Note: all original writing (presented here) is copyrighted by the Library of Congress to Mary Magoulick. It may be used only according to copyright law and by permission of the author.

Women Weaving the World

Louise Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife as Myth

by Mary Magoulick

(from the dissertation: Coming to Life)


Of course, I’m ambivalent, I’m human. There are times I wish that I were one thing or the other, but I am a mixed-blood. Psychically doomed, another mixed-blood friend once joked. The truth is that my background is such a rich mixed bag I’d be crazy to want to be anything else. . . . Through the difficulty of embracing our own contradictions we gain sympathy for the range of ordinary failures and marvels.                                         ~ Louise Erdrich 1993


After I got out of college, I kicked around a lot, and I finally ended up working for the Boston Indian Council. . . . There were lots of people with mixed blood, lots of people who had their own confusions. I realized that this was part of my life – it wasn’t something that I was making up – and that it was something I wanted to write about. I wanted to tell it because it was something that should be told. I was forced to write about it. [laughs] I didn’t choose the material; it chose me.                ~ Louise Erdrich, 1991

I think that’s because that is the part of you that is culturally different. When you live in the mainstream and you know that you’re not quite, not really there, you listen for a voice to direct you. I think, besides that, you also are a member of another nation. It gives you a strange feeling, this dual citizenship. . . . It’s kind of incomprehensible that there’s this ability to take in non-Indian culture and be comfortable in both worlds. . . . That’s one of the strengths of Indian culture, that you pick and choose and keep and discard. But it is sometimes hard because you want some of the security of the way things were. It’s not as easy to find the old as it is to find the new.                                                  ~ Louise Erdrich, 1987


Joseph Bruchac: Another theme I see strongly in Jacklight, and in all of your writing, is the theme of strong women who become more than what they seem to be. Transformations take place – in some cases, mythic transformations.


Louise Erdrich: That is true of women I have known. We are taught to present a demure face to the world and yet there is a kind of wild energy behind it in many women that is transformational energy, and not only transforming to them but to other people. When, in some of the poems, it takes the form of the moment when a woman allows herself to act out of her own power. . . . You know, she’s realizing her power. She’s realizing she can say “No,” which is something women are not taught to do, and that she can hit the sky like a truck if she wants. Yes, it’s transformational. It goes through all of the work I’ve been doing lately. . . . I think it’s a process of knowing who you are. There’s a quest for one’s own background in a lot of this work . . . . One of the characteristics of being a mixed-blood is searching. . . .You must make certain choices. You’re able to. And it’s a blessing and it’s a curse. All of our searches involve trying to discover where we are from.                                                                        ~1987


            In The Antelope Wife: A Novel (1998) Erdrich includes many of the elements, symbols, and viewpoints of the processes of cultural renewal occurring throughout the Native American world today. These characters, symbols, and events are mythically shaped to reflect lives, concerns, events, and dichotomies felt by many contemporary Native Americans who struggle to integrate various cultural components and heritages into a coherent and successful identity. The major images and characters involve a perceived split between Native American and non-Native American cultures. The split manifests itself in a variety of dualistic images (including animal / human affinal relationships, twins, hooved beings, and gender confusion). Resolving “splits,” reconciling realities, and mediating between them to make sense of the world, are major endeavors of the characters. The plurality of characters, lives, and voices in the novel helps underscore the widespread effects of cultural revitalization and deepens the complexity of this mythic novel. The Antelope Wife works as a myth by offering images and symbols of the re-birth of Native culture, suggesting how to maintain traditions while thriving today.

            Most of the characters in The Antelope Wife are mixed-blood, like Erdrich herself (whose ancestry includes German and Chippewa heritage). In foregrounding the realities and confusion of being “mixed” or “split” throughout the story, Erdrich considers identity in terms of being Indian, American, and human today. In a 1987 interview, Erdrich stated that identity is a major concern to her, “It’s kind of incomprehensible that there’s this ability to take in non-Indian culture and be comfortable in both worlds” (Bruchac 1987, 79). Incomprehensible though it may seem, Erdrich’s novel confirms that being comfortable in split/mixed/blended worlds is possible. Lorena Stookey agrees that one of her central themes is an ability to endure even apparent incompatibility: “The Antelope Wife relates stories of characters’ survival of catastrophe, and, as one of its central themes, it celebrates the life-affirming power of the will to survive. . . . [it] celebrates the endurance of Ojibwa cultural tradition” (1999: 136, 139).

            Erdrich brings to life the reality and some of the symbols (the language, powwows, beading, etc.) of the cultural revitalization movement, in which she herself participates, as she has stated in interviews. [give quote from recent NYT article] Her use of Ojibwe language – even in her personal preface – and ideas expressed within the novel help demonstrate her awareness of the importance and beauty of Ojibwe culture. In another interview she explains further: “I recently came from Manitoulin Island, a beautiful place. People are quite traditional and keep a lot of the old, particularly the very old crafts” (Bruchac 1987: 79). In this novel many characters’ lives are crafted as examples of the revival of culture and its consequent confusions and rewards.

            The Antelope Wife departs from the fictional North Dakota community that centered Erdrich’s earlier novels for a new set of characters and concerns in Minnesota (Erdrich’s current home as well). This new work spans generations and ethnicities, but circles around three complicated, multi-generationally inter-connected, extended families – the Roys, the Whiteheart Beads, and the Shawanos. The most notably heroic character, Cally, is a member of all three families. She is a modern, Native, young woman who successfully, delicately mediates between worlds to create a new meaning, or pattern (in fact she emerges as the pattern maker – or storyteller). In contrast to Cally, those characters who fail existentially in this story either cannot let go of the past (nor see it properly), or are too entrenched in the negative aspects of the modern, Western society. The characters and how they live represent poignantly the struggle for cultural identity among Native Americans today.

            Erdrich’s title proclaims her work “a novel,” a literary genre which is usually considered distinct from the oral genre of myth, though novels often intentionally involve mythological elements. Yet this work fulfills many of the definitions of myth, as a story of re-birth which provides order symbolically for the Ojibwe universe today, and even involves heroes and some supernatural aspects (all considered characteristically mythic elements). At the very least this is a novel which is “highly mythically tinged” (Schrempp 1992: 25). Blending and bluring generic categories, this work should be considered a novel and a myth at once, or a hybrid form unique to this narrative event, a myth / novel.


Mythic Dimensions

            As more than a novel, The Antelope Wife’s central themes place it directly in line with typical Native American twin myths. Myths are tales of the distant past (or origin) of cultures that may serve to direct social action and values. Since Ojibwe culture is undergoing a renaissance, it is appropriate that there be a mythic expression of this re-birth of culture. Among many applicable theories of myth, the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Paul Radin emerge as helpful in illuminating the mythic elements of The Antelope Wife because they discuss Native American twin myths with which Erdrich’s tale resonates. In fact, twin myths stand out as the classic examples of Native American myths, most “common” in Lévi-Strauss’ terms, most “basic” in Radin’s terms. Twin myths are so common and popular throughout the American Indian world that they beg and attract attention, and have apparently shaped Erdrich’s work, which so aptly fits the twin myth pattern.

            Radin, recognizes myth as a fluid narrative form in his article “The Basic Myth of the North American Indians.” He affirms, “folktale, myth and legend flow into each other continually and continuously” (1950: 368). Radin emphasizes that the “form and content” of myths “is not fixed,” which would be impossible because of a continuous barrage of new influences and priorities, as is constant to all human communities (1950: 370). The flexibility of the genre in Radin’s definition better accounts for the real stories which he and other fieldworkers typically encounter. He maintains: “It can, in fact, be said that every generation strives to ‘rewrite’ its folktales” (1950: 370). Likewise, Franz Boas, one of anthropology’s founding fathers in the U.S., also recognizes the variability of generic form and content when he analyzes myths of the Northwest Coast Indians: “It would seem that mythological worlds have been built up only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments” (1898: 18).

            Though the ancient, real and mythical worlds of the Ojibwe may have been “shattered,” or “cracked apart” (in Erdrich’s terms), by European and American invasions and assimilation, contemporary Ojibwe people build new worlds from those fragments, as Erdrich builds her myth representing this process. Her novel includes obvious fragments from the mythic traditions of her culture, while offering images for how to blend coherently various impulses into a comprehensive and meaningful worldview, and thrive as Native Americans in today’s world. Clear mythic tendencies within the novel direct the reader to consider it in terms of scholarship on myth. Mythology theories are typically applied to oral forms. Erdrich’s novel encourages us to notice that such fluidity of form as has been noticed in oral genres also applies to written genres.

            Recognizing and reading The Antelope Wife as a myth reveals many messages and meanings that might otherwise remain obscure. Whenever identity is in flux, myths can help. Myths work particularly well for critical moments in cultural history because they deal with notions of cosmology and worldview, symbolizing the fundamental re-shaping of human relationships. Marta Weigle explains that myths are needed in times of identity crisis: “Significant psychic transformation – whether an important decision, critical insight, creative task, schizophrenic break, or change in consciousness – is heralded and expressed by cosmogonic myths and motifs in dreams and various verbal and visual creations” (1989: 10). Only apparent incompatibility needs myth to resolve or make sense of social dilemmas. Erdrich’s fictional shift into the twin and animal / human idioms bring this “novel” into the level of mythic discourse, the only discourse that reaches the level of re-organization of the cosmos and culture that she wants to convey.

