American Indian literature has long remained a mystery to non-native readers. However, some American Indian authors are widely read despite their largely misunderstood cultural background and worldview. Often, these authors work within traditions and modes that are culturally and tribally specific. However, current authors are also often highly educated in European forms like the novel, and American Indian writers utilize both their knowledge of European form and their unique cultural norms and traditional storytelling to create literature that is richly complex. This study is an examination of the Anishinabe author Louise Erdrich’s use of American Indian themes and narrative style in her bestselling novel Love Medicine. To illustrate the impact of Erdrich’s tribal influence and highlight the cultural significance of her work, I analyze three distinctly Indian elements in Erdrich’s fiction: maternal concepts of familial identity and tradition, American Indian narrative structure as patterned after oral storytelling techniques, and the use of traditional Anishinabe characters and plotlines in contemporary American Indian writing. These three elements illustrate the existing American Indian influence on contemporary American Indian writing and lend specific cultural access to a novel that is otherwise heavily coded with American Indian stories.
Hometown: Corryton, Tenn.
Major: English Literature
Senior Study Title: “The Only Good Indian is a Reawakened Indian: Indigenous Feminism, Traditionalism, and Cultural Continuity in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine”
Advisor: Dr. Kelly Battles
Hallie Jackson '13, who comes from an American Indian cultural background, has long had an interest in traditional stories and examining how Native cultural traditions survive and change in contemporary society.
When it came time for the English Literature major to select a topic for her Senior Study, Jackson had no trouble deciding.
“I feel like American Indian literature is often dismissed from the literary canon, and I wanted to explore a topic that was both personally important to me and important to the tradition of modern literary scholarship as a whole,” Jackson said. “It was important, to me, that my ancestors’ narratives be included and recognized for their complexity and versatility in the greater picture of contemporary American literature.”
Her Senior Study, a literary and cultural exploration of author Louise Erdrich’s bestselling novel Love Medicine, explores how Erdrich utilized specific, traditional American Indian techniques and motifs in a contemporary way. Erdrich is a member of the Anishinabe tribe, commonly known as Ojibwa or Chippewa.
To better understand the text, Jackson’s Senior Study includes a discussion of different elements of the text that support strains of indigenous feminism, American Indian concepts of gender roles, cultural continuity and a blending of traditional elements of American Indian storytelling with Euro American traditions, Jackson said.
When she began conducting research about the topic, she found “a surprising amount of scholarship missing on how contemporary American writers utilize tribally specific stories to create something new and modern.”
“Erdrich is heavily steeped in Anishinabe myth and narrative structure, and while critics often nod to her American Indian ancestry, they do not often apply that important cultural context to her work,” Jackson said. “It was interesting to see how an author can both situate herself in a distinct cultural tradition while creating something innovative and widely accessible.”
Jackson, who is not of Anishinabe ancestry, was largely unfamiliar with the folklore of that tribe, and the most challenging aspect of her study was finding translated Anishinabe myths to use for an analysis of ways that Erdrich utilizes specific myths. While some scholars have made generalizations about American Indian myths or some widely known and translated myths, Jackson found that examining a larger collection of Anishinabe folklore lends a different understanding, and those are not widely available for non-tribal members, said Jackson.
Dr. Kelly Battles, assistant professor of English and Jackson’s Senior Study advisor, said that one of the most impressive elements of Jackson’s study is the fact that she broke new ground by exploring how Erdrich’s novel engaged in narrative styles specific to the Anishinabe tradition.
“Hallie used her personal knowledge of traditional Indian narrative styles and elements to show how they are used in Erdrich’s novel,” Battles said. “We did not find any other scholars who had done this specific type of interpretation of Love Medicine, so Hallie did something that typically only happens at the graduate level: she produced new knowledge in the field.”
Battles said that Jackson’s identity as a feminist became more sophisticated and nuanced during the project, and her literary interpretation skills were sharpened.
“My hope is that her career goals were also shaped by her engagement in this project,” Battles said. “As Hallie proceeded through the thesis, her final chapter addressed how she could become a bridge between the heavily coded Anishinabe narratives in Erdrich’s novel and the mainstream American mass market readership, to reveal those specific Native elements of the novel that would otherwise be invisible to that larger popular audience.”
Jackson, who plans to attend graduate school, said her long-term career goals were “definitely” shaped by her Senior Study. She hopes to be a librarian and eventually work with youth in reservation communities to show them how to access their culture through literature.