It is the day before Easter Sunday, 1981, in the oil town of Williston, North Dakota, and June Kashpaw walks confidently down the main avenue. June is a Chippewa woman, and even though she has “aged hard,” she is still attractive. She catches the eye of a man in a bar, and he taps the window, motioning her over. June thinks he looks familiar, so she goes inside. She drinks with the man, an oil worker named Andy, and eats brightly colored Easter eggs. Then, they leave the bar together and drive down a deserted country road. Andy parks the car and begins to take off June’s clothes, but he quickly passes out, pinning her down. June reaches behind her head and opens the door, rolling out into the cold night. As she walks, it begins to snow. The lights of Williston appear in the distance, but June turns and begins walking in the direction of the reservation—of home.
Weeks later, Albertine Johnson opens a letter from her mother, Zelda. Albertine can’t believe that her mother is just now telling her about her Aunt June’s death. June had died in a snowstorm a few weeks back, and even though Albertine has no desire to see her mother, she decides to go home to the reservation anyway. When Albertine arrives at her family’s house—the same house that has been in her family since the government allotted their land and “turned the Indians into farmers”—Zelda is in the kitchen with Aurelia, her sister. It is not long before much of the Kashpaw family fills the house, including Albertine’s grandparents, Marie and Nector, and her cousin, Lipsha. June’s son, King, arrives with his wife, Lynette, and their infant son in the brand-new Firebird King bought with June’s insurance money. He is supposed to go pick up Eli, June’s adoptive father and Nector’s brother, but Eli won’t ride in the car. Marie, Zelda, and Aurelia make several pies for tomorrow’s dinner and leave to go see June’s new headstone, but before they do, Marie tells Albertine not to let anyone eat the pies. Later, Albertine hears some commotion in the kitchen and finds King trying to drown Lynette in the sink. Albertine strikes his back, breaking his grip, and Lynette crawls to safety under the table. Albertine notices that the pies are destroyed and filling is everywhere. She screams at King for ruining everything and spends the next hour trying to put the pies back together. They have already been ruined, however, and there isn’t much that Albertine can do.
Back in 1934, a 14-year-old Marie starts up the hill to the Sacred Heart Convent. Marie doesn’t have “that much Indian blood,” and she is sure that the nuns will accept her. She prays better than any other girl on the reservation, and she is ready to take up the habit. Marie has been sponsored by Sister Leopolda, but when she gets to the convent, Leopolda is cruel and abuses Marie. She pours scalding hot water on Marie and even stabs her with a fire poker. Marie leaves the convent and makes her way back down the hill, where she runs into Nector Kashpaw. Nector is going up the hill to sell the two geese he shot with his brother, Eli, and he is convinced Marie has stolen the convent pillowcase that holds her few belongings. They struggle over the pillowcase, and Nector is pulled on top of Marie. Nector instantly falls in love with her, even though he is already seeing Lulu Nanapush. From that day on, Nector and Marie are inseparable, and it isn’t long before they are married and begin having babies. Nector has no idea what happened. One minute he was in love with Lulu, and the next minute he was in love with Marie, too. Lulu, however, leaves town and takes up with Moses Pillager, a much older man who lives alone on a nearby island. Moses lives a traditional Ojibwe lifestyle and speaks the “old language,” but even after Lulu discovers she is pregnant, she still can’t get Moses to live on the reservation.
June Morrissey is dropped on Marie’s doorstep in 1948. June’s mother, who recently died, was Marie’s sister, and there is no one else to look after June. Marie doesn’t want June at first. Feeding the children she already has is difficult, and she isn’t looking to add another; however, Marie sees young June standing there with a rosary around her neck and agrees to take her in. June finds her way into Marie’s heart and it isn’t long before she is Marie’s secret favorite, even above her own children. But June prefers Eli’s traditional life on the edge of the reservation and asks to live with him instead. Marie lets her go, but her heart is broken. As June leaves to go to Eli’s, Marie absentmindedly touches the beads of June’s rosary, which Marie keeps hidden in a can in the kitchen.
On a hot July day in 1952, Nector, a chairman of his tribe, suddenly finds himself in possession of a truckload of surplus butter. He needs to deliver it around the reservation fast, before it melts, but he is going to need air conditioning. Just then, Lulu drives by in her custom sedan. She agrees to help Nector, and they load the butter into her car. Lulu hasn’t spoken to Nector in years, and she wonders what she ever saw in him, but by the end of the day, they are in each other’s arms and begin a passionate affair. Their affair lasts for five years, until the tribe decides to evict Lulu from her house. Lulu’s house, which was built by her late husband Henry, sits on land that was never formally purchased, and the tribe says that Lulu is squatting. As the tribe’s chairman, Nector is forced to sign the eviction, and Lulu is furious. Still, Nector loves Lulu, and he writes two letters—one to Marie and one to Lulu—telling both women that he is leaving Marie and loves Lulu. Nector places Marie’s letter under a sugar bowl on the kitchen table and goes to Lulu’s. When he arrives, Lulu isn’t home, so he sits and reads the letter, smoking a cigarette. Reading and rereading the letter, Nector decides to go home and crumples Lulu’s letter, throwing it on the ground. A nearby cigarette ignites it, and Lulu’s house goes up in flames. When Nector returns home, Marie has already read the letter, but she puts it beneath the salt shaker and doesn’t say a word. For the rest of Nector’s life, he isn’t quite sure if Marie read the letter or not.
