Native American fiction
is, as Lewis Owens notes, inevitably concerned with the search for identity. Both Erdrich’s Love Medicine and Silko’s
Ceremony can be seen as chronicling the centrality of relationships with the land, community, family and in Wong’s words,
“the power of these relationships shaped into narrative to resist colonial domination and cultural loss, and to reconstruct
personal identity and communal history.”
According to Momaday “an Indian is someone who thinks of himself
as an Indian” suggesting that ethnic id is a matter of self-identification, but he also argues “the experience
of an Indian” is required “to earn the entitlement.” Both novels are concerned with the way “you are
told who you are” as Silko puts it, as can be seen LM, where unlike Lipsha and Tayo in Ceremony Albertina’s knowledge
of her identity is provided by her mother “I raised her Indian, and that’s who she is”.
points out, in Native American fiction individual stories meet in the collective history, and in both texts, Tayo and Lipsha’s
disconnection from their identity symbolizes a broader sense of dispossession, as can be seen in Tayo’s awareness “his
sickness was only part of something larger”. This is represented literally in LM, where as Rainwater notes, Lipsha crosses
an artificially created body of water that covers his ancestral lands, metaphorically in Ceremony as native American culture
seems “buried under English words”. Both texts foreground the struggle to communicate, with Ceremony beginning
with a tangle of Japanese, Spanish and Laguna words, and Tayo’s belief his words are formed with “an invisible
tongue”, which as Owens suggests implies his “sensitivity to the pressures brought to bear upon Native American
speech by the monologic forces of colonization.” In LM, Marie describes her feeling that she had “no inside voice,”
and Gordie attempts to keep the pidgin language of michin alive, the futility of this attempt fore-grounded by Lynn’s
statement “when you go it will all be gone!” As Rainwater, says dispossession is the primary feature of all Native
As Stein points out, loss of land is central to the sense of cultural self-doubt in Ceremony which
is represented by veterans’ self-destructive envy and Rocky falling victim to the meta-narrative of individualism, while
in LM, June’s son King can be seen as a representative of the failed characters in the novel who have lost their connection
to the land. as in Ceremony, the failed characters have in Owens words “forgotten the stories that…remind them
of who they are” as the traditions that sustain these stories have been undermined by “the conflict between tribal
and institutional authorities.” This is a conflict Erdrich dramatises throughout her novel, as in Marie’s story
where the nun jousts with the devil for her soul, playing out “the larger cultural conflict between European /Christian
and Native ways of life”, as Jaskoski argues. Similalry in Ceremony white doctors tell Tayo is told he “would
never get well as long as he used words like we and us”.
Tayo unable to articulate his fragmented self, sees himself
as inanimate and invisible “white smoke” suggesting that as Waubageshig says “the only good Indian is still
a dead one, if not physically, then socially, economically, spiritually.” As Silberman argues Native American fiction
is often concerned with a young man’s troubled homecoming. Both novels follow this tradition in Henry and Tayo’s
stories, which in foregrounding the way “coming home wasn’t easy,” as the unnamed narrator of Winter in
the Blood says, seem to have affiliations to the pessimistic vision of Welch’s novels, suggesting that as Chavkin put
it “the most destructive disease Native Americans suffered…is despair”. This despair is the main theme in
the opening of Love Medicine, represented through June’s aimless “killing time”, which echoes Tayo’s
“passing the time away, waiting for it to end” at the beginning of Ceremony.
However as Gleason argues while
early reviewers often interpreted LM as a “snapshot of helplessness and despair” in Bomberg’s words, this
elides the themes of survival and endurance in the text, suggested by the imagery of resurrection and rebirth in June’s
section, as she describes walking out into the snow as “a shock like being born”. Similarly, in Ceremony Tayo’s
mother Laura is described as being ‘reborn’ out of the river. Both are ultimately failed returns, however as Owens
argues, read through the Native American worldview the sense of fragmentation June describes, feeling she would “crack
open” prefigures healing and return to the community, and both heroes mothers are at the end ‘brought home’
by their sons.
While foregrounding “deracination as the crucible in which Indian identity is both dissolved and
formed” both novels “emphasise not individual anguish but the loss of communal and tribal identity and the heroic
efforts of the community to hold onto what is left” in Owens words.
It could be argued that Silko invokes the
naturalistic mode and the narrative of the war veteran’s failure to cope only to swerve away from it to show Tayo’s
victory over “witchery” as Ts’eh’s words “they have their stories about us, Indian people marking
time” allow him to see the necessity of confronting this plot. Similarly in LM Nector recognises the tragic/epic role
reserved for Indians as a role in which the hero must perish and rejects it to head for home, as the way for Native Americans
to “create another destiny” as Owens says.
Both texts are concerned with “the power of story to heal
the people” as Rupert puts it. Tayo begins his healing ceremony by listening to Betonie’s words. Similarly, Lipsha
begins to awaken to his shamanic role in the community after he is told his story by Lulu. As Wong argues, LM is concerned
to tell not the continuous unified narrative of History but that of discontinous Indian lives, constructing not “ethnographic
artifacts but living narratives”. This concern with personal history can be seen in Lulu’s mention of the forced
immigration of the Chippewa inserted into her own battle with the tribal council which wants to remove her from her land.
several ways, the community in Love Medicine can be seen to have internalised oppression, as in Ceremony the events of the
novel are contextualised against the reality of Indian participation in World War II and complicity in consenting to uranium
mining at Trinity Site. Stressing that in Betonie words “you don’t write off all white people just like you don't
trust all Indians," the novel suggests that to relinquish responsibility and buy into the role of victim, is to represent
yourself in an image that may be durable but which is also doomed and incapable of change.
