Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is a generational look at two Anishinaabe families, the Lamartines and the Kashpaws, and their lives on an unnamed Ojibwe reservation somewhere in North Dakota. Both families have deep ties to the reservation land, and Nector Kashpaw, the patriarch of the Kashpaw family, is a member of the local tribal government. Despite inhabiting the same land, the two families live seemingly separate lives on opposite ends of the reservation, due in part to the animosity stemming from Nector’s longstanding affair with Lulu Lamartine, the Lamartines’ matriarch. This perceived distance, however, is only superficial, and there are many connections—some secret, others not—that join these two families together in profound ways. From husbands and wives to fathers and sons, the Kashpaws and the Lamartines are as connected to each other as they are to their Native land, and the family tree Erdrich provides in the beginning of the novel is evidence of this. Through the depiction of the Lamartines and the Kashpaws at the center of Love Medicine, Erdrich at once underscores the important role that tribal connection plays among different families, and ultimately argues that family is more than blood ties.
In addition to Nector and Lulu’s affair (which produces a son, Lyman), there are multiple connections between the Lamartines and Kashpaws, and these connections involve other families on the reservation as well. These familial links highlight the interconnectedness of family and tribe within Native American culture. Nector’s mother, Rushes Bear, is married to Nector’s father, “the original Kashpaw,” but she also has a second husband, Nanapush, who is Lulu’s uncle. Nanapush raised Lulu after taking her from the residential schools as a young girl. In her childhood, Lulu looks to Rushes Bear as her aunt, even though Lulu has relatively little to do with her later in life. This distant, yet significant, relationship illustrates the ties between different families within the same tribe, even though Lulu and Rushes Bear aren’t related by blood. June Morrissey, the niece of Nector’s wife, Marie, is the daughter of Marie’s late sister and a man referred to only as “a Morrissey,” an unknown relative of Lulu’s second husband, Morrissey. Not only is Lulu connected to the Kashpaws through her connection to Rushes Bear, she is linked with Marie, as well, through the birth of June. June’s second son, Lipsha, is born after June’s affair with Gerry Nanapush, who is Lulu’s son with her first husband, a much older tribe member named Moses Pillager. Traditional Native American culture often focuses on one’s connection to land, nature, and all living things—including other humans—and the complex web of relationships between the Lamartines, the Kashpaws, and other Anishinaabe families draws attention to this deep connection.
Many of the strongest familial relationships within Love Medicine do not align with traditional European ideals of family, which suggests that Native culture’s definition of a true family incorporates much more than strict blood ties. After the death of June’s mother, she is taken in by Marie and Nector. It isn’t long, however, before June develops a preference for Eli, Nector’s brother, and his more traditional lifestyle on the edge of the reservation. June asks to live with Eli, and he raises her “like his own daughter.” It does not matter to Eli that June is Marie’s niece—he sees a child in need and quickly rises to the responsibility, offering her both stability and love. Similarly, Lulu is the mother of eight sons, collectively known as the “Lamartine boys,” yet none of them are the biological sons of Henry Lamartine, Lulu’s third husband after whom several of the boys are named. Despite their many different fathers, Lulu’s sons grow “into a kind of pack,” as if they are “of one soul […] bound in total loyalty, not by oath but by the simple, unquestioning belongingness of part of one organism.” While the Lamartine boys do not align with more traditional notions of a nuclear family, their relationships are both close and meaningful. Not long after Lipsha is born, June goes back to her husband, Gordie, and Marie and Nector take in Lipsha and raise him as if he is their grandson. “Lipsha,” Marie says to him as a grown man, “you was always my favorite.” Marie and Lipsha are extremely close, and while Marie raises her own children plus several others, she always has a “soft spot” for Lipsha, even though he is not her biological son, or even her grandson. Her fondness for Lipsha suggests that, for the Anishinaabe, family ties need not be based on blood relationships—rather, they are rooted in love and a shared cultural connection.
The end of Love Medicine focuses on Lipsha as he comes to terms with the identity of his biological parents after June’s untimely death. As Lipsha sits playing poker with his biological father, Gerry, and his half-brother, King, Lipsha deals himself the winning hand. “I dealt myself a perfect family,” he says. “A royal flush.” Lipsha’s words reflect more than just his winning poker hand; they reflect how thankful he is for his family—not only his newly-discovered biological family, but his adoptive family as well. The interconnectedness of tribe and family means that Lipsha is part of a much larger family unit, which he fully embraces by the novel’s end.
Tribal Connection and Family Ties ThemeTracker
Tribal Connection and Family Ties Quotes in Love Medicine
Far from home, living in a white woman’s basement, that letter made me feel buried, too. I opened the envelope and read the words. I was sitting at my linoleum table with my textbook spread out to the section on “Patient Abuse.” There were two ways you could think of that title. One was obvious to a nursing student, and the other was obvious to a Kashpaw. Between my mother and myself the abuse was slow and tedious, requiring long periods of dormancy, living in the blood like hepatitis. When it broke out it was almost a relief.
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.
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.
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.