Perhaps the most obvious evidence of Native Americans’ assimilation to white American culture in Love Medicine is the heavy presence of Christianity, especially Catholicism, within the novel. Catholic marriages are as common as traditional Ojibwe marriages in Love Medicine, and at the top of the highest hill of the novel’s unnamed North Dakota reservation sits the Sacred Heart Convent, a Catholic nunnery. The novel is littered with references to Christianity and Catholicism, and when the story opens in 1981, it is Easter Sunday, and June Kashpaw is surrounded by cartons of brightly-colored eggs. When June’s aunt, Marie Kashpaw, is a young girl on the reservation, she goes up the hill to join the Sacred Heart Convent, where Sister Leopolda, one of the convent’s nuns, badly abuses her. Yet in the midst of this clear and sometimes oppressive Christian presence is traditional Anishinaabe spirituality as well, through which Erdrich effectively argues that it is possible to have faith in more than one religion.
Catholicism is a major part of several of the characters’ lives, which underscores the prevalence of Christianity in European culture and its impact on Native American identity. Like her mother, Marie, Zelda considers joining the Sacred Heart Convent. She ultimately marries and has a family, but she spends her entire working life keeping the books for the priests and nuns at the convent. While she doesn’t join the convent in a traditional way, she remains closely associated with it, which reflects the importance of Catholicism in her life. When Marie’s niece, June, first comes to live with the Kashpaws as a young girl after the death of her mother, June’s only possession is a rosary, which she wears around her neck. June refuses to remove the beads, and while she doesn’t fully understand their significance, they represent her connection to her mother, and her mother’s connection to Catholicism. After Zelda’s own daughter, Albertine, grows up and moves to Fargo, Zelda is constantly asking if Albertine has met any “marriageable boys.” Albertine knows that by “marriageable,” her mother means “Catholic,” which again underscores the importance of religion in Zelda’s life, as the only men she considers appropriate for her daughter are Catholic.
On the other hand, traditional Anishinaabe spirituality is present in Love Medicine, too, which implies that Native religion persists, even in the face of Christianity. Marie’s nephew and surrogate grandson, Lipsha, speaks of “Indian Gods,” such as the trickster, Nanabozho, and Missepeshu the water monster. Within Native American culture, Nanabozho is often worshiped in connection with the creation of the Earth, and this god is clear evidence of Anishinaabe spirituality within the novel. Lulu Lamartine also practices traditional Anishinaabe spirituality, and Lipsha refers to her as a “jiibay witch whose foundation garments was a nightmare cage for little birds.” While Lipsha clearly considers Lulu’s religion a bit strange, it is nevertheless an important part of Lulu’s life. What’s more, Lulu is not the only character to partake in traditional Anishinaabe religious practices, as both Lipsha and Marie believe in the power of “love medicines,” an “old Chippewa specialty” and itself a form of Anishinaabe spirituality. While both Marie and Lipsha are undeniably devout Catholics, they still have faith in love medicines.
As Marie’s husband, Nector, ages and suffers from some form of dementia, he begins to loudly yell his prayers at the top of his lungs. “God don’t hear me otherwise,” Nector tells Lipsha. Suddenly, it occurs to Lipsha that “God’s been going deaf since the Old Testament.” God used to pay more attention, Lipsha claims, but now it seems he doesn’t have the time. Lipsha doesn’t know if the “Higher Power” is ignoring them, is really deaf, “or if we just don’t speak its language.” At any rate, Indian Gods “aren’t perfect,” Lipsha says, but they will “do a favor if you ask them right. You don’t have to yell.” In this way, Lipsha implies that even if the Christian God has forsaken them, there is still faith and power to be found in Anishinaabe spirituality.
God and Religion ThemeTracker
God and Religion Quotes in Love Medicine
So when I went there, I knew the dark fish must rise. Plumes of radiance had soldered on me. No reservation girl had ever prayed so hard. There was no use in trying to ignore me any longer. I was going up there on the hill with the black robe women. They were not any lighter than me. I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don’t have that much Indian blood. And they never thought they’d have a girl from this reservation as a saint they’d have to kneel to. But they’d have me. And I’d be carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And my toenails would be little pink ocean shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss.
I was that girl who thought the black hem of her garment would help me rise. Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing—that was me. I was like those bush Indians who stole the holy black hat of a Jesuit and swallowed little scraps of it to cure their fevers. But the hat itself carried smallpox and was killing them with belief. Veils of faith! I had this confidence in Leopolda. She was different. The other Sisters had long ago gone blank and given up on Satan. He slept for them. They never noticed his comings and goings. But Leopolda kept track of him and knew his habits, minds he burrowed in, deep spaces where he hid. She knew as much about him as my grandma, who called him by other names and was not afraid.
“Although I lost my spirit to Father Damien six years ago, gambling at cards. I’d still like to walk away on the old road. So when my time comes, you and your mother should drag me off, wrap me up in quilts. Sing my songs and then bury me high in a tree. Lulu, where I can see my enemies approach in their government cars.”
Her look was black and endless and melting pure. She looked through him. She saw into the troubled thrashing woods of him, a rattling thicket of bones. She saw how he’d woven his own crown of thorns. She saw how although he was not worthy he’d jammed this relief on his brow. Her eyes stared into some hidden place but blocked him out. Flat black. He did not understand what he was going to do. He bent, out of her gaze, and groped beneath the front seat for the tire iron, a flat-edged crowbar thick as a child’s wrist.
Our Gods aren’t perfect, is what I’m saying, but at least they come around. They’ll do a favor if you ask them right. You don’t have to yell. But you do have to know, like I said, how to ask in the right way. That makes problems, because to ask proper was an art that was lost to the Chippewas once the Catholics gained ground. Even now, I have to wonder if Higher Power turned it back, if we got to yell, or if we just don’t speak its language.
It was Grandma Kashpaw who thought of it in the end. She knows things. Although she will not admit she has a scrap of Indian blood in her, there’s no doubt in my mind she’s got some Chippewa. How else would you explain the way she’ll be sitting there, in front of her TV story, rocking in her armchair and suddenly she turns on me, her brown eyes hard as lake-bed flint.
“Lipsha Morrissey,” she’ll say, “you went out last night and got drunk.”
How did she know that? I’ll hardly remember it myself. Then she’ll say she just had a feeling or ache in the scar of her hand or a creak in her shoulder. She is constantly being told things by little aggravations in her joints or by her household appliances.
But when she mentions them love medicines, I feel my back prickle at the danger. These love medicines is something of an old Chippewa specialty. No other tribe has got them down so well. But love medicines is not for the layman to handle. You don’t just go out and get one without paying for it. Before you get one, even, you should go through one hell of a lot of mental condensation. You got to think it over. Choose the right one. You could really mess up your life grinding up the wrong little thing.
As I walked back from the Red Owl with the rock-hard, heavy turkeys, I argued to myself about malpractice. I thought of faith. I thought to myself that faith could be called belief against the odds and whether or not there’s any proof How does that sound? I thought how we might have to yell to be heard by Higher Power, but that’s not saying it’s not there. And that is faith for you. It’s belief even when the goods don’t deliver. Higher Power makes promises we all know they can’t back up, but anybody ever go and slap an old malpractice suit on God? Or the U.S. government? No they don’t. Faith might be stupid, but it gets us through. So what I’m heading at is this. I finally convinced myself that the real actual power to the love medicine was not the goose heart itself but the faith in the cure.