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Native American Fiction & the Search for Identity:

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”.

As Silberman 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 American experience.

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.

In 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.

Whlile 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.

As 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.

Similarly 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.

LM 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.

As 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.

written: 2008
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