            Furthermore, as a myth of women (who comprise the central characters and the world / myth makers, in addition to the author), we expect this not to be a myth of the dangerous and monstrous, but of “primary creator and gift-bearing culture heroines,” as Marta Weigle asserts as the focus of women’s myths (Weigle 1982: viii). Perhaps the most important function of myth is its world-creating, world-affirming aspects, functions are especially common in female-centered myths (Weigle: 1982). Erdrich highlights this theme in her opening image of primordial female twins sewing the pattern of the world in beads. Like bricoleurs, spinners, and spiders, they affirm that mixing cultures, like mixing patterns in other creative endeavors, need not be a source of concern, but is instead is the source of life itself.

            In her discussions of myth, Marta Weigle notes the paucity of female creators, deities and heroines: “Quite simply: such female creator deities are rare” (1983: 45). She also laments the rarity of female heros, as evident in the awkwardness of terms for them: “‘Creatoress,’ ‘creatrix’ and ‘culture heroine’ are awkward and almost meaningless designations, reflecting the relatively weaker roles women play in creation, transformation and origin myths – when they appear at all in such narratives about ordering the world” (1983: 53). Erdrich’s work thus succeeds not only as a myth of the contemporary renaissance of her culture, but also as a myth foregrounding women. The “culture heroes,” goddesses (primordial twins sewing the world), and other positive forces in the myth / novel, are all women. As Weigle notes: “Culture heroes, whether human or animal, female or male, bring or bring about valuable objects, teachings and natural changes which make possible human society and survival” (1983, 53). Erdrich’s work offers female culture heroes who bring about just such lessons and reorientations in conceiving and enacting life.

            Myth-makers and culture heroes not only make survival possible, they explain symbolically how to live, as Radin notes: “A myth is always explanatory. The explanatory theme often is so completely dominant that everything else becomes subordinated to it . . .” (370). Myths serve to explain and encourage worldview and good action within society. Many other theorists of myth concur that it has a functional dimension. Structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss expresses similar sentiments when he postulates that myths serve to mediate conflicting or dualistic elements of society and life.

            The need for mediation presupposes antinomy and in fact Lévi-Strauss recognizes “a basic antinomy pertaining to the nature of myth” and to human nature (1974: 85). Such contradiction often appears mythically in the form of dualities such as good and bad, night and day, etc., which Lévi-Strauss emphasizes appear in “bundles” in myths (1958: 87). Looked at as whole structures, myths reveal a typical pattern: “mythical thought always works from the awareness of oppositions towards their progressive mediation” (1958: 99). The symbolic mediation in myths offers inspiration for culture members to heal, flourish, or accept their reality. Lévi-Strauss, Radin, Boas, Weigle, and others stress that mythic thought, as highly symbolic, offers rich resources for making sense of the world, affirming worldview, and confirming human nature.

            Weigle employs images of spinning and weaving in her analysis of the world-creating, life-affirming functions of myth. Similarly, Lévi-Strauss draws upon the image of one who weaves together bits and pieces of culture, in the image of the bricoleur. He also draws upon sewing imagery in discussing the function and method of the bricoleur: 

                        More rapid cross-references, together with an increase in the number of points of view and angles of approach have made it possible to consolidate into a whole what might at first have seemed to be a loose and precarious assemblage of odds and ends, all dissimilar in form, texture and color. Careful stitching and darning, systematically applied to reinforce weak spots, has finally produced a homogeneous fabric, clear in outline and harmonious in its blend of shades; fragments which at first seemed disparate, once they found their appropriate place and the correct relationship to their neighbors, come together to form a coherent picture. In this picture, the tiniest details, however gratuitous, bizarre, and even absurd they may have seemed at the beginning, acquire both meaning and function. (1971: 562)


As myth gives meaning and purpose to even the most seemingly disparate and fragmented elements of culture, so it affirms life processes of cultural change or renewal and refashioning identity. In reading The Antelope Wife as a myth, we expect it to involve key images of both duality and mediating, and indeed it is replete with both themes.



Part II

A Split Apart World

Dualism in The Antelope Wife

            Erdrich’s novel reveals feelings that are typical of mixed-bloods searching for identity and a culture undergoing a renaissance. She represents this complex process by images and the word (in Ojibwa) for splitting: daashkiika. Although Ojibwe language is included in non-distinct type style, its distinctness is clear (Ojibwe words look very different from English).1 Similarly, these characters and the story are part of America, yet their Indian identity, language, and character imbue them with a unique quality. The characters that Erdrich creates, like many Native Americans, feel and often experience painfully or positively, a split between cultures, languages, and identities. Erdrich gives the images of splitting and duality primacy in this novel, implicitly and explicitly.

            The split between cultures and between past and present is best represented by characters, like the title character who represents a bridge to the past and between human and animal worlds, as both antelope and woman / wife.  Identical twins run in the female line of the principal family (the Roys, whom we later see are also the Shawanos and Whiteheart Beads). Identical twins represent a split or duality inherently, and also the potential of reconciling extremes (or halves of a whole), or of producing balance (as in the opening image – see below). A traditional word / name which plays a crucial role in the novel is “Dashkikaa,” which in Ojibwa means “splitting apart,”2 or “cracked apart,” as Cally’s grandmother finally defines it (1998: 213).3 There is a persistent image of a double world split in two, but simultaneously (at times only by implication) there is an image of wholeness. As potential and reality, a world woven together, affirming life, ultimately prevails.

            Even formally the book shows awareness of the tension between cultures. In early press releases and publication notices the title of the novel was given in Ojibwa as Gakahbekong, the word for Minneapolis.4 But the final version is in English. Each of the four parts of the novel bears dual titles: “Part One,” “Part Two,” etc.; and in smaller print beneath, “Bayzhig,” “Neej,” “Niswey,” “Neewin”: Ojibwe for one, two, three, four. The formal cues direct the reader to awareness of a split but also a blending of languages and thus cultures. The final title reflects the significance of the character of the antelope wife, drawn from traditional myth, but part of this world. The title also cues the novel as myth. Furthermore, the setting of the novel, Minneapolis, is significantly half of the “twin cities.” The fact that Erdrich wanted to foreground the Indian name of this half of the city (Minneapolis rather than St. Paul), reveals the importance of the place – a split-in-half city. The cities are literally split by the water of the Mississippi River, which plays a role in the novel. Erdrich’s characters live on the side of the river, which at least artificially, is the more Indian of the sides. Minneapolis merges an Indian word for water (minne) and a Greek work for city (polis).5 The other twin city, St. Paul, is obviously named for a Catholic saint and Christian hero. The twin cities represent uniquely the split in American society between Native and non-Native.

            Beyond such formal cues, the opening passage / image substantiates the duality and splitting of the world:

Ever since the beginning these twins are sewing. One sews with light and one with dark. The first twin’s beads are cut-glass whites and pales, and the other twin’s beads are glittering deep red and blue-black indigo. One twin uses an awl made of an otter’s sharpened penis bone, the other uses that of a bear. They sew with a single sinew thread, in, out, fast and furious, each trying to set one more bead into the pattern than her sister, each trying to upset the balance of the world (1).

The struggle between balance and splitting are clearly signaled as major themes of the novel right from the outset.6 “Fast and furious” work on an intricate pattern of “light and dark” are obvious indicators of the duality of the pattern of life. The mythic dimension of twins necessarily invokes basic social problems of struggle or splitting, but also of mediation, which Lévi-Strauss illuminates as basic and universal aspects of myth in The Raw and the Cooked.7 The struggle between opposites, the race to reconcile realities perceived as separate, in fact necessitates mediation, or maintenance of a delicate balance, even if achieved unwittingly, as in the case of these twins.

            Twins represent two halves of a whole, especially here, where they sew one pattern, with one thread. But they also represent a whole which is split, and in this case working against wholeness, i.e. themselves. Mixed blood Indians and “mixed culture Indians” also represent a split, and they struggle to make of their lives a whole. Just as these twins keep creation whole in spite of themselves, out of a struggle born of being split, so the struggle for identity may keep many Native Americans whole or balanced. They too may be confused over which heritage informs their lives and actions, which part of their split selves or contrasting ethnicities is at play. And sometimes the struggle may produce disasters (as in the case of some characters like Richard Whiteheart Beads in the novel). The potential for a whole and balanced pattern seems to require the opposition of impulses and elements.

            In the opening image, beadwork maintains the “single thread” of life, even though the twins themselves want to “upset the balance of the world.” Likewise, throughout the novel, beadwork offers focus and hope to characters. Although it is a traditional (pre-historic) element of Ojibwa culture,  beadwork flourished only after European introduction of great quantities of glass beads.8 In fact the beads which play the greatest role in the novel (passed down through the family line for at least 100 years) are described as “Czech glass” and “midwest trader blue.”9 Yet they are extremely important and meaningful to the characters and the plot of the novel. Thus, European introduced goods – or bloodlines – are undeniable, but not necessarily negative or destructive. The culture is maintained and can go on in spite of such splits and mixtures, as the image in the opening passage suggests.

