

4. For accounts of the indian image, see, besides Vizenor, Robert F. Berkhofer, Richard W. Comstock, Roy Harvey Pearce, and William W. Savage.

5. See Johnson and Michaelsen for a very illustrative analysis of the limits of border theory, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 1992 for some interesting observations on the center/margin rhetoric.

6. Although I am not going to deal with gender explicitly in this article, I refer to the trickster in the neuter “it” to refer to its duality. As Andrew Wiget points out, the Native American trickster has more often than not been represented as male, but “this may be the result of a peculiar bias in the collection of these stories. Male ethnographers of the Boasian school expected elder males to be the repository of traditional knowledge and seldom sought out women storytellers” (Wiget 1990: 89). Female tricksters are a significant part of native storytelling, and many of Louise Erdrich’s female characters are tricksters, too.

7. For an overview of the legal background concerning Native bingo, see Nancy Peterson 1999, esp. 169-172.

8. For two different accounts of the tales of Nanabozho, see Basil Johnston and Victor Barnow.

9. It is significant that critics cannot agree on this point, which shows how successful Erdrich’s use of ambiguity and openendedness is: according to Victoria Brehm, Lipsha survives the blizzard, whereas for Claudia Egerer and Catherine Rainwater, he clearly dies in it (Egerer 1997: 81, Rainwater 1999: 156).

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100116866