As characters in The Round House engage in religious and spiritual practices, they straddle two different traditions: the Native Chippewa religion and the Catholicism that was brought to the reservation by Europeans. As these two traditions come into each other’s orbit, the two religions, which are ideologically different, sometimes clash with or eclipse one another.
Chippewa religion is a large presence in the novel, which is itself named after the reservation’s round house, a sacred site for Chippewa rituals. At the round house, the community gathers for events like the annual summer powwow, where they perform dances in traditional regalia. Some characters (medicine people, in the Chippewa terminology) like Mooshum and Randall practice traditional Chippewa medicine more fastidiously than others. Randall dances in the community’s powwows and sits in a sweat lodge to experience visions, while Mooshum recites the Chippewa legends that form the basis of Chippewa religion. Mooshum’s stories incorporate ideas like wiindigoo justice and thr concept of “doodems,” which give people special connections with different kinds of animals. Randall and Mooshum clearly feel extremely connected to Chippewa religion, and they help other members engage in Chippewa spiritual practice.
Catholicism, meanwhile, is also prominent in the community. Many Chippewas, like Joe’s aunt Clemence, have a strong attachment to the Catholic Church and regularly attend services led by Father Travis. Even less devout members of the community, however, like Joe’s parents, still baptize their children and make them undergo confirmation. Unlike the tradition of Chippewa religion, Catholicism is a theology with strong ties European thought and culture, and Joe and his friends often mock Catholicism more explicitly than Chippewa religion, perhaps reacting to how Catholicism represents the European hegemony (ruling order) that they have grown up resisting.
Joe draws the reader’s attention to Catholicism’s role in Native oppression, particularly through its often-harmful conversion practice, which historically attempted to suppress Chippewa religion and culture. Many of the older locals “had Catholicism beaten into them” at Catholic boarding schools, which attempted to erase any traditional Chippewa religious practices from their students. Meanwhile, prior to 1978, the Chippewa tribe was not allowed to practice their own religion, forcing them to disguise their traditional ceremonies as Bible studies and other Christian events.
Interestingly, however, Catholicism and Chippewa religion—which have been in conflict historically—do not seem to be especially in conflict for characters in the book. While some characters, like Joe’s aunt Clemence, have an exclusive attachment to the Catholic Church, and others, like Mooshum, reject Catholicism in favor of Chippewa traditions, many members of the reservation community partake in both religions intermittently, depending on their needs. Often these engagements with religion are not especially spiritual, and have more to do with convenience or opportunism than genuine faith. For example, Joe, Zack, Angus, and Cappy’s attendance at the Catholic youth group is primarily meant to impress Cappy’s soon-to-be girlfriend Zelia, while Joe and Cappy aid Randall in maintaining his sweat lodge in exchange for dinner.
In other instances, these two religions offer differing outlooks that individuals combine or choose between in an earnest attempt to fulfill their spiritual needs. When Joe is concerned by his dreams, for instance, he immediately decides to consult Mooshum, since Chippewa religion centers dreams in a way that Catholicism does not. On the other hand, when Joe goes to see Father Travis, hoping to learn to shoot a gun, Father Travis tells Joe about the Catholic understanding of how good inevitably comes out of evil, giving him perspective on his impending decision to kill Linden.
By portraying her characters’ blend of Catholicism and Chippewa religion as a positive hybridity, Louise Erdrich suggests the potential value of pluralistic religious practice and imagines the possibility of reconciling two traditions that have historically been in conflict. Erdrich also shows how people use religion practically in their everyday lives—both for genuine spiritual practice, and as a kind of cultural currency that can be used for personal gain. Erdrich, who seems to have a high tolerance for this kind of unsacred treatment of religion, appears to be implying that religion, rather than an unapproachable, homogenous monolith, should be a cultural institution which people actively question and shape.
Chippewa Tradition vs. Catholicism ThemeTracker
Chippewa Tradition vs. Catholicism Quotes in The Round House
I didn’t like being prayed for. As I turned away I felt the prayers creeping up my spine. But that was Randall, too, always ready to make you feel a little uncomfortable with the earnest superiority of all that he was learning from the elders, even your own elders, for your benefit.
We were not churchgoers. This was our ritual. Our breaking bread, our communion… But now they stood staring at each other helplessly over the broken dish… If we'd sat down together that night, I do believe things would have gone on… Anything would have been better than the frozen suspension of feeling in which she mounted the stairs… My father and I had followed her to the doorway, and I think as we watched her we both had the sense that she was ascending to a place of utter loneliness from which she might never be retrieved.
During the old days when Indians could not practice their religion— well … pre-1978—the round house had been used for ceremonies. People pretended it was a social dance hall or brought their Bibles for gatherings… By the time the priest or the BIA superintendent arrived, the water drums and eagle feathers … and sacred pipes were in a couple of motorboats halfway across the lake… There was one old Catholic priest who used to sit down with the medicine people… The old priest had learned the songs. No priest knew those songs now.
We came to the tree that people call the hanging tree, a huge oak. The sun was in its branches. There were prayer flags, strips of cloth. Red, blue, green, white, the old time Anishinaabe colors of the directions, according to Randall. Some cloths were faded, some new. This was the tree where those ancestors were hanged. None of the killers ever went on trial. I could see the land of their descendants, already full of row crops.
Now the crane Mom used to watch, or its offspring, flapped slowly past my window. That evening it cast the image not of itself but of an angel on my wall…Through some refraction of brilliance the wings arched up from the slender body. Then the feathers took fire so the creature was consumed by light.
As he dragged himself along … Nanapush sang the buffalo song although it made him cry. It broke his heart. He remembered how when he was a small boy the buffalo had filled the world. Once, when he was little, the hunters came down to the river. Nanapush climbed a tree to look back where the buffalo came from. They covered the earth at that time. They were endless. He had seen that glory. Where had they gone? … people had seen white men shoot thousands off a train car, and leave them to rot.
I lay awake thinking of the place on the hill, the holy wind in the grass, and how the structure had cried out to me. I could see a part of something larger, an idea, a truth, but just a fragment. I could not see the whole, but just a shadow of that way of life.
Every time there is an evil, much good comes of it— people in these circumstances choose to do an extra amount of good, show unusual love, become stronger in their devotion to Jesus… I have seen it in people who go their own ways, your traditionals, and never come to mass except for funerals… They come to the wakes. Even if they are so poor they have nothing, they give the last of their nothing to another human. We are never so poor that we cannot bless another human, are we? So it is that every evil, whether moral or material, results in good.
Behind them in the next room the shelves of old books stood… Meditations. Plato. The Iliad. Shakespeare… There was William Warren, Basil Johnston, The Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner, and everything by Vine Deloria Jr… I looked at the books as if they could help us. But we had moved way far past books now into the stories Mooshum told in his sleep. There were no quotations in my father’s repertoire for where we were, and it was beyond me at the time to think of Mooshum’s sleeptalking as a reading of traditional case law.