            Identical twins are the most obvious symbol of the split-apart world represented in The Antelope Wife. Typically twins are the heros of myths. Lévi-Strauss writes that “this division between two individuals who are at the beginning presented as twins, either real twins or equivalents to twins, is a basic characteristic of all the myths in South America or North America” (1978: 29). Though the twin hero Cally loses her twin sister Deanna early on, she finds a replacement in the title character the antelope wife (known variably as Sweetheart Calico and Aunty Klaus), who manifests a split between woman and hooved one. Incipient twinhood, as in something that appears about to split apart because of its physical traits (such as a cleft palate, cloven hooves, etc.), plays as crucial a role as actual twins in representing inherent duality typical of myth, according to Lévi-Strauss. Erdrich recognizes that the significant feature of antelope and deer is their split hooves, as seen in her frequent references to “hooved ones” rather than just deer or antelope. Furthermore, when So Hungry takes a deer as husband, this communion links her with all hooved ones.10 So it is acceptable when antelope (the hooved ones of the Plains where she is trapped) take charge of Matilda, daughter of their cousin hooved ones, the deer, and ancestor of the antelope wife. Incipient or actual twinhood always involves and represents inherent dualities which must be symbolically resolved, or mediated, says Lévi-Strauss (1958: 99). Many characters in The Antelope Wife suffer crises which must be resolved or mediated. Such crises comprise climatic moments of the novel.

            Twins represent symbolically many other fundamental “splits” apparent in Erdrich’s work. Seeing the world as “cracked apart” represents feelings typical of people searching for identity and a culture undergoing a renaissance, in a world they see as split inherently and which splinters their own sense of identity. Depending on perceptual focus, one may dwell upon such dichotomies or take up a challenge to find unity, to blend and make coherent various cultural impulses. The following images represent duality throughout the novel: 1) identical twins, 2) Native and non-Native cultures, bloodlines, and heritages, 3) past and present time frames, 4) male and female sexes,11 5) English and Ojibwe languages,12 6) human and animal nature (the “antelope wife”), 7) wilderness and urban worlds,13 and 8) existential realities.14



Plurality of Interconnected Lives

            In addition to focusing upon the splitting apart of lives and characters, the novel as well emphasizes the interconnections between a plurality of lives and cultures. Native and non-Native, human and inhuman (as in primordial beings or animals), city and wilderness, past and present, all combine. Erdrich begins the novel with a multiplicity of voices and points of view, but eventually settles upon the voice of Cally as the principal actor (and I argue the hero). Still, it is worth considering some of the many other voices to whom Erdrich entrusts us, before allowing Cally’s voice predominance. Those voices become a panorama of the various impacts and hopes of the multicultural world that Native and non-Natives share today.

Scranton Roy and “Matilda Roy

            The first human character to whom we are introduced – Scranton Roy –  represents the non-Native, dominant culture in historical encounters with Indians. He experiences the conflicting emotions and responses which were typical of whites and their relations with Indians for many years. Scranton Roy’s parents were religious intellectuals (Quakers). His upbringing recalls that of the idealized early American settler. Nevertheless, he leaves his parents and the Quakers to go off on an adventure – another typical American story. Spurned by the lover he follows, he joins the army, where he brutally kills an innocent old Indian woman during a massacre. This undeniable and from a Native American perspective, unforgettable part of our history strikes Scranton and the reader very harshly in the image of the dying old woman, who speaks to Scranton: “There was a word she uttered in her language. Daashkikaa. Daashkikaa. A groan of heat and blood. He saw his mother, yanked the bayonet out with a huge cry, and began to run” (4).15 The “cracking apart” (daashkikaa) the dying old woman foresees / predicts refers not only to life and death, but also foretells other powerful dualities of this story and of Native American life. These universal dualities of human existence reveal a world apparently cracked apart, but not broken (i.e., functioning). Learning to see such a cracked apart reality as whole becomes the central focus of characters, determining their ability to survive or flourish.

            Scranton Roy is changed, “cracked,” by his murderous deed, but not broken. Perhaps he sees his mother in this old woman simply because his mother represents goodness to him, and so as he realizes the brutality of his deed, he thinks of her. Perhaps too, Erdrich is evoking the “Old Indian Woman” as mother to all Americans symbolically. This mother figure speaks to Scranton Roy a word which is central to the novel, though he cannot understand it. She recognizes that he, representative of all whites, is the means by which the world is cracked apart. Literally his bloodline and culture will dilute or split hers. Apparently only after this event do twins become part of the family line. Simultaneously, the split also impacts his life and culture. Though Roy does not understand the word “dashkikaa” and its significance, his descendants will. American culture may be considered cracked apart by its deeds toward Native Americans, but, like Roy’s descendants, capable of healing. Ultimately, all of us are split or cracked apart, but not doomed to insanity and unhappiness as a result (as the old woman will confirm to Roy in a vision).

            Running from his own brutal deed in killing the woman and cracking apart her world and his own, Scranton finds a lost Indian child strapped to a cradle board, tied to a dog, which the mother, forewarned by deer, had sent to safety away from the massacre (5, 57). Scranton must rid himself of the smell of his world before the dog lets him approach. Symbolically, he baptizes / cleanses himself by stripping and washing in a stream. He cannot feed the starving baby until her persistent sucking on his breast (which he offers in a desperate attempt to comfort her) draws milk from him, miraculously (5-8).16 This life-giving is a kind of salvation for Scranton Roy. After the flurry of war and desertion, Scranton Roy lives deep in the wilderness, “bathes each morning at the river, and keeps feeding the baby” (7). Seeking wilderness was historically a typical response of many men whose lives interconnected with Native Americans.

            It is not only nature which heals Scranton Roy. His ultimate salvation stems from taking charge of life.17 Though “the situation [of nursing her] was confusing” to him, “It occurred to him one slow dusk as he looked down at her, upon his breast, that she was teaching him something” (7). He interprets his lesson according to the worldview in which he was raised, and sees that the baby has taught him the meaning of faith (7-8). Symbolically, giving back life to Indians may be seen as equally necessary for healing and salvation for America (at least by those of Scranton Roy’s worldview).



Women  – as Ancestors and Actors

So Hungry = Blue Prairie Woman = Other Side Of The Earth

and her daughter

            Erdrich discusses the importance she places on women in her fiction and poetry in an interview with Joseph Bruchac. She discusses strong women “who become more than what they seem to be.” He says, “Transformations take place – in some cases, mythic transformations.” Erdrich responds: “That is true of women I have known. We are taught to present a demure face to the world and yet there is a kind of wild energy behind it in many women that is transformational energy, and not only transforming to them but to other people” (Bruchac 1987, 82). Erdrich makes explicit that she seeks to build images of women who are “attuned to their power and their honest nature, not the socialized nature and the embarrassed nature that says, ‘I can’t possibly accomplish this’” (Bruchac 1987, 82). It has been a theme throughout her writing to present women who struggle with the socializing of this world and empower themselves.

            In The Antelope Wife, the women of Cally’s world reveal painfully complicated and extreme lives. The baby he “saves” becomes Scranton Roy’s daughter – Matilda Roy – for whom he moves closer to civilization after years of healing in the wilderness following the massacre.18 In the white world (the new culture) Matilda seems happy, with a school teacher she loves as friend, then sister, and who would have been her step-mother.19 But her birth mother, Blue Prairie Woman, cannot accept losing this daughter, seems to know she is in a foreign world, and longs to find her. After a period with her husband of “such immoderation” that “twins are born” from it, Blue Prairie Woman dreams of her lost baby and takes “leave of her mind” to the point that she must be re-named (13).20 Because she looks for her daughter on the horizon day after day, she is renamed “Other Side of the Earth,” which again conjures images of a split world (the Earth having two sides).

            In spite of her new name and twin babies whom she feels inside her, “forming, creating themselves just as the first twin gods did at the beginning,” her lost daughter’s fate torments her (15). Other Side of the Earth cannot accept her daughter being on the “other side of the earth” she gazes toward every evening. Even with the birth of her new children, she cannot accept being split from her daughter, because she cannot accept losing her to the other world. Her agony represents the emotions of many families whose children were “lost” to the white world. From her perspective, Scranton has not really “saved” the baby, but kidnaped her. This too represents typical relations and misunderstandings between Indians and whites historically.21 As historian Debo notes in regard to such white adoptions and education of Indian children: “No other tragedy of frontier life brought such anguish, no other phase of Indian warfare aroused such hatred as this capture of children. White men . . . never understood the desperation of the bereaved parents. Even the Apache prisoners crowded within stockades found ways to hide some of their children from the Carlisle kidnapers” (1970: 288).22 Like so many Indian parents, Other Side of the Earth is bereaved to have lost a daughter to this alien culture of the whites. The loss of this daughter “cracks apart” her world, so she leaves her twins and walks west until she finds her first daughter.

