Critical Commentary

Survivance and Storytelling: Erdrich’s Tracks and Welch’s Winter in the Blood

When the victims talk back, they stop being victims.

Gerald Vizenor

Gerald Vizenor

For centuries, in cartoons, stories, songs and paintings, Native Americans have been culturally invented and represented from the outside. These invented narratives of decimation and victimry are described by Gerald Vizenor as ‘simulations of dominance’.[1] By moving away from the sentimentality that had characterised earlier periods of Native American fiction, contemporary American Indian writers have transcended their role as victim in their quest for cultural survivance.[2] Vizenor describes these writers as ‘postindian warriors’, a term coined by Vizenor and used to describe Native American people who pursue creative acts of resistance and are concerned with creating authentic counter-narratives of survivance.[3] My interpretation of survivance, or cultural survival, is not simply rejecting the dominant culture, or reverting back to a tribal past; survivance demonstrates an ongoing active process of resistance to overcome centuries of domination, oppression and termination. According to Vizenor the very term ‘postindian’ refers to those that have come after the invention of the ‘Indian’, and those that work against the forces of the ‘Indian’ invention.[4] Within this context survivance is more than mere physical survival. It is a primary concern of Native American literature because it represents the continuation through time of a tribal view of the world.[5]

In Tracks[6] and Winter in the Blood[7] the oral tradition of storytelling plays a significant role in enabling the protagonists to preserve their cultural identity, and it creates a chain of tradition that can be passed on from generation to generation. Both of these novels explore trauma as a complex psychological, emotional, social and cultural exploration of ongoing US settler colonisation on members of the native community,[8] and storytelling is represented as an essential tool for the preservation of traditional worldviews and the continuation of native survival.

Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich

Tracks chronicles the story of the Anishinabeg[9] community in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota and their struggle to preserve their land and culture. Through Nanapush, Erdrich captures the ancient art of Native American storytelling and although it is written down, Erdrich attempts to preserve a cultural tradition: one that is oral, performed and perpetuated by the storyteller. [10] By retelling tribal stories to Lulu, Nanapush is able to give continuance to his tribal culture, and in this way the stories come to represent the tool for individual survival as well as cultural survivance:

During the year of my sickness, when I was the

last one left, I saved myself by starting a story…

when I fainted, lost breath, so that I could hardly

keep moving my lips. But I did continue and recovered.

I got well by talking. Death could not get a word in

edgewise, grew discouraged, and travelled on.[11]

Nanapush not only saves himself with stories, but he also manages to revive Lulu with ‘certain cure songs, words that throw the sick one into a dream and cause a low dusk to fall across the mind.’[12] His stories discourage death, encourage life and enable the continuation of his name.[13] When the priest comes to baptize Lulu and asks for the father’s name, Nanapush considers; ‘there were so many lies. The waters were so muddy I thought I’d give them another stir. ‘Nanapush,’ I said.’[14] Nanapush serves a triple purpose in reminding readers of Tracks of the importance of tribal tradition, mythic condition and storytelling.[15] Nanapush’s narrative is social, metonymically invoking a living oral tradition and he directs this at Lulu hoping that he will resolve her alienation from her mother, and pass down the important history and tradition of his people.[16] Nanapush knows the old ways: ‘I guided the last buffalo hunt. I saw the last bear shot. I trapped the last beaver with a pelt of more than two years growth.’[17] As well as being a preserver of tradition, Nanapush is also able to tell Lulu where her place in the Anishinabeg history is: ‘You were born on the day we shot the last bear.’[18] He is able to provide Lulu with the knowledge of her tribal history, enabling her to reawaken her native consciousness. The stories this elder tells are cyclical and continuous, and they represent the serpent-like shape of the monster in the lake. The manitous, Misshepeshu, serves several symbolic purposes in Tracks; he represents native tradition and myth; he culminates the crisis between Anishinabeg faith and Catholic teachings; and the language Nanapush uses to describe him becomes representative of the storytelling cycle itself.[19] Nanapush tells Lulu:

