Lulu Nanapush has never grown very far from her mother’s arms, and even when they sent her to the government school, Lulu ran away to get back to her. Lulu has been punished repeatedly for running away from the school, and she is often forced to wear the “hot-orange shame dress.” Her life is a series of “bells” and “rough English,” but Lulu misses “the old language.” She can hear her mother’s voice, even at the school, but it is old Uncle Nanapush who comes to finally take her home.
This passage reflects the painful legacy left by residential schools in the U.S. Lulu is humiliated at the school through the “shame dress” and is not shown love or respect. She was forcibly taken from her mother and stripped of her Native language, something that Erdrich repeatedly implies is intimately linked with one’s cultural identity. Lulu also seems to miss her Native language more than any of the trappings of her old life, which again suggests that language sits at the very center of her culture.
Free from the school and back on the reservation, Lulu feels as if the government can no longer “cage” her. When Nanapush came to get Lulu, he brought along his wife, Margaret Kashpaw, the one they call “Rushes Bear.” Rushes Bear doesn’t like Lulu, so she punishes Nanapush by spending more time at the Kashpaw allotment. “What’s you love medicine?” Lulu asks Nanapush one day. Nanapush and Rushes Bear’s relationship is quite volatile, and she even seems to hate Nanapush, but Rushes Bear keeps coming back. Nanapush tells Lulu it is because he lives on “Indian time,” which gives him more time to love and pleasure his wife.
Lulu’s reference to the residential school as a “cage” implies that the government considers Lulu and other Native Americans as animals that must be restrained, not human beings worthy of freedom, dignity, and respect, which again reflects the racism of broader American society. Rushes Bear is married to Kashpaw as well as Nanapush, and this further illustrates the deep connections between tribal members, even those who are not blood related. This is the first time “love medicine” is mentioned in the book, and it reflects the deep love Nanapush and Rushes Bear share. Nanapush jokes about the relationship, claiming Rushes Bear just wants him for sex, but Erdrich’s point is clear: Rushes Bear loves Nanapush, and that is why she keeps coming back.
Nanapush tells Lulu that he is old and will soon die. He “lost his spirit” years ago in a card game with Father Damien, Nanapush says, but he still wants to “walk away on the old road.” He tells Lulu that when he dies, he wants her to bury him in the highest tree, so he can see the government cars coming.
This passage reflects the presence of both Christianity and Native spirituality in Nanapush’s life. Notably, this recognition of Christianity does not appear to be something Nanapush willingly accepts (he “lost” his spirit to Christianity in a card game), and he wants to observe Native spirituality in his death. Many Anishinaabe people believe that one’s soul walks a three-day “road” at death, and Nanapush references this belief here. Anishinaabe burial practices often involve wrapping a body and placing it high in a tree so the spirit can escape unencumbered, but this passage also reflects Nanapush’s distrust of the U.S. government, which has repeatedly oppressed and mistreated the Native people.
Meanwhile, Rushes Bear’s son, Nector, begins to look at Lulu, and just when Lulu thinks Nector is putty in her hands, Rushes Bear tells her that he went out with Marie Lazarre. Lulu can’t believe it; Marie is pale as can be. “She’s ugly,” Lulu cries. “White as a fish!” Nanapush tries to encourage Lulu to forget about Nector, claiming the entire Kashpaw family is “poison.”
Nanapush’s reference to the Kashpaw family as “poison” is more evidence of the power of love medicine. Even he thinks Rushes Bear and her family are poisonous, so to speak, but he can’t stay away from her because he loves her. This passage represents Lulu’s perspective of Nector and Marie’s relationship, which she is clearly upset about. Like Zelda does, Lulu resents white people (and those she perceives as white), which ties back to the anger she feels related to the oppressive nature of America’s racist society and the forced assimilation of Native people.
In the spring, Rushes Bear comes back to Nanapush’s allotment and stays for quite some time. Her attitude is even worse than usual, and she tells Lulu that Nector is marrying Marie, one of those “lowlife” Lazarres. With the prospect of Nector gone, Lulu is forced to stay home with Nanapush, and Rushes Bear seems determined to make her miserable. She complains about everything Lulu does, says her stews are too salty, and pokes her bare skin with a stick, all the while claiming she prefers Lulu to Marie Lazarre.
Rushes Bear’s reference to Marie as a “lowlife” suggests that Rushes Bear, too, believes the Lazarres are no good. Presumably, Rushes Bear prefers Lulu to marry Nector instead of Marie because Marie is as good as white in her eyes, yet Rushes Bear’s harsh treatment of Lulu in spite of this lends valuable insight into Rushes Bear’s character. She is a strong woman and holds much power over her family, but she obviously believes that women should fill a domestic role, and she thinks Lulu is lacking in this respect.
Lulu is convinced that she can’t spend another minute with Rushes Bear, and she begins to spend her time sitting on a rock, staring out at the island where Moses Pillager lives. Lulu can remember him from when she was a child. He would come to the reservation and speak to Nanapush in the “old language.” Lulu knows, however, that Moses is off limits. He is too closely related, but she can’t stop thinking about him.
Moses is off limits because he is Lulu’s mother’s cousin, and he is considerably older. Lulu is attracted to Moses because she sees him as a means to escape, but he also represents traditional Anishinaabe culture. Lulu has been craving her culture, particularly her native language, since her residential school experience, which implies Lulu has a desire to return to a traditional Native lifestyle.
One day, Lulu asks Nanapush to tell her about Moses, but Nanapush is reluctant. Lulu asks why she shouldn’t visit her cousin, and Nanapush warns her to stay away. Moses has been on the island since a sickness wiped out much of the tribe when he was younger, and he hasn’t moved off since. Lulu says that she is going to see him, but Nanapush forbids it. Moses is too old, he says, plus, he is rumored to be “wiindigoo.” According to Nanapush, Moses’s grandfather ate his wife.
The wiindigoo is a Native American myth about an evil spirit, usually depicted as a large monster or beast, with ties to cannibalism. The myth of the wiindigoo is often interpreted as a cautionary tale against isolation, and this interpretation certainly fits Moses. Nanapush draws attention to Moses’s isolated life on the island, away from the reservation and tribe.
Lulu goes to the island anyway. Before long, Moses has completely fallen for Lulu, and he speaks to her in the “old language,” using words that have been “lost to people who live in town or dress in whiteman’s clothes.” The seasons pass, and Lulu finds herself pregnant. She asks Moses when they can return to the reservation. She can’t possibly stay on the island, Lulu says, and Moses grabs her, throwing her to the floor in silence. Lulu knows the answer. They don’t really need words after all.
Lulu falls in love with Moses largely because he speaks her native language, which again underscores the importance of language and the tragedy that comes from the loss of said language. Lulu’s native language is nearly extinct, and, by extension, so is her Native culture. Assimilation has forced many Native people to “live in town and dress in whiteman’s clothes.” In other words, they have assimilated to white culture, and in the process have lost their own. Moses represents a way for Lulu to get her culture back. However, Moses responds to Lulu’s request to leave the island with physical violence, which again underscores the disproportionate amount of violence Native women are faced with.