While Love Medicine focuses on the Native American identities of the Kashpaws and the Lamartines, most of their Native culture has been lost to assimilation and the westward expansion of European colonialism. Both the Kashpaws and the Lamartines can trace their families back to the very beginning of their North Dakota reservation, when the government allotted each of the Native families small swaths of land—although this doesn’t mean that their lifestyles and families were left intact. On the contrary, families were forced to separate due to land shortages and the devastating effects of residential schools, which isolated children from their communities and stripped them of their Native culture and language. In fact, Native culture appears at first glance to be nearly absent from the lives of the Kashpaws and Lamartines, who live mostly modern lives with modern jobs, cars, and clothing. Despite this forced whitewashing and the inevitable racism that comes along with it, Native American characters within Love Medicine manage to maintain a critical essence of their culture and identity, through which Erdrich ultimately argues that Native culture and identity in modernity is often a mix of Indian tradition and European influence.
The cultural assimilation of Native Americans is a constant presence in Erdrich’s novel, which underscores the widespread whitewashing of Native culture at the hands of the United States government. When Albertine Johnson, the granddaughter of Marie and Nector Kashpaw, is first introduced, Albertine says she was raised by her mother, Zelda, in a trailer on the same land Albertine’s great-grandparents, Rushes Bear and the original Kashpaw, “were allotted when the government decided to turn Indians into farmers.” Not only does the government tell Albertine and her family where to live, they tell them how to live, forcing them to abandon their traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering for farming. As Lulu Lamartine tells the story of her early life on the reservation, she speaks of the government school from which she frequently ran away. She was found each time and returned to the school, where she was forced to wear a “hot-orange shame dress” as punishment for running away. She was constantly disciplined and isolated. “I lived by bells, orders, flat voices, rough English,” Lulu says. “I missed the old language in my mother’s mouth.” By removing Lulu from her family and depriving her of her Native language, she was effectively separated from her culture as well. Later, Lulu marries Moses Pillager, an elderly tribe member who lives alone and as close to their Native culture as possible. Moses speaks “the old language,” and he uses “words that few remember, forgotten, lost to people who live in town or dress in whiteman’s clothes.” Lulu is drawn to Moses because of his connection to traditional Anishinaabe culture—particularly his ability to speak their language, which has been largely erased by European culture.
In addition to this forced assimilation, Erdrich’s characters are faced with daily racism and discrimination as well, which reflects the widespread racism against indigenous people present in American society. When Marie is a young girl, she joins the Sacred Heart Convent, where Sister Leopolda repeatedly abuses her because of her Native identity. Sister Leopolda is convinced that Marie is the absolute worst of the children and claims that “the Dark One wants [Marie] most of all.” Marie is made to believe that she is more vulnerable to the evil of the devil simply because she is a Native American. As a young man, Nector Kashpaw goes to Hollywood where he is recruited as an actor and a model. However, movie directors only want him to grab his chest and fall dead from horses, and a well-known painter makes him the center of the Plunge of the Brave, a painting that hangs in the Bismarck state capital, in which Nector is jumping naked from a cliff to a rocky river below. “The only interesting Indian is dead, or dying by falling backwards off a horse,” Nector tells others of his Hollywood experiences, which further serve to highlight the deep-seated racism Native Americans are forced to endure across the United States. By the time Lulu is an older woman, she is so mistrusting of the American government that she refuses to open her door to the United States census. “I say that every time they counted us they knew the precise number to get rid of,” Lulu remarks, again stressing the widespread, and often violent, discrimination faced by indigenous people in American society.
Despite pervasive racism and the whitewashing of Native culture, Erdrich does not portray her characters as victims. Each of the characters in Love Medicine manage to embrace their culture in small yet meaningful ways, and it is never fully erased despite the best efforts of the United States government. By the end of the novel, both Lulu and Marie are known for their knowledge of “old-time traditional” Anishinaabe culture, and even Lipsha, Marie’s nephew and Lulu’s grandson, has Lulu’s traditional “insight” and Marie’s ability to ascertain “visions” from “a lump of tinfoil.” The identities of Erdrich’s Native characters are at once products of traditional Native culture and European customs, which implies that most Native Americans in modernity are a little bit of both.
Native Culture, Assimilation, and Racism ThemeTracker
Native Culture, Assimilation, and Racism Quotes in Love Medicine
She had let the government put Nector in school but hidden Eli, the one she couldn’t part with, in the root cellar dug beneath her floor. In that way she gained a son on either side of the line. Nector came home from boarding school knowing white reading and writing, while Eli knew the woods. Now, these many years later, hard to tell why or how, my great-uncle Eli was still sharp, while Grandpa’s mind had left us, gone wary and wild.
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.
Following my mother, I ran away from the government school. I ran away so often that my dress was always the hot-orange shame dress and my furious scrubbing thinned sidewalks the matrons forced me to wash. Punished and alone, I made and tore down and remade all the dormitory beds. I lived by bells, orders, flat voices, rough English. I missed the old language in my mother’s mouth.
“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.”
Lulu’s boys had grown into a kind of pack. They always hung together. When a shot went true, their gangling legs, encased alike in faded denim, shifted as if a ripple went through them collectively. They moved in dance steps too intricate for the noninitiated eye to imitate or understand. Clearly they were of one soul. Handsome, rangy, wildly various, they were bound in total loyalty, not by oath but by the simple, unquestioning belongingness of part of one organism.
I could not believe it, later, when she showed me the picture. Plunge of the Brave, was the title of it. Later on, that picture would become famous. It would hang in the Bismarck state capitol. There I was, jumping off a cliff, naked of course, down into a rocky river. Certain death. Remember Custer’s saying? The only good Indian is a dead Indian? Well, from my dealings with whites I would add to that quote: “The only interesting Indian is dead, or dying by falling backwards off a horse.”
One night Henry was off somewhere. I took myself a hammer. I went out to that car and 1 did a number on its underside. Whacked it up. Bent the tail pipe double. Ripped the muffler loose. By the time 1 was done with the car it looked worse than any typical Indian car that has been driven all its life on reservation roads, which they always say are like government promises—full of holes. It just about hurt me. I’ll tell you that! I threw dirt in the carburetor and I ripped all the electric tape off the seats. I made it look just as beat-up as I could. Then I sat back and waited for Henry to find it.
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.
I believed this way even before those yellow-bearded government surveyors in their tie boots came to measure the land around Henry’s house. Henry Lamartine had never filed on or bought the land outright, but he lived there. He never took much stock in measurement, either. He knew like I did. If we’re going to measure land, let’s measure right. Every foot and inch you’re standing on, even if it’s on the top of the highest skyscraper, belongs to the Indians. That’s the real truth of the matter.
He was right about that, of course. I’d never seen. He could not go back to a place where he was known and belonged. No matter where he settled down he would always be looking behind his shoulders. No matter what, he would always be on the run.
I still had Grandma’s hankie in my pocket. The sun flared. I’d heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside. The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home.