The contrast between birth and death is at the forefront of Tracks. The book begins at a point when many of the Anishinabe people have died, and Nanapush saves the life of Fleur Pillager. While the tribe is under existential threat, new people are constantly being born. Instead of making the tribe feel more hopeful for the future, however, births are seen as being inextricably tied to death, and therefore they remind the characters of the tribe’s hardships and the threat to the survival of both their literal lives and their culture.
After Fleur leaves the reservation, attempting to make a living for herself among the white men in town, she is brutally punished by the men for her efforts. Soon after, it is revealed that Fleur is pregnant, though it is never confirmed whether the pregnancy is a result of the rape, whether the child is mystically fathered by Misshepeshu the lake monster, or whether it happens later when she begins a relationship with Eli Kashpaw. In any case, the consequence of this threat to her survival and her return to the reservation is pregnancy, an opportunity for new life. The new life, however, could well be a constant reminder of the threat of the white men outside the reservation or the threat of the natural forces at play on the reservation. Furthermore, when Fleur goes into labor, her life is threatened by the appearance of a bear that has broken into the tribe’s barrels of wine. It is the threat of this bear entering her cabin that gives her the strength to push her daughter Lulu into the world. Only when a clear danger menaces Fleur is she able to create new life—when a representation of her family’s clan, a bear, appears to remind Fleur of the necessity of continuing her family’s bloodline. In this single image, the simultaneous life of her family and the threats to it exist side by side.
When Pauline Puyat lives with Bernadette Morrissey, Pauline learns the ways of ushering the sick into the afterlife. She learns how to ease the minds of the dying and prepare bodies for burial. While Bernadette’s specialty is easing the death of people in the community, it is Bernadette who insists on Pauline carrying her own illegitimate child to term, and then raises the child once it is born, when Pauline is too ashamed to do so. In this way Bernadette is responsible for both life and death in the book. This relationship calls attention to the way in which death can be a sort of birth of its own, ushering a soul into an afterlife, rather than an absence of life.
When Fleur becomes pregnant a second time, she goes into labor too early and attempts to delay the birth, but the baby is insistent on being born. Fleur births the child, but it becomes immediately clear that both Fleur and the new baby’s lives are in danger. In a dreamlike sequence, Fleur travels to the spirit world to gamble for her life and that of her baby. She discovers that it is not just the baby she must save, but also Lulu, whose life has been endangered by the winter storm. Fleur wins only the hand responsible for Lulu’s life. Whereas Fleur’s first rounds of gambling resulted in both a threat to her life and the birth of her daughter Lulu, this second round in the land of the dead results in the death of one of her children and the survival of another. After this experience, Fleur feels far more aware of the threats the world poses to her and her family, and acts with more timidity. In this case, life introduced too quickly into the world resulted in death.
Similar to this, the invasion of white culture presents an opportunity for a new way of life, but one that requires the death or dilution of the native culture. While the Pillager, Kashpaw, and Nanapush families persist at the end of the book, it is through a new means of survival, rather than through the ancestral methods their families have relied upon for centuries. The swift and dangerous “birth” of white civilization on the reservation has caused the death of much of the Native American culture.
Birth, Death, and Survival ThemeTracker
Birth, Death, and Survival Quotes in Tracks
Within us, like ice shards, their names bobbed and shifted. Then the slivers of ice began to collect and cover us. We became so heavy, weighted down with the lead, gray frost, that we could not move. Our hands lay on the table like cloudy blocks. The blood with us grew thick. We needed no food. And little warmth. Days passed, weeks and we didn’t leave the cabin for fear we’d crack our cold fragile bodies. We had gone half windigo. I learned later that this was common, that there were many of our people who died in this manner, of the invisible sickness. There were those who could not swallow another bite of food. Because the names of their dead anchored their tongues. There were those who let their blood stop, who took the road west after all.
That spring, I went to help out in her cabin when she bore the child, whose green eyes and skin the color of an old penny have made more talk, as no one can decide if the child is mixed blood or what, fathered in a smokehouse, or by a man with brass scales, or by the lake. The girl is bold, smiling in her sleep, as if she knows what people wonder, as if she hears the old men talk, turning the story over. It comes up different every time, and has no ending, no beginning. They get the middle wrong too. They only know they don’t know anything.
Talk is an old man’s last vice. I opened my mouth and wore out the boy’s ears, but that is not my fault. I shouldn’t have been caused to live so long, shown so much death, had to squeeze so many stories in the corners of my brain. They’re all attached, and once I start there is no end to telling because they’re hooked from one side to the other, mouth to tail.
