Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich narrates the story of June Kashpaw through the lives of her immediate and extended family. In addition to telling June’s story, Love Medicine demonstrates how the traditional Chippewa way of living has survived in contemporary America. In Erdrich’s novel, June’s and the Chippewas’ story brings the reader into the lives of everybody June has affected. Modern versions of the traditional Chippewa trickster, Nanabozho, appear throughout Love Medicine to communicate how Native Americans, particularly the Chippewa tribe, created a synthesis of ideologies to survive in contemporary America, while still walking in beauty to some extent.
The religious differences between the European Immigrants and Native Americans clashed in the beginning. Both could not comprehend each other because the Europeans had never thought about nature’s importance to their lives and the Native Americans had never been taught to live their lives in a linear fashion. The two groups have different concerns, according to Vine Deloria Jr. in his book, God is Red. Native Americans were concerned with space and how their experience connects to the land, while the Immigrants were concerned with a timeline of events— their history and accomplishments held priority. As Deloria writes, “Tribal religions are actually complexes of attitudes, beliefs and practices fine-tuned to harmonize with the land on which people live” (Deloria 69). The Native American way of living cannot be explained in books in accordance with events— it was much more complex than that. Their religion was their entire way of living— how they carried themselves and thought about the world.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of communication and willingness to learn from one another, the two groups never learned to live their different lifestyles simultaneously. Many Christians believed strongly that their religion must be spread and the Native Americans’ religion must be destroyed because it will not guide them to Heaven. The differences of ideologies are one of the reasons modern Native Americans have lost much of their religion; however, in Love Medicine, Erdrich shows how Native American religion is not completely lost and how it has merged with Catholicism to survive.
Civilizations did not construct time to destroy Native Americans’ religion; the European Immigrants had already been born into these ideologies and constructs in England and brought them to North America. Even though the Immigrants did not think of their concept of time to be evil or destructive, it has drastically changed the Native Americans’ lives. Since the Immigrants refused to accept differences in ideologies, the Native Americans have suffered and have since lost much of their connection to the land and way of being.
The Chippewas tried to incorporate this foreign concept into their already perceived version of time and there is evidence of this in Love Medicine. In the chapter, “The Island” where time is not specified, Kashpaw says, “These young boys who went to the Bureau school, they run their love life on white time. Now me, I go on Indian time. Stop in the middle for a bowl of soup. Go right back to it when I’ve got my strength. I got nothing else to do, after all. I’m going to die soon” (Erdrich 71). Kashpaw lives his life by doing what feels right during each moment, and not what he is supposed to do at a specific time. He claims that the boys going to the Bureau school, which is a Catholic boarding school, have lost this “Indian time” mentality, and he is right. He also expresses how time and death are connected and contribute to the conflicting principles. The dominant culture in America views death as something to fear, but Native Americans do not view death as a frightening concept— they are not afraid of wasting time and are no rush to do anything; they are simply here to live.
By imposing this linear concept of time on the Native Americans and their fluid way of living, the Immigrants became the people in charge and hence obtained a power over Native Americans. In Kate McCafferty’s critical analysis of Love Medicine, “Generative Adversity: Shapeshifting Pauline/Leopolda in Tracks and Love Medicine,” she writes, “The implications of coercive control over the thoughts, relationships, labor of others that attach to the Western concept of ‘power’ do not translate laterally into Chippewa, where power is traditionally seen as a life force itself” (McCafferty). The contemporary American concept of time does not make sense to Kashpaw because traditional Chippewa beliefs do not have an equivalent to it— they believe much in the power of the land, but do not think much about people controlling one another.
Rules and regulations of contemporary America do not make sense to the character Gerry, who escapes from prison because he believes he is unjustly there. According to the character Albertine Johnson in her chapter, “Scales,” “Gerry’s problem, you see, was he believed in justice, not laws. He felt he had paid for his crime, which was done in a drunk heat and to settle the question with a cowboy of whether a Chippewa was also a nigger” (Erdrich 197). Gerry’s actions arise from a place of morality and honor. He hurts a person and escapes from jail, which could be categorized as evil, but when the reason behind his actions are analyzed — to defend his tribe’s honor and to return to his wife and child because he felt as though his punishment was over, these are not evil things. Gerry questions the binaries that have been placed through religion and ideologies but also into a systematic legal system. He attempts to live by the rules of contemporary American, but his Chippewa state of mind is present throughout all his actions, acting as a trickster to spread a message of ways to stay true to Native American traditions in a world that demolishes them.
Without a balance of ways of lives, being a Native American in modern America can destroy people, as it did June. In the chapter “Resurrection” Erdrich writes, “June didn’t know the rules, though, of being a good student, and for that matter she didn’t act as much like she knew she was an Indian, either” (Erdrich 263). This identity crisis members of marginalized groups often face can lead to one’s destruction, as with June. However, it can also lead to people learning and borrowing ideas from each other to create a new identity— one that upholds traditional ways, but allows Native Americans to survive and thrive in contemporary America. June is essential in the lives of every character in the novel, so while she did die, her spirit lives through the surviving Chippewas and influences their struggles with their own identities.
Native Americans have lived on the edge of their traditional cultural since the European Immigrants arrived on their land and now are trying to function in American society while still being true to their ways. Native-American religion, which is unlike religions such as Catholicism, is about a deep spiritual connection to the land. Love Medicine demonstrates the destruction, preservation and reshaping of Native-American culture in contemporary America.
Deloria, Vine Jr. God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th Anniversary Edition, Fulcrum Publishing, 2003, pp. 69.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. HarperCollins, 1984, pp. 7, 44-67, 71, 86, 123, 197, 276.
McCafferty, Kate. “Generative Adversity: Shapeshifting Pauline/Leopolda in Tracks and Love Medicine.” American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Autumn, 1997), University of Nebraska Press, 1997, pp. 729-751.