Tracks is set at a crucial time in the history of the Anishinabe people. From 1912 to 1924, this tribe of Native Americans was under extreme threat by the invading influence of white culture. Logging and unreasonable taxes resulted in the loss of the land they needed for both farming and hunting, leaving them without the ability to feed themselves and survive. Furthermore, their religion was threatened by the encroachment of Christianity, and consumption (tuberculosis) spread rampantly from white people to native communities, killing many indigenous people. While much of the threat to the Anishinabe appears to come from white people, Erdrich also shows how the self-destructive impulses of the tribe members themselves threaten their ability to prevail in the face of external threats. Overall Erdrich suggests that the white focus on individualism, a foreign concept to the Native culture she presents in the book, ultimately weakens the Anishinabe’s ability to survive.
The Agent, as the government liaison to the Anishinabe people is called, is a looming threat throughout the book. In times of famine, many of the tribe have sold their land in exchange for only a measure of flour, a trade that is clearly unfair and shortsighted. In a somewhat fairer exchange, others of the tribe have sold their land to the lumber companies, moving off the reservation to town, where they are forced to take on new trades and provide for themselves in unfamiliar ways. The documents provided by the government often prove incomprehensible to the book’s Native characters, who are commonly unable to read or write. Only those who have been educated can fully understand the threats that the documents impose, and even then sometimes they are misunderstood, as when Nanapush believes that his land cannot be taken away just because he hasn’t paid his taxes, when in truth, the government is authorized to auction off that land when it would be the better financial situation. In all cases, the imposition of a governmental system of money, rather than the trading that the tribe is used to, poses the biggest threat to the dwindling population of Anishinabe and their land.
Second to the threat of the Agent’s sanctions, the charity and refuge provided by the Catholic Church causes many Indians to abandon their traditional beliefs for the material support of the Church. Convents provide homes for women who have no other place to go or provide for themselves. The Church provides resources and assistance in dealing with the government agents. The tradition of the old Manitou spirits is unfortunately slowly lost as the Native Americans seek the support the Church is able to provide, and the missionary aspect of the Church appears well aware of this literal and figurative sanctuary it can provide suffering people.
Though many of the threats to the Anishinabe way of life are imposed by outside forces, the tribe members often become complicit in exaggerating the impact of these threats. Despite their best efforts to protect their land and their way of life, the characters are ultimately unable to shut themselves off from all outside influence, and they struggle to find a way to thrive in the face of growing threats. They often resort to selfish attempts to protect only themselves, rather than focusing on the strength of the community as a whole, which would be a more effective method of ensuring the survival of native people and culture. Thus the individualism suggested by Western influence is the true force that weakens the Anishinabe’s ability to survive in their environment.
Perhaps the best example of the harm caused by selfish backstabbing is in the attempt of Margaret, Nanapush, Fleur, and Eli to save the Pillager and Kashpaw land allotments at the end of the book. While the loss of the land is a threat imposed by white people, the inhabitants of Matchimanito believe they have worked together to save enough money to pay for the two remaining plots of land: Kashpaw and Pillager. When Margaret and her son Nector take the money to town to pay off the tax debt, however, they find out that there is a late fee, meaning they have only enough money to pay for the Kashpaw land, but not the Pillager allotment. Instead of telling Fleur outright, or choosing to save her land, which they know means a great deal to her, they save only their own land and keep it a secret from Fleur until the lumber company has already cut down most of the trees approaching her cabin, forcing her to vacate her land at the last minute. If Margaret and Nector had been fair, they might have returned to Matchimanito to discuss which of the land allotments to save, but their desperate attempt to look out only for themselves maintains their land, but causes their relationships with others to weaken.
Another, more literal cause of the failing vitality of the tribe is the introduction of consumption (tuberculosis) into the tribe population. When Native Americans signed up to fight in World War I in an effort to support their families, the soldiers who returned at all carried the strains of consumption, to which the tribal population was not at all immune, causing the death of the majority of the community. The steep decrease in numbers caused the families to no longer be able to provide for themselves sufficiently, with fewer people to hunt and farm the land that was slowly going into foreclosure in the lean financial times.
Alcohol use is also a clear threat to native livelihood, and another danger that is both external and internal. While introduced to the tribe by white whiskey dealers at the edge of the reservation, the Natives’ predilection for addiction makes alcohol particularly self-destructive. When Fleur is about to give birth, for example, Eli Kashpaw gets drunk to drown out his concerns over her labor, and then he slashes his own arm open and runs into the woods to hide, both clearly self-destructive acts. In injuring himself and diminishing his capacity with alcohol, he removes himself from the responsibility of supporting his wife and newborn baby, focusing instead on consoling his worry in the short-term. When a drunken bear wanders onto Matchimanito, it is the threat of the disoriented animal that gives Fleur the strength to rise up and birth her child. The bear is a symbol of Fleur’s need to continue her family line, as bears are one of her clan’s markers, but the drunkenness of the bear shows that her family line is threatened by not only hunters, but also its own propensity for short-term gratification rather than long-term planning.
Pauline Puyat’s obsession with self-punishment also shows a response to outside threats that tends towards self-destruction. She pursues this through the frame of Christianity (a religion introduced from white culture), and insists on refusing herself simple pleasures, going further and further to punish herself at all times and deny her earthly needs and desires. While Pauline’s shift to Christianity from the old ways could focus on how she might provide charity and support to others, especially the other members of her tribe, instead she focuses on her own personally destructive interests. On the other hand, Pauline’s shame at being a half-blood, rather than pride at her Indian heritage, is another example of the influence of white culture overpowering the values of her upbringing.
Erdrich shows that, while there is seemingly no way for the characters to avoid the destruction caused by white invasion and oppression, they each react in different ways, some lashing out against others, some pursuing self-destructive habits, and some more readily bowing to outside influences, resulting in a variety of outcomes. Erdrich is careful not to propose any one “right” way to deal with the impact of the imposition of white culture, but shows the full range of response to a tragic situation.
Self-Destruction vs. Outside Influences ThemeTracker
Self-Destruction vs. Outside Influences 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.
But he scorned me when I would not bead, when I refused to prick my fingers with quills, or hid rather than rub brains on the stiff skins of animals. “I was made for better,” I told him. “Send me down to your sister.”
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.
Land is the only thing that lasts life to life. Money burns like tinder, flows off like water. And as for government promises, the wind is steadier.
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.
“Accept this,” I asked Him when night after night the cold gripped me in tight claws and I shook so hard I could not sleep. “And this,” every time I sat to eat and halved my bread. When my stomach pinched, “This also, my Lord.” When the blood rushed back into my frozen hands after taking the sheets off the line, “This too. This. And this.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.”
She sent you to the government school, it is true, but you must understand there were reasons: there would be no place for you, no safety on this reservation, no hiding from government papers, or from Morrisseys who shaved heads or the Turcot Company, leveler of the whole forest. There was also no predicting what would happen to Fleur herself. So you were sent away, another piece cut from my heart.
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.