Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sacrifices: "Tracks" as a Trickster Story

What follows is an analysis of the novel "Tracks" by Louise Erdrich, which tells the story of Fleur, Nanapush and Pauline, three people living on an Anishnabe Indian Reservation during a transitionary time.  I love this novel.  When I read it, as part of a class, I loved it and when I reread it, I keep finding new things about it.  I decided to re-print this analysis, flaws and all, because I love what it says about identity and Indigenous survival and how the Trickster plays a role in ensuring we survive.  You might need to read the novel to fully understand everything, because I am being lazy today and not sharing a full synopsis (mostly because I haven't found one yet).  I was told recently that I shouldn't do long posts and I am violating that again.  It is about 1800 words.

Sacrifices: Tracks as a Trickster Story

“My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know.” (p. 2) Erdrich’s novel, Tracks is the story of the end of one time and the beginning of another in the lives of the Anishnabe[1] living in North Dakota in the early 1900s.  The story presents two voices in its telling, presenting two different views of the change from what might be considered the old ways, the traditional ways and what would be the new world in which the Anishnabe had to survive.  There is a third voice missing, that of the ones Nanapush is dismissive of, “those who fattened in the shade of the new Agent’s storehouse.” (p. 9) These narratives, that of the Morriseys, Lazarres and Pukwans, would ultimately decide the way that the Anishnabe world would be transformed.  Their actions, more than those of Nanapush, Pauline Puyat or Fleur Pillager, would decide the fate of the Nation they all belonged to.  Our narrators and the characters they find themselves circling around are merely responding and reacting to the changes and challenges created by the greed and complicit activities of these people.  They are, necessarily, left outside of the main narratives.  Their stories are not the important stories, their absented narratives act as the catalysts of the action we are witnessing.

Likewise, Fleur Pillager, held up and observed by both narrators, is not the main character of the story; she is merely the visible metaphor for the resistance to the changes both narrators speak of, the last representation to the Anishnabe connection to the land and history.  We see her survive and resist, presented from two points of view, both acknowledging her power, the first seeing her as a strength, a resistor, a daughter; the second views her as everything the narrator is not, could never be, something to be reviled and removed.  We follow the journeys of Nanapush and Pauline as they orbit around Fleur, experiencing her from how they understand her, but we never really know her. 

All of them are the last of their lines: the last Pillager, the last Nanapush, and the last Puyat.  They represent the old ways that are dying out.  While the Morriseys and Lazarres run their farms and make their babies, the two narrators and the Pillager are on their own, trying to understand the new world they belong in.  Pauline Puyat responds by rejecting her Indigenous self.  Being mixed blood, she doesn’t feel welcome; ostracized by the others because of her unreliability as a storyteller, they all say she tells lies; her lack of connection to her history, she internalizes the hatred of the Indigenous, hates herself for not being beautiful, for not being accepted by the others, for not being able to understand, or return, Fleur’s initial kindness.  She has no family land, lost when her parents were lost.  She has been disconnected from her grounding, her history.  She can not feel the connections to the land, or the mysteries, which she perceives in the others.  To rationalize this, she rejects those connections, views them as something to be abhorred, something evil.  Pauline embraces Christianity and reconceives the Anishnabe spirituality, the Kitche-Manitou[2], something that is roughly translated to mean the Great Mystery, to be something created by the Devil to turn the people away from the true path.  In her rejection of everything, she strives to destroy the parts of her that belong to that world, embodied by her figure, and represented by Fleur and Sophie who are everything that she is not. 

Ironically, in rejecting her Indigenous self, she uses Indigenous epistemologies to carry out her attacks on the others (D. Cross, 2009).  She uses Moses Pillager’s medicines to revenge herself against Eli and Sophie; she follows the voices in her dreams to do the bidding of Christ.  Dreams are significant in Anishnabe culture.  There is great learning to be had in dreams.  Nanapush even acknowledges he learned his own medicines in his dreams.  Pauline is lost.  She is a character with no history of her own, no understanding of the history of her people and no idea of where she fits into the grand scheme of things.  She is a body without a soul.  She is stumbling along blindly, making it up as she goes.

Nanapush, the other narrator, is a contrast to Pauline in as much as where she is empty, he is full.  He has his history and the history of his people, those still there and those lost, etched on his body.  He has seen the old ways and been witness to the changes.  He understands what is being lost because he has experienced it; he also understands what is coming because he has lived long enough to infer what the changes might mean.  Nanapush is old at fifty.  He is just trying to ensure that the Anishnabe survive and that the ones he cares for are not lost in the changes.  Ruffo (1994) makes the argument that Nanapush may be Nanabush, the Trickster who “as a guardian of an age-old tradition his presence carries the weight of an entire culture (through all those stories associated with him)” (p. 166).  Nanapush carries the traditions into these changing times and maintains them while the rest is lost, “unravelled like a course rope” (Erdrich, 1988, p. 2).  By telling his stories, sharing what he has seen, both within this narrative, to the characters, as well as the sharing of the narrative, Nanapush is acting to protect the traditions and ensure that they carry on into the new world.  He understands that the Anishnabe will not be the Anishnabe he grew up with, but he is seeing to it that there will be Anishnabe.  The Trickster is a mischief-maker and a teacher in the traditions (Ruffo, p. 165).  He does things that teach the people how they should be in the world, often by making a mess of things, but also by showing that he is subject to all the elements that make us human: pain, love, fear.  He is also, in many ways, an outsider trying to find his way in the world.