By 1982, Lipsha Morrissey hasn’t made much of his life. He was taken in by his grandmother, Marie, when he was just a baby because, apparently, his mother had wanted to tie him up in a potato sack and drown him. Marie constantly reminds Lipsha that she rescued him, and Lipsha is grateful, but it is getting old. In his eyes, he has already paid his grandmother back. Lipsha does whatever Marie wants, and he is the only one who can take care of Nector since he began to lose his mind. The problem, Lipsha says, isn’t that his grandpa Nector is slowly going insane; it is that he won’t stop chasing after Lulu Lamartine. After Lipsha finds Nector and Lulu having sex in the laundry room of the senior living complex, he knows he must do something. Lipsha has “the touch,” a sort of divine healing power of some Chippewa people, but he can’t get through to Nector—which is why Marie suggests the “love medicine.” Like “the touch,” “love medicine” is traditional Chippewa “magic” of sorts, and it is extremely powerful. Lipsha thinks about the love medicine and decides to shoot a mated pair of geese and feed their hearts to Marie and Nector. Since geese mate for life, Lipsha hopes that Marie and Nector will as well, and then Nector will forget about Lulu. Marie lends Nector’s gun to Lipsha, and he goes hunting. A pair of geese finally land near his blind, and he shoots, narrowly missing them both. He decides to buy two frozen turkeys from the grocery store instead, and the next day, Lipsha presents Marie with two hearts. She pops a raw heart into her mouth and calls Nector to the table. She serves him the heart raw on a bed of lettuce and tells him the doctor ordered more iron in his diet. Nector is hesitant but finally puts the heart in his mouth. He rolls it around in his mouth, giving Marie a hard time, and she smacks him on the back to get him to swallow. Nector, however, chokes and dies.
Lipsha isn’t sure if he is to blame for Nector’s death, or if Marie is, but when the ghost of Nector comes to visit Marie and Lipsha, Marie knows that the love medicine worked. Lipsha confesses that he had tampered with the hearts. It wasn’t the love medicine that has brought Nector back, Lipsha says; it is Nector’s love for them. Nector visits Lulu, too, and after she returns from an eye operation, Marie volunteers to help take care of her. Lulu and Marie become close friends, and Lulu soon tells Lipsha all about his mother, June, and his father, Gerry. Gerry is Lulu’s son, which makes Lipsha her grandson. She wants Lipsha to know the truth about who he is, and she wants him to know that June didn’t want to drown him—she just wanted him to have a better life. Lulu figures she has nothing to lose by telling Lipsha the truth; either she gets a grandson, or some kid that has never liked her still doesn’t. Then, she asks Lipsha to choose.
In the following days, Marie tells Lipsha that she doesn’t trust the banks and is keeping her money hidden in her underwear drawer. She doesn’t know what she will do with it—after all, she’s an old woman—and Lipsha senses that she is telling him to take it. It is her way of telling him to get off the reservation and clear his head. So, he does. Lipsha takes the money and goes to a border town, where he joins the army. However, he immediately recognizes his mistake and runs away. Plus, Lipsha wants to find his dad, who Lulu said is being transferred to the state penitentiary. He had allegedly shot a state trooper, and he has a history of breaking out of prison. Lipsha goes to Minneapolis, to King and Lynette’s apartment, and they seem strangely uncomfortable. Lipsha is convinced they know he is June’s son—just like King is—but their behavior goes beyond mere awkwardness. They begin to play cards, and a news report on the radio says that Gerry Nanapush has escaped from the penitentiary. Lipsha cheers and Gerry walks into the room. He sits down and picks up the cards. It seems that Gerry and King were in prison together and King had snitched on Gerry’s plan to escape, adding years to his sentence.
Gerry turns to Lipsha and asks who he is. “Lipsha Morrissey,” he says proudly. Gerry smiles. He suggests a round of poker, and they decide the winner will take the Firebird King bought with June’s insurance money. Both Lipsha and Gerry have been taught by Lulu how to cheat at cards, and Lipsha deals himself a royal flush. As he lays his cards down, the police bang on the door, and Gerry slips out the back. The police leave, and Lipsha drives away in his new car, discovering Gerry in the trunk. He drives Gerry to the Canadian border, and along the way, Gerry confirms that he is indeed Lipsha’s father. Lipsha drops Gerry at the border and feels a tremendous sense of closure. His father is a good man, despite his criminal past, and June had only wanted Lipsha to have a good life. He understands now and is even more grateful for Marie. Lipsha gets into the car and heads home to the reservation.