It didn’t occur to me till later to wonder if it didn’t go both ways, though, if Fleur had wound her private hairs around the buttons of Eli’s shirt, if she had stirred smoky powders or crushed snakeroot into his tea. Perhaps she had bitten his nails in her sleep, swallowed the ends, snipped threads from his clothing and made a doll to wear between her legs.
I am a man so I don’t know exactly what happened when the bear came into the birth house, but they talk among themselves, the women, and sometimes they forget I’m listening. So I know that when Fleur saw the bear in the house she was filled with such fear and power that she raised herself on the mound of blankets and gave birth. Then Pauline took down the gun and shot point-blank, filling the bear’s heart. She says so anyway. But she says that the lead only gave the bear strength, and I’ll support that. For I heard the gun go off and then saw the creature whirl and roar from the house. It barreled past me, crashed through the brush into the woods, and was not seen after. It left no trail either, so it could have been a spirit bear. I don’t know.
I didn’t understand until Lazarre slouched and Clarence stood before Margaret, that this had to do with everything. The land purchase. Politics. Eli and Sophie. It was like seeing an ugly design of bruises come clear for a moment and reconstructing the evil blows that made them. Clarence would take revenge for Eli’s treatment of his sister by treating Eli’s mother in similar fashion.
“I’ll take my twenty-two,” he said. I told him that was too much of a store-bought revenge to satisfy an oldtime Anishinabe warrior, a man, which he would become when this business was finished. We’d find a method.
After that we made a plan together to hide the fact of my condition. We were both clever with materials and scissors, and between us we devised a concealing dress that would allow me to accompany Bernadette until I became too advanced. Once that happened, I would not venture off the farm. She would deliver me, having knowledge in her hands of birth as well as death.
As a young man, he had guided a buffalo expedition for whites. He said the animals understood what was happening, how they were dwindling. He said that when the smoke cleared and hulks lay scattered everywhere, a day’s worth of shooting for only the tongues and the hides, the beasts that survived grew strange and unusual. They lost their minds. They bucked, screamed and stamped, tossed the carcasses and grazed on flesh. They tried their best to cripple one another, to fall or die. They tried suicide. They tried to do away with their young. They knew they were going, saw their end.
Power dies, power goes under and gutters out, ungraspable. It is momentary, quick of flight and liable to deceive. As soon as you rely on the possession it is gone. Forget that it ever existed, and it returns. I never made the mistake of thinking that I owned my strength, that was my secret. And so I never was alone in my failures. I was never to blame entirely when all was lost, when my desperate cures had no effect on the suffering of those I loved. For who can blame a man waiting, the doors open, the windows open, food offered, arms stretched wide? Who can blame him if the visitor does not arrive?
I mixed and crushed the ingredients. The paste must be rubbed on the hands a certain way, then up to the elbows, with exact words said. When I first dreamed the method of doing this, I got rude laughter. I got jokes about little boys playing with fire. But the person who visited my dream told me what plants to spread so that I could plunge my arms into a boiling stew kettle, pull meat from the bottom, or reach into the body itself and remove, as I did so long ago with Moses, the name that burned, the sickness.
What I told them to do, then, they accomplished. My fingers closed like hasps of iron, locked on the strong rosary chain, wrenched and twisted the beads close about his neck until his face darkened and he lunged away. I hung on while he bucked and gagged and finally fell, his long tongue dragging down my thighs. I kicked and kicked away the husk, drove it before me with the blows of my feet. A light began to open in the sky and the thing grew a human shape, one that I recognized in gradual stages. Eventually, it took on the physical form of Napoleon Morrissey.
“Go to her. She saved my life twice and now she’s taken it twice back, so there are no more debts. But you, whom I consider my father, I still owe. I will not harm your wife. But I never will go to Kashpaw land.”
The moment I entered, I heard the hum of a thousand conversations. Not only the birds and small animals, but the spirits in the western stands had been forced together. The shadows of the trees were crowded with their forms. The twigs spun independently of wind, vibrating like small voices. I stopped, stood among these trees whose flesh was so much older than ours, and it was then that my relatives and friends took final leave, abandoned me to the living.
Margaret and Father Damien begged and threatened the government, but once the bureaucrats sink their barbed pens into the lives of Indians, the paper starts flying, a blizzard of legal forms, a waste of ink by the gallon, a correspondence to which there is no end or reason. That’s when I began to see what we were becoming, and the years have borne me out: a tribe of file cabinets and triplicates, a tribe of single-space documents, directives, policy. A tribe of pressed trees. A tribe of chicken-scratch that can be scattered by the wind, diminished to ashes by one struck match.