            Although she appears happy, Matilda Roy – 7 years old – recognizes the pull of this other world.23 Even though she loves her “father” Roy and her teacher (who lives with them and ultimately marries Scranton Roy), Matilda feels her mother’s presence, and leaves with a “clatter of beads” and a brief note, “She came for me. I went with her” (16). The blue beads were on Matilda’s cradle board when Scranton rescued her, and she carries them away with her.24 The whole episode echoes the contradictory impulses many Indian children felt when they were “saved” / kidnaped by the white world and put into boarding schools or other white institutions as part of the general assimilation policy in America. Matilda feels and responds to the pull of her mother and culture, even though she doesn’t understand either. Here she literally cannot verbally communicate with her mother because she can’t speak the language. Like Matilda, many Indian children often came to appreciate, even love, aspects of or people in the new world, but nevertheless they felt a strong pull for the traditional world of their relatives, even if they didn’t understand it.25

            Other Side of the Earth dies on the journey back, from a white disease carried and transmitted by her daughter. Her death reveals the difficulty of mixing two worlds (or rejoining two split halves) and is typical of another devastating result of Indian and White relations: new diseases.26 Other Side of the Earth sings while dying, happy to have her daughter where she belongs, though in fact she is in no human culture, caught on the journey back in the world of the “hooved ones” – the antelope on the plains.27 While Scranton Roy mourns, Matilda flounders in between worlds, “nameless” (19-20).28

            Bearing only her white father’s name for her, Matilda observes the antelope summoned by the mother’s death song, but “doesn’t know what they are, the beings, dreamlike, summoned by her mother’s song, her dipping hand” (20). Decimated by whites, who nonetheless also saved Matilda’s life, her mother and culture were not able to give her a name nor the means of understanding the antelope or the world of Indians.  Matilda is a lost soul, split, between worlds, yet symbolic of the beauty and meaning of the joining of worlds: “Naked, graceful, the blue beads around her neck” (20).29 The beads are her connection to the human world and a symbol of being bound (we later see); she is neither completely animal nor human. She runs with the antelope and is subsequently alluded to as having stayed and lived with the antelope. One may infer that she is the ancestor of the antelope wife of the title, which would be characteristic of her heritage, given that her mother, Blue Prairie Woman, had a deer husband when she was young, who was probably Matilda’s father (53-59).30   The theme of animal spouses is common in traditional Ojibwe and other Native American literature. Although Matilda seems lost to both cultures, her mother’s final song blessedly allows her to live intimately as part of the natural world (an ideal conception of Indian culture). In this sense she survives and is restored to the old ways.

Klaus Shawano

and The Antelope Wife (Sweetheart Calico)

            As the novel jumps forward to the present time, the next significant character introduced is Klaus Shawano, a trader (in and of itself a profession which mediates between people and in some cases worlds).31 Shawano’s profession is held with some regard as a traditional role for Indian people,32 yet Shawano represents many typical modern images of Natives as a self-proclaimed “urban Indian,” whom we first see working at a powwow – Crow Fair – in the Plains (21). He thus represents another mediation between worlds: a trader (traditional and modern work) working at modern festival events – powwows – that are generally seen as a way for Native people to connect with their traditions.

            Klaus is obsessed with the title character and gets medicine from Jimmy Badger – an elder – to help him win “Sweetheart Calico” who is the “Antelope Wife.”33 In a magical realistic stroke typical of Erdrich, Sweetheart Calico is literally the antelope – incomprehensible, beautiful, graceful, and other worldly – but also a woman, silent and aloof for the most part (and in all such respects representative of the ideal Indian of the past). Although her exact lineage and history are never clearly revealed, events and facts of the novel suggest that her ancestor is Matilda Roy who was left to live among the antelope.

            Numerous references to Sweetheart Calico reveal her antelope nature. She and her daughters share some habits, grace, even mannerisms of antelopes. For instance, when Klaus follows her to see where she and her daughters sleep he loses them far into the woods / bush, where they apparently live. Even her physical characteristics are described as antelope-like: “They float above everyone else on springy, tireless legs. . . .with a gravity of sure grace . . .their black, melting eyes never leave the crowd” (23-24). Whether objective narration or Klaus’ love stricken viewpoint, such references reveal the possibility and plant a seed of perceiving the antelope nature of this woman. In another passage Klaus observes her as she sleeps: “Her lying next to me in deepest night, breathing quiet in love, trust. Her hand in mine, her wicked hoof” (33). Klaus is bewitched by her, but only half understands and accepts her antelope nature. He most clearly catches glimpses of her antelope nature in his dreams / visions: “he pictured his wife and twenty-six sisters and her daughters in shawls of floating hair. Over and over again they sprang into his dreams. Galloped at him. Brandished their hooves like polished nails” (93-94). He realizes her nature subconsciously but cannot reconcile her with his reality. As Badger predicts, Klaus therefore remains unsatisfied.

            Klaus becomes a pathetic alcoholic with an overwhelming and unquenchable thirst related to his relationship with his Antelope Wife. In a scene where Klaus drinks from the river to quench his thirst, he has a vision of her in the water: “she only looked back at him over her shoulder with her hungry black eyes. Gave a flick of her white-flag tail” (98). Even when he first sees her at a powwow, he notices clues to her nature. Her feather fan is made from birds who “follow the antelope to fall on field mice the moving herd stirs up” (24). Such clues reveal the blending of qualities that make her unique and incomprehensible. It is not merely Klaus’ alcoholism that spurs such visions of an antelope woman. Cally presents the story of Blue Prairie Woman / So Hungry’s deer husband, and it is through the eyes of the narrator that we see Matilda left alone as Other Side of the Earth calls the hooved ones to care for her. Eventually others also receive clues to Sweetheart Calico’s connection to Matilda and to her antelope nature. Most notably she carries the blue beads last seen with Matilda.

            Jimmy Badger, an elder from a Plains tribe whose advice Klaus seeks at the powwow where he first encounters Sweetheart Calico, offers Shawano a warning in regards to “antelope people”: “few men can handle their love ways. Besides they’re ours. We need them and we take care of these women. Descendants. Some men follow the antelope and lose their minds” (p. 29). Sweetheart Calico, whose name comes from the bright trade cloth Klaus uses to get her attention, and then to tie her to him, becomes a focal point of the novel.34 She is a valued member of the Indian community, as Badger asserts. She is also valuable to Klaus, who recognizes subconsciously who she is, knows she is dangerous to him, but cannot resist her appeal. As Badger suggests will happen, Klaus loses his mind. His unjust relations with her ultimately break them both.

            During their relationship they undergo various transformations in which they represent a variety of possible, typical Native American personas. Sweetheart Calico (which is how she is most often referred to in her life with Klaus) appears first as mother, dancing superbly with her daughters at the powwow (through Shawano’s trickery she is separated quickly from her daughters). She is also characterized as a beautiful lover, a lazy, fat wife, and a sisterly in-law to the community. But she is never presented as having any depth or clear presence as a character. In other words, she is characterized only in relation to others, almost like an exchange item or a symbol. This too harkens back to Native American twin myths, in which one of the twins is often a less real, powerful, or human presence than the dominant actor twin. Ultimately Sweetheart Calico serves as a carrier of the healing beads and thus a medium for resolution of some major issues in the novel (26ff). Even then, she speaks a strange pastiche of images and then disappears back to her world.35

            The antelope wife is a symbol of what is needed and a carrier of dreams, names, and messages, but not quite real. Thus she represents well the past and its role for modern Indians. The fact that she represents the past is evident in her lack of understanding of the phone system, which she uses to try to find her daughters, but always to “out-of-service signals.”36 She does not use the phone successfully. Klaus remarks that, “she never speaks, though sometimes I imagine I hear her whispering” (31). These imagined whispers are never revealed to the reader. Sweetheart Calico’s inability to speak and understand the modern world are evidence that she is not a modern Indian. In addition, she thrashes wildly in the motel room when she wakes from the drug-induced sleep Klaus used to kidnap her, “breaking her teeth on the tub’s edge” (31). “Breaking [or cutting] one’s teeth” is a metaphor for being initiated into or learning a new experience, culture, or base of knowledge. She is obviously unfamiliar with this world and incapable of negotiating it at first. While her actions make sense as a kidnap victim, she settles into her routine of married life fairly placidly, suggesting it is not the kidnaping into marriage, but into modern culture, which distresses her.37

            In his person, relationships and encounters, Klaus Shawano (whose name mixes German and Indian identities familiar to Erdrich) represents various characteristics or stereotypes considered common among Indians:

~Indians are respectful of elders (who are wise): Shawano shows this with Badger when he approaches him in a correct, respectful manner to ask advice.

~Indians are generous with what little they have: Shawano does not prosper as a trader because he is too giving to his people.

~Indians have a different worldview: Shawano’s connection to "medicine" and to nature (being married to an antelope/woman) reveal this difference.

~Indians live apart from western civilization and are more connected to tradition: He prefers to hunt (i.e. hunting for animals to eat)  in “an open spot,” not near fences as others do to ensure success.

