Tracks inverts traditional white American gender roles by showing the important position of women in reservation life, even allowing the female characters to take on the bulk of the responsibility for survival. The strength of these female characters threatens the supremacy of males both on and off the reservation, prompting men to either adjust their actions and expectations to correspond with shifting gender roles or to lash out against the power women stake out for themselves.
Fleur Pillager is the strongest and most independent female character, embodying the way Anishinabe culture allows and honors women who take on what white American culture sees as “masculine” responsibilities and hobbies. Fleur fends for herself in the wilderness before finding work at the butcher shop in Argus and discovering her talent for gambling—all of these things are traditionally associated with men in Western culture. The white men in Argus, however, cannot abide Fleur’s nontraditional femininity. To punish her for transgressing her gender roles (specifically for humiliating them in a game of poker), they beat and rape her. While this was certainly an attempt to intimidate Fleur and put her in her place, she maintains her independence.
Unlike the men at the butcher shop who react violently to Fleur’s embrace of masculine roles, Eli Kashpaw is willing be subservient to the strong Fleur Pillager. Fleur meets Eli while tracking a deer through the woods. She traps it and butchers it, confidently telling Eli that he has minimal claim to the animal. Instead of being angry or discouraged by Fleur’s strength, he is attracted to her. In fact, he is so drawn to Fleur for being exactly who she is that he accepts responsibility for the child she bears without proof that he is its father. Under traditional Western norms of masculinity, this would be humiliating and emasculating, but Eli takes responsibility for the child readily.
In contrast to Fleur, Pauline Puyat embodies a femininity more traditional to white Americans and Christianity, adhering to the demeanor and behavior expected of her in town. This is most apparent in Pauline’s embarrassment about her own sexual desire. Like Fleur, Pauline becomes pregnant under dubious circumstances, but unlike Fleur, she hides her pregnancy and then tries to induce a miscarriage. After turning the child over to Bernadette Morrissey, Pauline has a “vision” that causes her to enter the convent, where she engages in extreme self-flagellation, wearing uncomfortable potato sack underwear, sewing nettles into her clothes and denying herself even the simple act of urinating more than twice a day. This is meant as some sort of display of humility and penance, apparently for the sin of female sexual desire, in submission to her betrothed, Jesus Christ.
While Fleur and Pauline are extremes, Nanapush and Margaret Kashpaw are an example of a slightly more balanced domestic relationship. While Margaret initially rejects the presence of Nanapush, pushing back on his overconfident ways, she easily holds her own, returning his barbs in equal measure. When Margaret and Nanapush are captured by the Morrisseys, Nanapush proves ineffective at defending them and Margaret frees them from captivity, showing, again, the triumph of female will over that of males. When Margaret attempts to convince Nanapush to live in her cabin early in the story, Nanapush refuses, insisting on remaining in his own cabin. Nanapush displays feminine characteristics in his nurturing nature, nursing both Fleur and Lulu back to health after they nearly die. When Nanapush eventually loses his land to the bank, he is not too proud to accept living with Margaret on her own land, even after she has cheated the closest thing he has to kin, Fleur, out of the money for her own allotment. While Margaret is still clearly the more dominant between the two, Nanapush holds his ground on the elements of his masculinity that remain important to him.
Importantly, Erdrich is not black-and-white about gender roles. The story pushes back against the harmful, suffocating effect of traditional white American gender roles by showing the way many Native families embrace and honor women who are allowed to own their physical power and authoritative influence. Still, she acknowledges the way that traditional white society is threatened by the Native or half-blood women who exert their own independence, and how it seeks to punish the women for these actions, leaving them vulnerable to a different variety of threat than if they’d attempted to inhabit the rules of white femininity. Either expression of femininity, however, comes with its disadvantages and dangers, and Erdrich offers no clear-cut answers on how to a navigate a world of complex and often harmful gender roles.
Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Gender Roles Quotes in Tracks
It wasn't that Fleur won that hooked them in so, because she lost hands, too. It was rather that she never had a freak deal or even anything above a straight. She only took on her low cards, which didn’t sit right. By chance, Fleur should have gotten a full or a flush by now. The irritating thing was she beat with pairs and never bluffed, because she couldn’t, and still she ended each night with exactly one dollar. Lily couldn’t believe, first of all, that a woman could be smart enough to play cards, but even if she was, that she would then be stupid enough to cheat for a dollar a night.
The thing I’ve found about women is that you must use every instinct to confuse. “Look here,” I told Eli before he went out my door, “it’s like you’re a log in a stream. Along comes this bear. She jumps on. Don’t let her dig in her claws.” So keeping Fleur off balance was what I presumed Eli was doing.
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.
In the morning, before they washed in Matchimanito, they smelled like animals, wild and heady, and sometimes in the dusk their fingers left tracks like snails, glistening and wet. They made my head hurt. A heaviness spread between my legs and ached. The tips of my breasts chafed and wore themselves to points and a yawning eagerness gripped me.
The Virgin stared down. Her brow was clear, Her cheeks bone-pale, Her lips urgently forming a secret syllable, all of a sudden trembled. That’s when I saw the first tear. There were more. Although Her expression never changed, She wept a hail of rain from Her wide brown eyes. Her tears froze to hard drops, stuck invisibly in the corners of Her mouth, formed a transparent glaze along her column throat, rolled down the stiff folds of Her gown and struck the poised snake.
“It’s like this. You’ve got to start all over. The first time you pursued Fleur you had to make her think you were a knowledgeable, capable man, but now it is the opposite. She has to pity you as I do, only more. You have to cut yourself down in her eyes until you’re nothing, a dog, so low it won’t matter if she lets you crawl back.”
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.
He also wanted to see my hairshirt, insisted on it no matter how many times I denied I wore one. But at last, in a distracted moment, I confessed that I had made a set of underwear from potato sacks, and when I wore it the chafing reminded me of Christ’s sacrifice. This delighted him, encouraged him. He was curious to know how the undergarments were sewed, if I had to take them off to perform the low functions. He suggested after mock-serious thought that I might secretly enjoy the scratch of the rough material against my thighs.
Then Fleur washed me, but I warned myself not to experience any pleasure. I sat down in the water, felts its heat as a sharp danger, but then I forgot. The child soaped my back with a slick plant, and scrubbed the agonizing itch of rough twine and harsh woolens. I gave her my hand. She washed each finger, then each toe. Fleur pared the overgrown nails with a knife. The girl rinsed away the sting of nettles, aggravation of hooked burrs. She dislodged the invisible strands of screwgrass that had woven into my skin. Fleur poured a pitcher of warm water over me and then began to shampoo my head and hair. It was so terrible, so pleasant, that I abandoned my Lord and all His rules and special requirements.
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?
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.
For Christ’s purpose is not for us to fathom. His love is a hook sunk deep into our flesh, a question mark that pulls with every breath. Some can dull themselves to the barb’s presence. I cannot. I answer with the ring of fidelity, with the veil. I will pray while my hair is chopped from my head with a pair of shears. I will pray as I put on my camphor-smelling robes, and thereafter I’ll answer to the name I drew from Superior’s hand.