Ruffo (1994) refers to Pauline as “the death of culture and tradition” (p. 166), the opposite to Nanapush, seeking to destroy with her embracing of Catholicism and the white world, and her desire to become white.  I find myself forced to disagree with Ruffo’s otherwise thoughtful article on this point.  I find the Morriseys and Lazarres to be the more damaging groups to the cultures and the traditions because they have taken what they want out of it and claimed an authority to speak for the people that they do not possess.  The Morriseys and the Lazarres are the death of culture and tradition, they are the takers who make deals with the colonialists, speak for a tradition they have no authority to speak for, impose their will over the others through violence and intimidation, as when they took Nanapush and Margaret, emasculating him and taking her braids (Erdrich, p. 115).  Bernadette Morrisey was not a fan of the Morrisey/ Lazarre alliance but even in leaving, she was complicit in their activities, working for the Agent to ensure the allotments were scooped up, acting against the Pillager, the Nanapush and the Kashpaws, turning the Kashpaws against the others to save their land.  It could be argued that, while part of Pauline’s rejection of the culture and people was a result of her interactions with the Pillager, the Nanapush and Eli Kashpaw, she was also abused and used by Bernadette and Napoleon Morrisey, taught to hate, and to live with the dead.

Pauline is the counterpoint to Nanapush, the other side of the Trickster dichotomy.  He is the teacher and mischief-maker, she is the one who messes up and is the outsider trying to find her way in the world.  He creates mischief by giving all the muddied waters a stir (Erdrich, p.225) and ensures the survival of the Anishnabe by becoming the bureaucrat to rescue what he sees as the future: Lulu.  He is the Trickster sacrificing himself by transforming into what he does not want to be to save what needs saving.  She destroys everything she knows, presenting to the Anishnabe what could happen to them if they go down the wrong path.  She is the Trickster sacrificing her own self to save them from the path she went down.  If Fleur is the last representation of the old ways, remembered by Nanapush and reviled by Pauline, then her daughter is the new hope of the Anishnabe, rescued from the bureau school and restored as the survivor, witness to both Nanapush’s lessons and Pauline’s example, the beneficiary of their sacrifices.  She is the Trickster’s gift to the Anishnabe.

Therein lies the urgency of the narrative.  Pauline’s story is told as a confessional, revealing her sins to her god.  She is urgently seeking redemption, seeking to be made whole, as she understands it.  She does not know her true role, that she is the sacrifice for the Trickster’s lesson.  Fleur dismisses her early on when she states: “The Puyat lies” (Erdrich, p. 38).  She lies because that is what the Trickster requires of her.  Nanapush knows his role; he is the teacher, teaching Lulu, to save the future of the Anishnabe from going down a dark path, the path of the Morriseys and the Lazarres, the real threats, the colonial contagion (Episkenew, 2007).  Their way has infected that world and it is the thing that might destroy the Anishnabe.  The Trickster, in his tricky way, is telling Lulu that the Anishnabe “must take responsibility for healing our injuries and curing the vestiges of colonial sickness” (Episkenew, p. 21). 

            Tracks is an excellent example of a Trickster story.  Erdrich (1988) is revealing to us an important truth about sacrifice and is challenging us to remember who we are and what we can be.  How she ends, “Halfway across, you could not contain yourself and sprang forward.  Lulu.  We gave against your rush like creaking oaks, held on, braced ourselves together in the fierce dry wind,” (p. 226) reveals the strength of surviving.  In surviving, we make a future.  The Trickster reminds us that our strength is our history and our understanding of who we are.  A tree blows in the wind, shakes, and is shaken.  It sacrifices branches and leaves to ensure that it carries on.  It survives by not surrendering but also by not being so inflexible as to break.


Cross, D, (2009) in conversation, Burnaby.

Episkenew, J, (2007) Healing in indigenous communities, CACLALS 2007 paper

Erdrich, L (1988), Tracks, New York, Perennial. 

Ruffo, A (1994) Inside looking out: Reading “Tracks” from a native perspective, in Armstrong, J. (1994), Looking at the words of our people: First nations analysis of literature.  Penticton, Theytus Books.

[1] I need to acknowledge that I am of Saulteaux (Anishnabe) ancestry through my father, a member of the Keeseekoose Band, Treaty Four, Saskatchewan.  I do have some understanding of the Anishnabe worldviews, but there are a great many holes in that understanding.  My name-giver passed away before he could teach me, part of the challenge being our need to live elsewhere in order to make a living. 
[2] It is my understanding that the name above is not one that is spoken out loud.  The Great Mystery is acknowledged and understood to be all around, but you don’t generally speak it aloud.  Instead, the other Manitous, the spirits of the land and the waters are referred to when prayers are offered.  I was taught it was okay not to know the names but offer tobacco and pray with a good heart, without the need to know whom you were addressing.  It would be made clear.  At least as I understand it.

1 comment:

  1. Long posts are fine, I do them all the time.

    They are better, though, with subtitles every two or three paragraphs. The Tyee does a good job of writing long articles for the web.

    It's interesting someone told you that... I'm reading about web formatting and trying to get into the habit of subheadings myself.