~Indians have a great sense of humor: His humor is especially appreciated by women (who laugh at his jokes behind their hands in a traditional manner). (p.28)

All of these qualities are described as part of his previous life, but appear to evaporate once Shawano kidnaps his antelope wife. She becomes his obsession. In Native American myths, animal human interrelationships were typically the source of good things, like food, medicine, values, etc. Even marriage by abduction was a traditional way of life sometimes. But this is a mediation between past and present, between worldviews of different cultures, which Klaus cannot manage. Badger’s prophecy, revealing that this forced marriage is unnatural and will harm Klaus, becomes reality. The only benefits from Sweetheart Calico’s presence, come to other characters with whom Sweetheart Calico does have a real relationship (i.e. her relatives through Blue Prairie Woman). If even a trader, already skilled at bridging some aspects of traditional life into modern life, cannot manage this marriage, then the message suggests that going to extremes to force too much of the past ways into the present, is dangerous.

            The relationship between Klaus and Sweetheart Calico is representative of merging traditions and cultures.38 Although he is warned against it, this Woodlands Indian takes this treasured “woman” of the plains only to encounter disaster.39 Klaus does not understand the wife for whom he so longs: “We’ll sit at night watching television, touching our knees together while I check the next day’s schedule. Her eyes speak. Her long complicated looks tell me stories – of the old days, of her people. The antelope are the only creatures swift enough to catch the distance, her sweeping looks say. We live there. We live there in the place where sky meets earth” (32).40 The place where sky meets earth – the horizon – is clearly not comprehensible or reachable, nor is the past for some of today’s Indians. Even though it is literally a meeting place, the horizon is also elusive, the place of dreams and longing. As a symbol of something longed for, the antelope wife represents the Indians of the idealized past. She “tells” Klaus that the place of dreams or ideals is in fact her home.41            b. The Antelope Wife’s elusiveness and desirability recall the Sidhe fairies whom one longs for, but whose beauty and strangeness drive one mad if one gets too close. In fact, when Erdrich later presents Klaus’ vision, which ultimately leads him to free the antelope wife, he sees her as a fairy (see discussion of this section later). The Antelope Wife, clearly a representative of “the old days,” validates the idealized image of the past. While she is with Klaus she does not, however, live where she belongs, but literally in a confined space watching television. Her life in this world is mundane and not admirable, yet she remains a center point and beacon of change and hope to others. She is a surreal but overwhelming and overwhelmed presence, as the past is to some Indians today.

            Klaus cannot comprehend when he finds her: “Weeping, weeping, she cries the whole day away.  Sometimes I find her in the corner, drunk . . . . I think I’ll find a mind doctor, things cannot go on. She’s crazy” (31). She danced at the powwow with her daughters, demonstrating some ability to get along in this world. Yet while with Klaus in Minneapolis, she is uncomfortable in this world. Perhaps the message is that expecting the old ways to work in the modern world is “crazy,” at least in certain circumstances. Sweetheart Calico is torn between the rages just described and behaving as, “the most loving companion” (32). She is lost, as the old ways must be in today’s world, where the patterns (of beads or cultural elements) are different.42 Here Sweetheart Calico shares some qualities with her ancestor Other Side of the World, who also appeared insane to her contemporaries. Yet beads and culture are resilient; you can put them into new patterns without changing of destroying them, a fact Cally finally realizes. Modern patterns are not necessarily worse. The failure to find a pattern may be the problem.

            In the end, Sweetheart Calico’s love devastates Klaus. He cycles into alcoholism, destructive relationships, and a lack of purpose clearly distinct from his successful trader days. He obviously doesn’t understand his antelope wife, or doesn’t listen to what he intuitively and sub-consciously understands. His obsession leads him to keep her prisoner, though as such she is like poison to him, and maybe to others in his community.43 Jimmy Badger told him the Plains people know how to understand and live with her. Klaus proves that desire is not enough. Her presence leads to his destruction.44

            Sweetheart Calico quickly becomes less physically beautiful, fat and lazy in Klaus’s (modern) world (32). She appears to succumb to two of the most devastating diseases which commonly afflict Native Americans today: diabetes and alcoholism. Klaus’ alcoholism is unambiguously destructive. In the meantime, without her, Jimmy Badger's world is falling apart. Her absence causes plagues in Biblical proportion.  But Klaus cannot make himself give her up, even though keeping her is also killing him (33).45 She is a key, representative of a force of Nature, a way of life, a worldview. Yet if she is representative of the old way of life, it is telling that those in Klaus’ world struggle to figure her out (34). They don’t seem to know enough (perhaps even who she is, which is kin in some cases) to deal with her properly. At various points other characters lament the fact that they hadn’t “noticed” her or taken her seriously enough.

The Women Today

Roy twins - Family Splitting Apart & Coming Together

            This inability of her female relatives to recognize or comprehend the antelope wife (at least until the end of the novel) may come from the fact that the women with whom she resides are described as diluted. Erdrich presents the Roy women thus: “daughters of the granddaughters of Blue Prairie Woman are wavy haired and lightened by the Roy blood. We're twins of twins, going back through the floating lines of time” (34). The twins were named Mary and Zosie each generation until the generation of our focus, which comes to center on Cally but begins with her mother Rozina (or Rozin or Roz) whose twin was Aurora.46 Rozin in turn names her daughters independent of the tradition as well: Cally and Deanna. Both Aurora and Deanna die young. All these twin daughters descended from the original twin daughters of Blue Prairie Woman / Other Side of the Earth. These original twins mate with the grandson of Scranton Roy, Augustus, thus highlighting the split as between not only twins but also between Indians and Whites.47 The twins are the keys to the novel, struggling to strike the balance represented in the opening image of the twins’ beadwork. They combine and re-combine families and bloodlines, with some good, and some bad results.

            Sweetheart Calico, descended from Matilda Roy and the deer, though not split biologically as twins, is split between woman and “hooved ones” (deer as father or antelope as relatives), and between ancient and modern worlds. For her, the split seems dangerous (to her physical health at least). For the other characters, lack of knowledge and understanding of these complex familial ties also causes problems. In explaining the interconnections of her family, Cally recognizes the complexity and delicacy of her family history: “Everything is all knotted up in a tangle. Pull one string of this family and the whole web will tremble” (239). By invoking the image of delicate balance, here as a web, in regard to these characters and their lives, Cally (and through her Erdrich) emphasizes the complexity of all the splits and layers of the culture as a whole. Her family and this novel stand for the Indian world today.


            Cally’s mother Rozina Roy (a.k.a. Roz or Rozin) marries Richard Whiteheart Beads.48 Rozina is a member of the community to whom Klaus Shawano returns with Sweetheart Calico. Like others in this community, she struggles to integrate and understand her identity. Rozin’s discussion of her connection to “continuity” (or tradition) reveals her struggle to find a balance between old and new, between the dualities in her world:

I named my girls Cally and Deanna. Bad choice. I broke more continuity, and they suffered for it, too [as she and her sister suffered for their “new” names]. Should have kept the protection. Should have kept the names that gave the protection. Should have kept the old ways just as much as I could, and the tradition that guarded us. Should have rode horses. Kept dogs. Stayed away from Richard Whiteheart Beads, Frank Shawano, or maybe Klaus’s woman with the flashy walk and broken teeth.

I would go back, if I could, unweave the pattern of destruction. Take it all apart occurrence by slow event. But how can you pick out the strands of all you might have changed and all you couldn’t? (35-36)


The universal sentiment Rozina expresses here, of wanting to go back and change the pattern of history, is impossible. She and other Native Americans must accept that the pattern as it is now woven involves changes. Broken patterns and consequences thereof cannot be re-made exactly as they were before: “how can you pick out the strands of all you might have changed and all you couldn’t?” New patterns are infinitely possible according to the nature of culture and the human condition, but one senses that Rozina doesn’t know what she should be doing, nor how she should be living. She struggles with her choices and the pattern of her life. Women can only change the pattern of their own lives to come, not the past, but Rozina dwells in regret. Her regret and sorrow over Deanna’s death almost consume her. Cally ultimately draws her back to the present when she grows so ill that she would die without care.

            As a namer, Cally takes up the challenge of shaping the present and changing patterns about which Roz is confused and worried. Cally shows no such confusion, and as a result she manages to revive the names and culture of her people. Notably, Rozina’s worry about her name stems from the fact that her own name is a departure from a tradition of naming all the twin daughters in the Roy family line Zosie and Mary. Rozina concludes that this departure from tradition is dangerous because Rozina’s sister Aurora dies from diphtheria at age five and her own daughter Deanna also dies young. Rozin sees the naming as responsible for the bad luck, and so she wishes she had kept the traditions.

            In reality Deanna dies because of a far more serious break with tradition – her father Richard Whiteheart Beads’ alcoholism and suicidal tendencies. Nonetheless, in considering the misfortune of breaking traditions, Rozina ponders all breaks with tradition, echoing many of the concerns of Native people I knew and interviewed. Her worries lead her to want to undo many of her choices, but of course lives are complicated patterns, like the mythical beadwork from the opening, and changing parts of the pattern cannot but upset the balance of the whole. Considering different names and fates leads to realization of the complicated nature of life and cultural patterns. In the end, without Richard there would be no daughters, and without Frank, Rozina would have no happiness.