Talk is an old man’s last vice. I opened my

mouth and wore out the boy’s ears, but that is

not all my fault. I shouldn’t have been caused to

live so long, shown so much of death, had to

squeeze so many stories in the corners of my

crain. They’re all attached, and once I start

there is no end to telling because they’re hooked

from one side to the other, mouth to tail.[20]

At the beginning of the narrative Nanapush tells Lulu of the Anishinabeg loss that he witnessed. He tells Lulu his story of resistance: ‘I spoke aloud of the government treaty… and I saved the last Pillager.’[21] Fleur, alongside her cousin Moses, are regarded with awe by the rest of the community and Fleur is represented as a powerful force of resistance and survival. She is a shaman with supernatural powers and her adherence to traditional Ojibwa customs draws her back to protect her family’s land on the shore of Matchimanito.[22] Fleur and Moses, the last Pillagers, represent in Nanapush’s story the ones who have most retained their Anishinabeg culture. Nanapush recognises these acts of resistance, pointing them out to Lulu and telling her, ‘I am a holdout, like the Pillagers… I could have written my name, and much more too, in script. I had a Jesuit education… before I ran back to the woods and forgot all my prayers.’ [23] ‘Nanapush represents the attempt to decolonise the mind and go back to pre-contact identity’ and by telling Lulu that he saved her mother’s life, Nanapush is presenting himself as a saviour of the traditional ways.[24]

James Welch

James Welch

David M. Craig identifies the conventional trajectory of Welch’s novels: Estrangement, Search for Self, and Return to the Indian World.[25] In Winter in the Blood the unnamed narrator’s estrangement is palpable within the opening paragraphs. He is completely alienated from his family, commenting on ‘a mother and an old lady who was thought to be my grandmother. And the girl who was thought to be my wife’[26] but ‘none of them counted. No one meant anything to me anymore.’[27] He feels ‘no hatred, no love, no guilt, no conscience, nothing but a distance.’[28] He claims that ‘the distance I felt came not from country or people; it came from within me. I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon.’[29] At this point the protagonist appears spiritually and culturally dead, and it is only his physical body that is still functioning. His estrangement from himself culminates at the end of Part Two, as he is walking ‘away from Havre’ the protagonist states that there were ‘no mirrors anywhere.’[30] He has lost all sense of self. The protagonist recognises his inability to forge emotional or spiritual connections with people, animals or places. He wanders about the sleazy bars in Havre desperately seeking some solace for his dearth. The representation of a world where all elements of creation are related to each other is a survivance strategy, a powerful assertion that despite centuries of colonial violence and tribal loss cultures may still flourish.[31] By applying this theory to the nameless narrator in Winter, we can see that these essential connections are profoundly lacking; until he is able to gain the knowledge of his cultural identity that he needs from Yellow Calf, the narrator remains completely disconnected from his family, his natural landscape, and ‘all elements of creation’. The narrator is afflicted because of his complete alienation from his Indian heritage and history, although it is also evident that he struggles with the death of his father, and particularly the death of his older brother Mose. What the narrator does not yet realise is that he must bridge the gap between his present and his past, as well as his tribal heritage and family history.

The protagonist’s search for self derives from a powerful urge to survive, to not end up like his father, ‘lying in that ditch with his eyes frozen shut, stinking with beer’[32] and he eventually becomes aware that his journeys into town will not solve his problem; he must ‘go home… it wasn’t the ideal place, that was sure, but it was the best choice.’[33] He realises that he must ‘go home’ in order to ‘facilitate the step out of an existence that spells spiritual and cultural nonexistence.’[34] From this point onwards in the novel the narrator commences his search for self. On his return home from the bars in town he visits his father’s old acquaintance Yellow Calf, who tells him of the bleak, desolate starvation winter of 1883 – 84 as well as other parts of Blackfeet history. Through this encounter with Yellow Calf the protagonist is able to collect details of his history and heritage, and by relearning his grandmother’s story, the protagonist is able to identify her struggle with his own struggle for survival.[35] Eventually the narrator recognises that it was Yellow Calf who provided the necessary protection to the protagonist’s then young grandmother, and it was he who fathered Teresa, not ‘the half-breed, Doagie.’[36] With this new knowledge, the protagonist begins to sense the presence of his Blackfeet ancestors;

