Nanapush tells his granddaughter (Lulu) of the slow decline of his Anishinabe tribe due to consumption. By the end of the epidemic, Nanapush, just fifty years old, is considered an elder. He lists all the “lasts” he witnessed in the tribe—the last buffalo hunt, the last bear shot—and mentions that he refused to sign the settlement papers from the government that would have taken away their woods and lake. He also saved “the last Pillager,” Fleur, Lulu’s mother.
Though he doesn’t often explicitly address her, it’s important to note that Nanapush is telling this story to his adopted granddaughter, presumably for the purpose of educating Lulu and helping her understand the tribe’s history and why her mother sent her to a government school. The nature of the story Nanapush shares is oral rather than written.
Nanapush says he found Fleur in her family’s cabin on Matchimanito Lake, where he and his companion in the tribal police fear that the retaliation of Pillager spirits (Pillager is the family’s name) might turn them “windigo.” Inside the cabin, Nanapush finds the dead bodies of an old man and woman (Lulu’s grandparents), a little boy, and two little girls, all facing west. In the corner he finds seventeen-year-old Fleur alive.
Matchimanito is far removed from the rest of the tribe on the reservation, located on the other side of a lake, and it retains a wildness and spiritual nature that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere, as if it still exists outside the idea of a “reservation” and the invasion of white American culture. The importance of west as the direction of death is revisited throughout the book.
Nanapush straps the sick Fleur to their sled of supplies. The tribal policeman wants to burn the cabin down, as recommended by the Agency, but no amount of kerosene will allow the cabin to burn. Rumors say that leaving behind those five bodies unburied put a curse on the tribe, but Nanapush believes the tribe suffers only from the shortsightedness of not realizing the dangers of the government bait being offered them: liquor, money, and the way their land is slowly shrinking from their control.
The Agency wants to burn the cabin to diminish the likelihood of the spread of consumption (tuberculosis) through the bodies left inside the cabin. Nanapush’s opinion of what has caused the tribe’s trouble differs from the opinions of other tribe members, which is crucial to understanding the logic with which Nanapush approaches his problems and attempts to address them.
The two arrive at Nanapush’s cabin and Nanapush unties the girl from the sled, but his companion is too afraid to touch her, and he leaves with the sled of their supplies, dying soon after he arrives home. Fleur, however, improves slowly, and she and Nanapush grieve the losses of their families together.
While the policeman claims he doesn’t want to touch Fleur because of the contagious consumption, there is an implication that he actually fears the mystical powers of the Pillager family more than the white man’s disease, and this is what prevents him from touching the girl, though his refusal to help her could just as easily be blamed for his subsequent death (as it quickly becomes clear that those who wrong Fleur in some way usually meet an untimely fate).
When he is well enough, Nanapush returns to Matchimanito to bury Fleur’s family. He makes the markers for their graves, scratching images of bears and a marten into each one. Nanapush prays to the dead Pillagers, asking them to leave this world and making offerings to them, but he remains preoccupied with the thought of them. When Nanapush returns to his cabin, Fleur is also preoccupied with the memory of her family, though Nanapush didn’t tell her where he was going. They don’t share their thoughts with one another, and avoid leaving the cabin, allowing themselves to sit silently in their grief and go “half-windigo.”
Even when the winter is severe and supplies are scarce, Nanapush continues to make offerings to the spirits, honoring the ones who have gone before, and hoping that this might provide them peace so they can move onto the afterlife and cease haunting him and Fleur. The spirits remain with the two of them, though, and, in their seclusion Fleur and Nanapush grow severely depressed, which they explain as going “half-windigo” or half-spirit, detaching from their physical needs and retreating deep into their grief.
Father Damien, a young new priest, appears at their door one day to say that Fleur’s cousin Moses has been found in the woods. When Nanapush goes outside to gather snow to boil into tea, he is surprised to find how much time has passed—it is spring. Fleur makes a gaulette and Nanapush begins to talk and can’t stop, not allowing the priest to get a word in edgewise. At some point during this monologue, Fleur leaves. Nanapush notes that although Moses had survived, he “didn’t know where he was anymore,” as people would later say of Fleur.
Despite Nanapush and Fleur not having any allegiance to the Catholic Church, Father Damien appears to express concern and to share information he knows will be of interest to her. Nanapush refers to his verbosity as his last vice, but also claims that he kept himself alive during the consumption epidemic by talking so much he didn’t allow death to get a word in edgewise. In the same way that Nanapush protected himself from death, he also protects himself from any proselytizing the priest might have been planning to do. Moses’s faculties seem to have been compromised either by his battle with consumption or because of the actions he took to protect himself from the illness, possibly having eaten other humans, a reason they refer to his condition as having gone partially “windigo.”
Starvation has forced members of the tribe to make poor decisions, selling their land for a meager amount of food. Many are now eager to try to buy back their land as a group, or at least to pay a tax and refuse money from the lumber companies that are tearing down the trees that mark the boundaries of their land. Surveyors and Anishinabe enter the woods in the hopes of measuring the lake, despite their fear of the lake monster, Misshepeshu. Nanapush tries to convince Fleur to stay with him in his cabin, but she remains intent on returning to her family cabin on the lake to live alone.
While the tribe had previously been able to provide for themselves, the impact of white civilization on Anishinabe life has pushed them into a position where this is no longer possible, and so to survive at all they must sacrifice even what is not being explicitly stolen from them. Misshepeshu is introduced as the monster that protects the lake. Fleur’s connection to the lake and speculated relationship with the monster is believed to be a reason she insists on returning to her cabin, though her true reasoning is perhaps more closely tied to her understanding of land as being essential to her survival and her family’s history.
Fleur is asked to pay the fee for all four of her family allotments. The Agent goes out to collect it from her, but the spirits of the Pillager family lead him astray until he is lost. After he returns to ask Fleur for the money a second time, he ends up “living in the woods and eating roots, gambling with ghosts.” More and more outsiders arrive, hoping to claim the land as their own, but many never return. Those who do, though, take much of the lumber with them, and Nanapush feels himself weakening along with the earth.
Though it’s possible the Agent just becomes naturally lost in the woods, Nanapush tells the story as though it is undeniable truth that the Pillager spirits disorient him so that he grows fearful and relents in his pursuit of the land fees. Nanapush’s power being related to the strength of the land and earth evidences the ties the Natives believe there to be between their own livelihood and that of the earth. It is not merely a metaphor, but a literal truth, as the destruction of their land means the destruction of Native culture and individual Native people as well.