            Rozina completes her regretful thoughts in the earlier passage: “How could I not have noticed Sweetheart Calico?” (36). Sweetheart Calico’s centrality is obvious yet elusive. Rozina’s regret keeps her focused upon this shadowy figure of past culture, so that she cannot embrace her present, until the end when Sweetheart Calico leaves. Her lament, like her wish for keeping other traditions, seems a cry of regret for all she has lost, including past ways of living, which she apparently feels would be superior. Yet ironically Sweetheart Calico, according to Rozina, set the steps in motion for this future happiness. Rozina offers her assessment of Sweetheart Calico in her first words (earlier in the chapter): “When she first came here with Klaus we all wondered, couldn’t help it. Why she made so much sense and none at all. His sweetheart calico. Why she seemed one of us and different, wholly other and yet familiar”(34). Rozina sums up the sentiment toward Sweetheart Calico as representative of the past astutely, “familiar” but “wholly other,” “one of us and different,” like the world they are no longer part of, but look to longingly for guidance. So though Rozin wants to hang onto the past, she recognizes it as alien. Her torn impulses are representative of the struggle between the twins to sew the pattern of life.

            Questioning fate and history leads Rozina only to despair. Only when she stops worrying about such things does she find happiness. Cally sees her mother as untroubled by the tugs of gravity that would cause such concern. In fact, later in the novel, after the tragedies she endured, Cally describes her mother thus, “she has no seeming interest left” (143). Frank and Rozina ride the “gravitron,” a carnival ride that spins very fast. This time the ride is thrown out of control by a crazy operator. Once the ride is stopped, “each rider, coming into focus, is the very picture of sick and dazzled terror except for one. My mother. She steps out of her cage, doesn’t falter, not a single misstep” (147). After this, she seems cured of her inability to embrace life and be happy. Cally explains:

                  The way she acts is so different, so natural, so real, so warm and naked that I suddenly have this picture of what has just happened to her.

                  My mother has been scaled. All the scales of convention and ironic distance have been scuffed off her. All the boney armor she affects against the world. She has been stripped by centrifugal force and jumbled up inside. The wrench of gravity has undone all her strings. (147)


Without the “strings” of other people’s and her own expectations and burdens, Rozina is able to find her center. She is authentic, “so natural, so real, so warm and naked.” After this, Rozina accepts the love between her and Frank, and thus finds happiness. The existential message of the novel emerges in the sense that only when characters act within their own world and according to their own nature do they thrive.49

Richard Whiteheart Beads

            Cally’s father Richard Whiteheart Beads, another key character, is dangerous and symbolic of those who cannot make a harmonious pattern from the available elements. He is a lost soul and is mean, selfish, and destructive. He is toxic like the garbage he illegally dumps: “Things get dumped, terrible poisons in endless old wells. Nothing's endless, though. Every place has limits. Everybody. Toxins. Resins. Old batteries. Lead. Mercury. And Whiteheart. And Whiteheart” (50). His character is a representation of how ill equipped some people are to succeed at blending cultures in today’s world. In the process of living and blending or splitting cultures there will be “terrible poisons” which must be dumped somewhere. Richard is the unfortunate representative of such a repository. Richard’s inability to cope is partly due to his own selfishness, and partly because he cannot use the tools he has. From the beginning Richard’s selfish and foolish antics lead him down a poisonous path. Since names are significant throughout the novel we may consider Richard’s name – Whiteheart Beads – as evidence of his “White” heart, i.e. his inability to embrace or carry out traditional ways. In fact, he destructively manipulates the system. Although he has an Indian outer shell, the essence of his being is bankrupt – White (at heart).

            Rozina leaves Richard, but only after years of struggle, during which Richard will go to almost any lengths to try to keep her to himself, and away from others – including killing his daughter Deanna and finally killing himself at Rozin’s wedding to Frank. Such obsessive, personal impulses are not part of the ideal Indian value system, which stresses strong community life. Richard’s obsessive love is similarly destructive to what Klaus feels for his wife.50 Richard’s life is a mess. The government is after him for his illegal dumping activities (though it is his friend Klaus whom the police hassle). Even before Roz leaves him and he spirals into alcoholism, self-indulgent depression, and very public, destructive suicide, he is described as a bad kind of Indian – a tribal politician.51

            Rozina first meets her true love and thus enables herself to leave Richard through Sweetheart Calico’s presence and symbolic intervention: “I entered [the bakery of Frank Shawano – her lover] for one reason and only this – her. Sweetheart Calico sat on the sidewalk just outside the shop” (36). She openly acknowledges the significance of Sweetheart Calico’s influence on her life, even though Rozina does not consciously realize Sweetheart Calico’s (Aunty Klaus’) identity. Why she should enter the shop because Sweetheart Calico is sitting outside of it is not clarified. But symbolically, if the antelope woman represents a pull to living more “traditionally,” or more “authentically,” then she is an appropriate beacon. For through her relationship with Frank, Rozina finds herself.

            Rozina’s new relationship frees her from the “toxic” Richard with whom she shares twins Cally and Deanna, even though she realizes presciently to be “afraid for my daughters,” after starting the affair (38). These “twins descended of twins for generations” see their mother Rozin (who had a twin sister who died young) in her “other life” while they are out walking with their father. While with Frank Shawano, who is the true, sweet-like-the-baked-goods-he-makes love of her life,52 Rozina is so different from the person who is his wife when she is with Frank, that Richard denies that it is her. Lorena Stookey notices the differences in Rozina’s relationships:

                  Frank Shawano is the emblem of the nurturing lover, the man who relishes “every hour. . . every solid, aching minute” (233) of his life with his beloved. With Richard, Rozin was clumsy, somehow made inept by her constant awareness of his hungry needs (even her beading went wrong, and he was not pleased with the loomed watchband she made for him one Christmas). Rozin’s marriages, then, offer a study in constrasts, for with Frank she always feels at ease, even after he has unquestionably “lost his funny bone” (143). In this partnership, where the lovers share their interests in family and cultural tradition, each also pursues an independent interest. (1999, 136)


Cally is so convinced that her mother is different with Frank, that after seeing them in the park together, she decides to herself, “our father was right. We were looking at some other woman whose face, alight and radiant and still with anticipation, we had never seen before” (54). So Rozina is also a “split” woman –  daashkiika – not only by virtue of being a twin, but by her choices and impulses. She longs for the past, but is firmly in the present. The side of her life with Frank is a “clear stream” she drinks from.53 The other side is less beautiful (55).

Part IV

Hunger and Thirst

            There are two great stories of preternatural hunger and thirst woven into the novel, both further deepening the novel’s mythical tendencies. Klaus Shawano cannot quench his thirst until her drinks from the Mississippi. Blue Prairie Woman’s hunger so overwhelms her that she is renamed “So Hungry.” Each story of insatiability is symbolic of longings and impulses typical of  humans. Blue Prairie Woman manages to find satisfaction for her hunger. She does so by going into nature and finding beauty in the eyes of the animal who becomes her husband. Klaus Shawano, who stole an animal wife from its natural environment and brought her forcibly into his world, is perpetually thirsty.

            Cally retains and retells “The Deer Husband” story of Blue Prairie Woman (her grandmother’s grandmother). As a young woman this ancestor goes into the woods to cook herself a satisfying meal. Even after eating “the whole rabbit. Ears too,” she wants more. “She wanted to eat her own arm. So Hungry. That’s what they named her. So Hungry. Apijigo Bakaday” (56). When a deer joins her she thinks of eating him and approaches with her hatchet. But when she looks into his eyes she sees real hunger and qualities of peace and contentment which she finds attractive. Instead of eating him, she shares her stew with him. Afterward, she is finally:

                  Unafraid. She had this feeling. Full. So this was what other people felt. She looked over at the deer. His eyes were steady and warm with a deep black light. His heart shone right out of his eyes.

                  He loves me, she thought. He loves me and I love him back. Right down to the ground. Who he is. No different. Of course, too bad that he’s a deer. Still, she made a bed out of young hemlock branches and curled against his short, stiff pelt. She began to live with him, stayed with him out in the woods, and traveled with him on into the open spaces. Became beloved by his family, too. Got so that she knew how to call the hooved ones toward her. They came when she stood in the open. Her song was peculiar, soft, questing. (56)


So Hungry finds satisfaction with her deer husband. She demonstrates a choice in her kinship idiom with relationship to nature that was typical among Native American myths. The structural relationship is based upon an affinal connection, rather than consanguinity. This reflects the Native American cosmology of seeing nature as a potential partner, a relationship of reciprocity. Hence she recognizes the deer as “no different.” In fact, animal husband and wife stories are abundant in traditional literature collections of Indians throughout North America.54 It is an indication of a stronger and healthier relationship with nature than that experienced by modern Americans, who like Richard are more likely to pollute nature, or to kill and eat it, than to see its potential as a partner. Of course, the traditional Native American relationship with nature was not all nice. And So Hungry was quite willing to eat the deer before she saw his potential as husband (similarly other characters in the novel are willing to eat puppies in soup). Mythological stories of animal spouses do not idealize nature, but rather represent it as a partner, one we have to work at getting along with as we must with spouses. Even though her family intervenes, So Hungry succeeds where Klaus and Richard fail in their respective quests.