And so we shared this secret in the presence

of ghosts, in wind that called forth the muttering

tepees, the blowing snow, the white air of the horses’

nostrils… sheltered these ghosts as they had sheltered

the camp that winter. But there were others, so many others.[37]

The importance of the elder Yellow Calf in Winter mirrors Nanapush in Tracks: they are crucial for enabling the reengagement of alienated youth to the history and tradition of the tribe. They therefore play an importance role in resisting simulated dominance and providing a continued native presence. These fragments of memory, knowledge and history that the elders pass down through stories are the essential tools that enable the protagonist’s to begin to rediscover their identities.

Many critics compare Winter in the Blood to T. S Elliot’s modernist poem ‘The Wasteland’. In The Wasteland there is a yearning to rediscover the ‘roots that clutch’,[38] to put together the fragments of the past and recover a spiritual significance.[39] In Winter the protagonist successfully puts together the pieces of his own past and manages to recover a spiritual and cultural significance, and for this reason he represents a continued survivance. Yellow Calf provides the protagonist with ‘the moment of release, a moment which the narrators sense of lack finds that which can ease its ache’.[40] He provides him with that sense of permanence that Jim Loney in ‘The Death of Jim Loney’ could not obtain, ‘a past, a background, an ancestry – something that would tell him who he really was.’[41] Before his conversation with Yellow Calf, the narrator has been a man without a cultural history; from Yellow Calf he learns of his grandmother’s struggle, the existence of his grandfather and the essence of his Native American identity. When the nameless narrator returns to the ranch he rises to a position of positive action for the first time in the novel. [42] By saving the cow drowning in the mud, the protagonist releases his feelings of guilt about his father and brother’s deaths and manages to feel ‘a oneness with nature he has never felt before.’[43] The protagonist’s final act in the novel is a poignant one: he throws the tobacco pouch into his grandmother’s grave, demonstrating a deeper understanding about Blackfeet tradition and culture, as well as a reconciliation between him and his Blackfeet past.

In Tracks, just as in Winter, the last word is survival; the vibrant Lulu returns, ready to be the recipient and preserver of Nanapush’s native stories and tribal histories, making it evident that the sense of a continued native presence is crucial to this empowered demonstration of survivance. Survivance, as it is seen in Erdrich’s and Welch’s texts, is a continuation, an ongoing-ness of native life. It is true that many Native Americans died and were, indeed, victims; but their story isn’t one of victimry. Survival, argue scholars Anna Lee Walker and Peggy Beck, means to seek life,[44] and in seeking life many Native American writers (and other artists) create a new consciousness and a renewed sense of native presence.

Notes:

[1] Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994)

[2] Karsten Fitz, ‘Bridging the Gap: Strategies of Survival in James Welch’s Novels.’ American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1996) p. 131

[3] Vizenor, Manifest Manners, op. cit., Chp. 1

[4] ibid., Chp. 1

[5] Deborah Madsen, Louise Erdrich: Tracks, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, The Plague of Doves (London: Continuum, 2011) p. 17

[6] Louise Erdrich, Tracks (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988)

[7] James Welch, Winter in the Blood (New York: Penguin Classics, 2008)

[8] Fitz, ibid., p. 21

[9] I use the terms Annishinabeg and Ojibwa according to Gerald Vizenor who states that Chippewa is the term employed by government treaties and used to refer to the Ojibwa people; whereas Anishinabeg is the term used by the Ojibwa people to refer to themselves, meaning ‘first’ or ‘original people’. Gerald Vizenor, The People Named Chippewa (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 13 – 14

[10] Jennifer Sergi, ‘Storytelling: Tradition and Preservation in Louise Erdrich Tracks.’ World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 2, From This World: Contemporary American Indian Literature (Spring, 1992), p. 279

