Throughout Tracks, the four Anishinabe families (Kashpaw, Pillager, Nanapush, and Puyat) struggle to find a balance of the old ways of their people and the aggressively encroaching influence of white civilization. While all of the characters show some balance of these two ways of life, the native ways are clearly far more endangered as white culture invades and takes over. The book asks whether it is possible for these characters to survive and participate in broader (that is, white American) society while still maintaining the traditions that have been passed down through their culture. Perhaps the most salient expression of this conflict is in the depiction of religion and spirituality, as tensions between traditional Anishinabe beliefs and Christianity abound throughout Tracks. Christianity threatens to eliminate the traditional beliefs, but misunderstandings of the most important aspects of both systems of belief and misplaced priorities cause the greatest amount of trouble in the book.
Fleur Pillager is the best example of a character who remains closely tied to her Anishinabe roots and spirituality. Despite having lost all of her family to consumption, Fleur continues to live far from the rest of the people on the reservation, providing for herself by hunting and foraging. The tribe believes she has a close relationship with Misshepeshu, the lake spirit. Fleur does venture off the reservation for a short time, moving to nearby Argus, North Dakota, but when she beats the other (white and male) workers regularly at poker, they retaliate by raping and beating her, driving her back to the reservation. Fleur’s attempts to participate in the white civilization of Argus are clearly punished, though it is important to note that, specifically, Fleur’s ability to win the same amount so consistently might have been the result of her using some kind of magic or ritual to help her. If we view her punishment as specifically tied to her use of these old ways, then the question stands whether it might have been possible for Fleur to thrive in Argus if she committed more fully to the ways of the white people around her—but that would also mean giving up a crucial part of herself. When Fleur’s land is sold to the lumber company, she ends her battle with them on her own terms, magically felling the trees of her land herself as a threat to the white men, rather than allowing them to use their violent tools to do the same. Even landless, Fleur’s native power and strength is seen as both valuable and impressive until the very end. Had Fleur’s way of life not been threatened by the government, she might have continued peacefully according to the Anishinabe way of life, but because the threat is imminent and she is inflexible in her beliefs, she suffers the direst consequences of white culture’s influence.
Most of the characters show a more even balance between assimilating to the culture of the Westerners and maintaining old traditions. Nanapush, a tribal elder, considers Fleur his daughter after he rescues her from the threat of a severe winter and consumption. It is Nanapush who teaches Eli to hunt so that he might attract Fleur. But Nanapush also accepts the friendship of Father Damien, the young white priest who seeks to help the tribe members understand government documents. Nanapush begins to attend Catholic mass with Margaret to stay in her good favor, and he agrees to live on her land when his own land goes into foreclosure. Eventually, Nanapush deigns to use his writing and reading skills to involve himself in government so he can regain custody of Lulu, Fleur’s daughter. He is willing to make a concession and work with the white bureaucracy so that he might restore his family and uphold his tribe’s traditions.
Pauline Puyat, a young woman of mixed heritage, is an example of the detrimental effects of leaving behind all traditional values in favor of the life and religion of white culture. After being rejected by Fleur and Eli, Pauline lives with the Morrissey family, having a child with Napoleon Morrissey that she bequeaths to Bernadette Morrissey. She then joins a convent in an effort to reject her own sin, attempting to convert the other families on the reservation. By the end of the book, Pauline believes that Jesus has appeared to her to tell her that she is not native at all, but white. She rejects what she now sees as the shameful Anishinabe half of her heritage, and follows the orders she is given by the convent to teach in a Catholic school, an assignment she does not enjoy, but accepts as her way of offering her suffering to God. Pauline’s rejection of her indigenous roots is so extreme that it seems to drive her crazy. This suggests that losing one’s connection to tradition and embracing a culture that actively oppresses one’s own can cause a psychological break severe enough to disconnect a person from reality entirely.
Fleur’s connection to Manitou, or the life force of all things, is portrayed as the strongest supernatural force in the book in the sections narrated by Nanapush. When Fleur and Nanapush suffer the loss of their families to consumption, they believe themselves to have gone “half windigo” or half monster/cannibal, rather than identifying their state of being as depression or grief. After Fleur is beaten and raped by the men from the butcher shop, a tornado descends on the town of Argus, injuring only the three men who attacked her, a storm the townspeople believe Fleur has caused. When people threaten her or her livelihood, they tend to suffer a grim fate soon after, the cause believed to be Fleur’s shamanistic connection to Misshepeshu, the lake monster. And when Napoleon dies, the townspeople assume it is because he stepped in the shadow of the bewitched umbrella Fleur has placed to protect her land. All of these events are seen as negative happenings, punishments imposed by the traditional beliefs that the tribe members and townspeople have turned against. In reality, many of these events were caused deliberately by Pauline, though she fails to take ownership of them. The town’s fear of Fleur and rejection of her ways is an example of the way they reject the native traditions, and wrongly project a malevolence on Fleur as the clearest practitioner of Anishinabe ways.
Pauline, on the other hand, regularly acts without ethics, mistakenly believing that her actions are sanctioned because of her chosen status with the Catholic God. She condemns others’ sexuality, but gives birth to a child out of wedlock herself, which she attempts to abort despite it being a mortal sin. She has abandoned the Anishinabe ways, joining a Catholic convent where she becomes addicted to inflicting harm on herself as an offering to Christ, focusing on her own suffering rather than performing good deeds. The Mother Superior at the convent recognizes these actions as selfish rather than pious and forbids Pauline from continuing them, eventually sending her away to teach at a Catholic school. Thus her commitment to her faith ultimately moves her away from her roots, rather than allowing her to thrive in her homeland.
In contrast, Father Damien is an example of a character who practices Catholicism in a more charitable way. He attempts to help the Native Americans and doesn’t sneer at or judge them for practicing a balance of the old ways and the new, while not believing that the bad things that happen are purely the result of Fleur’s rejection of Catholicism. The ways in which Margaret and Nanapush pray to both Christian and Manitou gods also shows a clearer understanding of the benefits both faiths might provide without believing either to be wholly good or evil.
Overall, while the ideal situation would allow the Anishinabe people to maintain their way of life without the influence of an invasive, oppressive white culture and government, Erdrich suggests that the practical solution requires finding a balance between white culture and native tradition to ensure survival. In the face of cultural genocide, there is no “right” decision of how to endure such threats, but each character attempts to sustain themselves with actions based on their individual hierarchy of values, some more successfully than others.
Tradition, Assimilation, and Religion ThemeTracker
Tradition, Assimilation, and Religion Quotes in Tracks
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.