            In fact her family drags her away from this life (her brothers kill her husband). But So Hungry “was not hungry anymore, and she was grown” (57). She maintains good relations with “the hooved ones,” twice saviors of her daughter. First they warn her of the attack so that she straps her daughter to a dog’s back to save her. Later, upon her death, it is the hooved ones to whom she commends Matilda. It is likely that Matilda is the daughter of the deer husband, which would explain her ability to adapt to life with other hooved ones and pass down a line of descendent “antelope women” like the title character. Interestingly, this story, and the many traditional stories to which it hearkens, reveal that mixed blood was not an unusual concept even to traditional Natives. Thus her story confirms that mixing (bloods, cultures, species) is okay. She too has a symbolic function much like a bricoleur.

            So Hungry’s preternatural hunger is fulfilled by connecting intimately with the natural world. She feeds her hunger with the help of her deer husband. Stories of such preternatural urges among humans and seemingly impossible, bizarre ways of satisfying them, often baffle modern readers of traditional tales. Left in the past, this story might have found itself a lifeless and obscure reference to another time, resurrected, but without power in this novel. But its resurrection is more thorough and pervasive. So Hungry’s actions have consequences and counterparts for her descendants in the present-day Minneapolis. First there is Sweetheart Calico, the Antelope Wife, a product of the affinal relationship between So Hungry and her deer spouse.

            Furthermore, such overwhelming hunger finds its counterpart in Klaus’s overwhelming thirst. He too finds a not quite human spouse, though his spouse is less obviously or fully animal than So Hungry’s deer husband. Since Klaus’s connection to the old ways and his blood line are diluted, it seems appropriate that his animal spouse is also somewhat diluted (i.e. actually half human). It is equally appropriate that his relationship with her, along with his thirst, are as modern as he: an abduction in a van, a wedding night in a hotel, and great thirst coming from alcohol-induced dehydration.

            Klaus Shawano experiences tremendous thirst, paralleling So Hungry’s insatiable hunger. While she fulfills cultural traditions, relating to nature and finding satisfaction there, Klaus’s thirst seems unquenchable. His wife also longs for something, freedom. Lorena Stookey discusses their longing: “Both characters are trapped, immobilized by the spell of their unfulfilled desires and thus live their days in a state of waiting” (1999, 135). Klaus and Richard are on a drinking binge when Klaus begins to realize he is sick, though Richard ignores his repeated pleas: “‘I’m sick,’ said Klaus. ‘Water’” (94). He cannot escape his obsession with Sweetheart Calico. This is obviously the root cause of his malady of extreme thirst, as it is the cause of his alcoholism (and hence of his dehydration).

            As he thirsts, he sees an image representative of the strange and detrimental attraction he feels for his antelope wife: “he couldn’t stop his mind from turning his sweetheart into a Disney character. The Blue Fairy. Her light increased. Her smile spread slowly into jag-toothed mercy and then her voice flowed, the cool of a river” (94). He confuses his love for this “magical” being who is split between antelope and woman with love he felt for the magical fairies of childhood films.55 Just as Sweetheart Calico’s love overwhelms him, now this vision of her does so. His needs overtake his senses, and he feels he cannot ignore his physical need to drink. She torments his thirst in his vision:

                  His lady love was still there in the back of his mind, standing in a ball of blue light.

                  “I’d like a drink of water,” he said to her. She had a glass of water in her hand, too, Sweetheart Calico, but she poured it out in front of his eyes. The molecules dissolved all around him and did nothing for his thirst.  (94)


His Sweetheart remains confused in Klaus’s mind with the Disney fairy, “standing in a ball of blue light.” But much as he needs and wants her to, Sweetheart Calico cannot or will not quench his thirst. The sustenance she provides is as elusive as the molecule-like dust from the fairy’s wand.

            Still Klaus is thirsty. He and Richard wander through Minneapolis looking for water. Klaus drinks from a sprinkler system at the museum but is chased off by guards before he can really drink. Store keepers won’t serve these drunken Indians. Pictures of water in businesses taunt him, as does the image of his sweetheart:

                  “That’s all you need,” said the Blue Fairy, holding up the bottle before his eyes. Twice, with her glass hoof, she struck the hollow ground. “Let’s mogate.”

                              “To the big water. Mizi zipi.”


                  They walked. Hotter. Hotter. A few times they took a drink from their bottles, but mainly they wanted to get there, so they walked. Shaking a little, hungry. Went around the back of a pizza place where the manager left unclaimed orders every once in a while. Past the Deja Vue Showgirls. SexWorld. Fancy café garbage Dumpster and outdoor bar. Nothing there. A woman exiting an antique store held out a dollar and the moment Richard touched the bill she dropped it like he’d run an electric wire up her arm. She darted away.

                        “It’s that sex thing,” said Richard, his look sage. “I have that effect on women.”

                              “They run like hell.”

                  Klaus laughed too hard, furious, thinking of how his antelope girl could take off and sprint. (96-97)


Richard and Klaus follow the vision Klaus receives from his antelope wife / blue fairy and work their way toward the “Mizi zipi,” or Mississippi. This river is significant as the major natural detail of the city, and was important in Ojibwe culture. On their way there we see the city through the eyes of alcoholics, the sleazy underclass side of the city. They are very much in and of this modern world (they know where to get the free food and how to interpret the actions of women they encounter on their way this day).56 These are two Indians following a vision to drink from an ancient and sacred river, but also two sad, sick alcoholics stumbling dehydrated through the city, pathetically in need of the simplest sustenance – water.

            When they reach the water, through rich neighborhoods that line its banks, they think about putting down tobacco first, but do not. Richard says, “This afternoon, let’s just regard our tobacco as a habit-forming drug” (97). Perhaps this lapse indicates their failure and confusion about mixing cultures and religions: “It [smoking] don’t mix with wine, not for religious purposes,” says Klaus (97). In any case, Klaus stays focused on his thirst and hopes to quench it with the river water:

                  Klaus swayed to his knees and then painfully, slowly, he inched down the bank of the river, leaned over the edge to where the water began. At that place, he lowered his face like a horse. He put his face into the water, sucked the river into himself, drank it and drank it.

                  “That’s Prairie Island nuclear water,” Richard yelled.

                              Klaus kept drinking. . . .

                              “Some beaver might have pissed up near Itasca.”

                              Klaus kept drinking and drinking.

                  “For sure,” said Richard, worried, “they dump the beef-house scraps in it up at Little Falls.”

                              Klaus didn’t stop.  (97-98)


Klaus’ preternatural need overwhelms any fears about contamination. Only the river quenches his thirst, as nothing in the city could. Richard – the expert in toxins – protests in vain and finally consoles himself with alcohol. In fact Richard’s list of possible toxins reveals that the river could never be considered “pure” exactly. Even before nuclear waste there was beaver piss and other garbage to worry about. Yet the river was sacred as a source of water and as Klaus realizes, of visions as well.

            Klaus’s vision, while he drinks, is of course of his Antelope Wife:

                  “What do you think he sees,” said Richard, helpless without an audience, wishing he could open Klaus’s wine already. “What do you think he’s looking at? What do you think he sees?”

                              After another drink, Richard answered himself.

                              “To the bottom.”

                  And he was right and she was down there. Klaus was watching her float toward him – his special woman – the Blue Fairy, merlady – a trembling beauty alive with Jell-O light, surrounded by a radiance of filtered sun and nuclear dust and splintered fish scales. The water was medicinal, bubbling, hot turquoise. She stopped for a moment, flying backward in the great muscle of the current pushing south. It tugged at her hair. She had to go, Klaus knew. Longing for her scorched him through and through. He stretched toward her with all of his soul, but she only looked back at him over her shoulder with her hungry black eyes. Gave a flick of her white-flag tail.  (98)


Klaus’s vision reveals the mixture of cultures which is the hallmark of the novel. His vision encompasses the Disney fairy and the antelope woman (a being like those in traditional Native American narratives) at once. Klaus realizes that the river is contaminated with “nuclear dust” and animal waste (“fish scales”), and yet he finds the water “medicinal, bubbling, hot turquoise.” It is healing and beautiful. The river allows Klaus to “know” what Jimmy Badger warned him from the beginning, “she had to go.” He sees that however deep and pressing his desire, keeping her is wrong.

            After Klaus’ revelation, Cally’s story becomes the principal one in the novel.57 She and Klaus are both instruments for Sweetheart Calico’s release back to her old ways. Klaus’s story is no longer a focus, yet he doesn’t succumb to the despair and sickness that overwhelm and destroy Richard. Quenching one’s thirst in the river proves less dangerous than quenching it with a bottle (as does Richard). The river is thus symbolically powerful in saving Klaus and Sweetheart Calico.