Against this image of “the
stoic, unflinching Indian…looking at the sunset” Erdrich stresses the task of Native American writers as telling
stories of survivors of cross cultural catastrophe, while celebrating and protecting the cores of culture, “paying homage
to the tenacity of a minority culture pitted against the juggernaut of American life” as Mackenzie put it.
Sanders sees Albertina’s story as showing how “ancestral blood and ways are thinned out” Moristuen-Radowski
argues that Albertina carries with her Indian heritage, though it has gone through a transformation that has redefined it.
Rupert argues LM can seen as a dialogic text mediating between two conceptual frameworks, as is symbolized by Marie’s
beads which are referred to both as rosary beads and cree prayer beads, the reader compelled to “know their belief sys
in someone elses,” in Bakhtin’s terms. Similarly Rupert argues that Silko’s use of a double sociolect which
affords perspectives on both cultures is a point of view that resembles that of the “halfblood” who must negotiate
between two worlds. This underscores the way that as Dasenbrock says “bicultural writers create works of mixed genres
as a way to represent that biculturality.”
As Catherine Rainwater points out, Tayo’s quest “involves
transcending limits imposed by cultural definitions of what it means to be white /Indian”, as the author lays out her
rationale for the power of the mixed-blood to introduce a vitality into the Indian world, showing that as Owens says “it
is through dynamisnm, adaptabilty and syncretism that cultures are able to survive”. In this context as Dasenbrock points
out, Betonie’s comment that “things which don’t shift and grow are dead things” can be seen as implicitly
a comment on the text itself.
As Chavkin argues the way Ceremony begins and ends with mythic poems linked to present
events indicates that “traditional tribal solutions are relevant” to the problems of today, the mix of chantways
and western conventions in the novel paralleling the way Betonie translates western and native discourses into a new ceremony.
in LM although Lipsha’s supermarket-bought love medicine backfires, it also ironically results in reconciliation between
old enemies Marie and Lulu, proving that in spite of the unconventional sources there is enough love medicine in the community
to “bring two women together and a lost son home” as Sand puts it.
In comparison to Ceremony, LM has been
seen as less concerned with the re-enactment of sacred myth than with the modern day life of Native American families, however
critics have often pointed out many of the characters in LM can also be read in terms of the pan-Indian trickster figure Vizenor
describes as teacher/healer. This figure is most obviously figured in Gerry who unwittingly acts out myths in his card game
with King, but the trickster figure is also present in Lipsha, as Gerry affirms his identity as a Nanapush, as his son.
can finally be seen as celebratory text. Characters begin separated, but the five not so distinct clans finally coalesce in
the figure of Lipsha, who having found his roots and acknowledged his beginning drives his father across the border to where
he is home free, and then crosses the river to “bring her home”.
Simialry in Ceremony, Tayo from the beginning
unwittingly recreates the myths incorporated in the novel, inverting the heroic quest and the search for individual glory
in the cultural hero paradigm to that of the community hero’s. He recognises finally that he was not crazy, but had
only “seen the world as it always was, no boundaries only transitions”.
As critics often point out, the
uranium mine in Ceremony reveals that the fates of the Japanese and the Laguna are intertwined, as the final threat of nuclear
disaster reform humanity into one clan. This validation of what Zitkala-Saa at the turn of the century described as the “subtle
knowledge” of recognising “kinship to all parts of the vast universe” connects environmental integrity and
pacifism, both motifs which Allen descreibes as central to 20th century American literature.
While at the end of Ceremony
the evil represented by Emo and the mine are still there, optimism is reflected in Tayo’s progress from a state of imbalance
to articulateness. In both novels the cure involves a reorientation of perspective, where ‘normal’ boundaries
like that between family and enemy fail to hold. This is suggested both by Henry’s seeing Albertina as the Vietnamese
woman he was asked to interrogate in LM, and by Tayo seeing the face of his uncle Josiah in the face of an unknown Japanese
soldier, an “insanity” which as Owens puts it, is revealed to be “the only sane way to view the world, the
alternative being universal death”.
Both novels move beyond fatal opposition towards less polarized stories of
merging boundaries. In Ceremony, once rehabilited, Tayo’s responsibility becomes to tell this new story. Restored balance
is symbolized in the equinox with its fusion of light and dark, which is, as Lincoln notes, analogous to the mixedblood. But
it is not only light and dark which mix. This is also where myth and reality finally merge, in Tayo’s “waking
dream” as he realises “nothing is ever lost”. Laura returns as the reed woman returned, revitalising the
land. Similarly Sand argues that in LM, no character is lost, even June remains vitally alive in the memory of the other characters.
Allen points out, Native American narratives “release the estranged to his/her place within the cultural matrix”
and in LM, Lipsha’s recognition that “belonging is a matter of deciding to” signals the completion of his
quest. Ending on a sense of “expansion, as if the world was branching out in shoots” LM like Ceremony induce in
the reader “an analogous sense of homecoming” as Lincoln says. Both novels can be seen as pulling together past,
present and future into a coherent fabric of timeless identity which reveals that the purpose of a ceremony is, as Allen puts
it, primarily to integrate.