[11] Erdrich, op.cit., p. 36

[12] ibid., p. 167

[13] Sergi, op. cit., p. 282

[14] Erdrich, op. cit., p. 61

[15] Sergi, op.cit., p. 280

[16] Susan Stanford Friedman, ‘Identity Politics, Syncretism, Catholicism, and Anishinabe Religion in Louise Erdrich’s ‘Tracks’.’ Religion and Literature, Vol. 26, No. 1, (Spring, 1994) p. 113

[17] Erdrich, op. cit., p. 2

[18] ibid., p. 58

[19] Sergi, op. cit., p. 281

[20] Erdrich, op. cit., p. 46

[21] ibid., p. 2

[22] Michelle R. Hessler, ‘Catholic Nuns and Ojibwa Shamans: Pauline and Fleur in Louise Erdrich’s ‘Tracks’’, Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), p. 41

[23] Erdrich, ibid., p. 33

[24] Friedman, ibid., p. 110

[25] David M. Craig, ‘Beyond Assimilation: James Welch and the Indian Dilemma.’ North Dakota Quarterly, (1985), p. 184

[26] Welch, op. cit., p. 1

[27] ibid., p. 2

[28] ibid., p. 2

[29] ibid., p. 2

[30] ibid., p. 100

[31] Madsen, op. cit., p. 24

[32] Welch, op. cit., p. 16

[33] ibid., p. 96

[34] Fitz, op. cit., p. 135

[35] ibid., p. 137

[36] Welch, op. cit., p. 125

[37] ibid., p. 125

[38] T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland & Other Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1999)

[39] Louise Owens, Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994) p. 149

[40] Paul Eisenstein, ‘Finding Lost Generations: Recovering Omitted History in Winter in the Blood.’ MELUS, Vol. 19, No. 3, Intertextualities (Autumn, 1994) p. 3

[41] James Welch, The Death of Jim Loney (New York: Penguin Classics, 1987) p. 88

[42] Fitz, op. cit., p. 138

[43] ibid., p. 138

[44] Peggy Beck & Anna Lee Walters, The Sacred Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life (Arizona: Navajo Community College Press, 1977) p. 49

Bibliography

Barry, Nora Baker. ‘’Winter in the Blood’ as Elegy.’ American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 2, A Special Symposium Issue of James Welch’s ‘Winter in the Blood’, (May, 1978), pp. 149 – 157

Beck, Peggy & Walters, Anna Lee. The Sacred Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life. 
(Arizona: Navajo Community College Press, 1977)

Craig, David M. ‘Beyond Assimilation: James Welch and the Indian Dilemma.’ North Dakota Quarterly, (1985), pp. 182 – 190

Eisenstein, Paul. ‘Finding Lost Generations: Recovering Omitted History in Winter in the Blood.’ MELUS, Vol. 19, No. 3, Intertextualities (Autumn, 1994), pp. 3 – 18

Erdrich, Louise. Tracks. (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988)

Fitz, Karsten. ‘Bridging the Gap: Strategies of Survival in James Welch’s Novels.’ American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1996) pp. 131 – 146

Friedman, Susan Stanford. ‘Identity Politics, Syncretism, Catholicism, and Anishinabe Religion in Louise Erdrich’s ‘Tracks’.’ Religion and Literature, Vol. 26, No. 1, Dancing at the Alter: American Indian Literature and Spirituality, (Spring, 1994), pp. 107 – 133

Hessler, Michelle R. ‘Catholic Nuns and Ojibwa Shamans: Pauline and Fleur in Louise Erdrich’s ‘Tracks’’, Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 40 – 45

Madsen, Deborah. Louise Erdrich: Tracks, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, The Plague of Doves (London: Continuum, 2011)

Owens, Louise. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994)

Sergi, Jennifer. ‘Storytelling: Tradition and Preservation in Louise Erdrich Tracks.’ World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 2, From This World: Contemporary American Indian Literature (Spring, 1992), pp. 279 – 282

Vizenor, Gerald. Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994)

Vizenor, Gerald. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008)

Welch, James. Winter in the Blood. (New York: Penguin Classics, 2008)

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