            When Sweetheart Calico finally achieves freedom, we see the distinction between times clearly: “How did he bind her, and leave no mark? How did he take away her freedom, when her sense of it was so strong? It was so powerful, her traverse of boundless space. Time is endless in the heart, where sky meets earth. Always, in his eyes, that ungated fence. Always, in her, that silence” (222). Though contemporary culture members may long for the past, for the freedoms and openness, the endless sense of time and space, they cannot hold it in this world. Like the Antelope Wife, it doesn’t belong here and now. Yet “time is endless in the heart,” and that is where the culture survives and continues. Klaus literally unties the knots, throws down the “strip of cloth that had tied her to him and then tied him to the bottle. ‘Gewhen,’ he said, ‘Gewhen!’” (229). In telling her to “go” he also releases himself. She does not “bound away” as he imagines she will. Instead she “stumbles” forward “over the uneven ground,” heading west (230). Her release seems to release them all. Once she leaves, Klaus stops drinking and Frank and Rozina find their happiness. Perhaps most importantly, Cally fulfills her destiny as mediator for her people.58

Part V

Mediation and Inspiration

Weaving the World in Myth

            In most cases the “split” images and characters demand equal consideration as blended, merged, or conflated. Are the twins two people or one?59 Do Native Americans today have two heritages (American and Indian) or one (human)? Is wilderness separate from the city, or just beneath the surface, still peeking through?60 The novel / myth suggests such questions, thus fulfilling an implicit structuralist demand for symbolic mediation of dualities in myths. Certain characters survive and thrive by successfully mediating their “cracked apart” world and dualistic circumstances. As the Ojibwe language is blended into the text (rather than being “split” off from it with conventional italic type), so we are cued to recognize oneness or at least coherence within apparent contradictions. We shall see that the plot also underscores positively the importance of accepting and mediating a “cracked apart” reality.

            Like Lévi-Strauss, Radin recognizes and discusses the significance of twins in North American Indian mythology, and their symbolic function. In Radin’s view: “This fundamental disharmony between them [the mythic twins] . . . is expressed clearly in their continued rivalry and their antagonism to each other . . . .  Each Twin constitutes only half an individual psychically. It is because the two are only complementary halves that they have always to be forced into action, be forced into wandering” (387). The twins who are so predominant in American Indian mythology are two “halves” that must struggle. Their struggle is both representative of and dictated by their twinhood. It is their duality that allows us and them to recognize opposition (inherent in all life). This same duality forces them into action, to resolve their duality. The twins’ mythic struggle with monsters, evil forces, and with each other, finds symbolic resonance in Erdrich. Such conflict between twins is especially clear in Erdrich’s opening image of primordial twins sewing the pattern of the world in beads: “one sews with light and one with dark [beads].” They compete in sewing beads, “each trying to upset the balance of the world,” and create the world in spite of themselves (1).

            Radin feels man’s nature is to contemplate acting rightly in the world, and that twins remind us of the existence of good and evil and our struggle to resolve it (406). He writes: “[myths remind men] to discriminate properly between good and evil . . . .  The struggle [for our hero twins] is likewise against forces within themselves. Much in our plot becomes meaningful and real if we remember this” (406-7). Radin’s discussion of the Winnebago twin myth correlates with Lévi-Strauss’ notion of the dualistic patterns of human life and the universe. Both agree that twin myths represent the: “ambivalent nature of the forces within and without man, the interpenetration of the opposites and the difficulty of consciously controlling and resolving them, [which is] is nowhere better illustrated” (Radin 418). So myths are a particularly good medium for communicating how to live. By allowing her “split” characters to find wholeness and meaning, Erdrich symbolically fulfills myth’s function of resolution of apparent conflicts.

Mythic Heroines

            Like the plot, the characters in The Antelope Wife fulfill classic characteristics of mythic heroes. In Radin’s discussion of myths, heroes share typical attributes as follows: “conception and birth under unusual conditions, miraculous growth to maturity, overwhelming powers, a father or elder who tries to deter them from the exercise of these powers, and a multitude of beings to combat and destroy . . . the mother must die before the hero can be born” (384-5). Erdrich’s characters share these mythic, heroic traits, revealed as they fail or succeed at their quests to varying degrees. The most successful and thus most classically heroic figures are Cally and Sweetheart Calico whose names link them – Cally is potentially a nickname of Calico.61 They realize in each other their symbolic mythic twin, necessary because Cally’s identical twin is dead, and Calico (half woman / half antelope) is an incipient twin. They provide the resolution of crises that is a characteristic of myths in Lévi-Straussian terms, and they explain the world, fulfilling the functional characteristic of myths. They are the heroes of this myth.

            There are two levels of myth in the novel. The older, more “traditional” story involves Blue Prairie Woman and her descendants from two husbands: a deer husband and a “windigo” man named Shawano.62 This older story is remembered and told by Cally, who also tells the contemporary story of her mother Rozina and their family. Both levels of myth fulfill Radin’s criteria. In the case of the contemporary story one must think metaphorically, but perhaps that is always true in the interpretation of myths. The birth of the twins to Blue Prairie Woman, and even more so the birth of her first daughter “of the hooved ones,” fulfills the “unusual conditions” Radin notes as typical.

            Specifically, Matilda (Sweetheart Calico’s ancestor, or possibly the same person) fulfills the first mythic hero criteria in that she is born of So Hungry’s marriage to a cloven-hooved deer husband, after a period of preternatural hunger satisfied only by the deer. The first in a long line of identical twin daughters come from Blue Prairie Woman’s (So Hungry’s new name) subsequent marriage to “one of the Shawano brothers . . . said to be descended of windigos” (57).  Blue Prairie Woman retains her special relationship with hooved ones. It is they who warn her of the coming soldiers so that she can tie her baby to a cradle board on a dog to save her from slaughter. Furthermore, Matilda grows to maturity in bizarre, even miraculous conditions, in being suckled by a white man – Scranton Roy. Matilda’s upbringing later becomes more miraculous when she is adopted and raised by the antelope.

            Rozina’s story parallels that of Blue Prairie Woman in some respects. She too marries a husband with a bad spirit, Richard Whiteheart Beads (like the windigo Shawano man Blue Prairie Woman marries after her affair with a deer). She too has a forbidden love affair and a marriage with someone her daughter Cally refers to as a “deer man.”63 Like Apijigo Bakaday (So Hungry / Blue Prairie Woman), Rozina is satisfyingly fed by her baker / “deer” lover, Frank Shawano. The births of twins Cally and Deanna to Rozina and her first husband Richard Whiteheart Beads may seem more mundane than the miraculous birth of Matilda from a marriage with a deer, yet Cally and Deanna are an “accident” which their mother makes a point of remarking upon as miraculous. And they defy biology unusually in a continuing line of female identical twins, as Rozina explains: “We’re twins of twins, going back through the floating lines of time” (34).

             The unclear time line of events in the novel, which switches back and forth between past and present, suggests a miraculous (speedy) growth to maturity. The time line in the novel is conflated so that characters span past and present. Matilda and Sweetheart Calico are potentially the same person.64 Twins Zosie and Mary share their ancestors names and are playfully presented as timeless, remembering the past and fully part of the present. Rozina says, “we are the daughters of the granddaughters of Blue Prairie Woman” (34), and her mothers (the twins don’t reveal to Rozina which of them actually gave birth) seem to retain all the memories from over a hundred years ago. Rozina suggests that twins are part of the “floating lines of time” from pre-history, yet grandmothers Zosie and Mary are subsequently presented as the second set of twins. The “floating lines of time” may be a deliberate image to suggest mutable, blurred temporal boundaries, and the strength and authenticity of this generation’s connection to the past. It also lends a miraculous tinge to the interconnections between contemporary characters and their ancestors and lineages.

            We see Cally’s growth to maturity as miraculous in a modern context when she becomes deathly ill in the dog Almost Soup’s chapter. Her recovery is portrayed as “miraculous” on several counts: as a miracle of modern transportation – her trip to the hospital is made almost impossible by bad weather; as a miracle of modern science – the hospital and drugs save her life; and as a miracle of the animal / human bond – Almost Soup manages to go to the hospital and thinks he has helped to save Cally’s life by staying with her (83-91). Both Sweetheart Calico’s and Cally’s lives fit the miraculous birth and growth criteria for mythical heroes.

            The “overwhelming powers” of our heroes appear in their abilities to help resolve the destinies of others, and to interpret the world. Sweetheart Calico brings Rozina and Frank together. Rozina explicitly acknowledges Sweetheart Calico’s role (36). Later, after an epiphany-like revery, Cally recognizes and confirms their love as “the true and sad authority of mortal love. I know it, recognize it . . .” (208). Furthermore, both the Antelope Wife and Cally are holders of the blue beads which are miraculous in their existence (suggested to be from prehistory) and in the manner in which they are carried (in the Antelope Wife’s mouth during her entire stay in Gakahbekong – Minneapolis). A further “overwhelming power” of the Antelope Wife is her ability to understand contemporary post-modern culture, which is again an ability Cally assumes when Sweetheart Calico leaves.65 This ability to understand the world and resolve apparent difficulties or contradictions of modern life will emerge further in the next section.

            Another characteristic of mythological heroes is “a father or elder who tries to deter them from the exercise of these powers” (Radin 385). Matilda’s adopted, human father Scranton Roy is the white soldier who killed her grandmother and is a clear threat to her culture. Her mother Other Side of the Earth (formerly Blue Prairie Woman) finds the prospect of her daughter growing up in the non-Native world so threatening that she refuses to let her stay there, even though it means abandoning her other children and dying herself. While Scranton Roy poses no physical threat to Matilda, he poses a threat culturally – he would deter her from her powers because he would have no knowledge of the traditions and worldview of her people which would foster her powers. Cally’s father is more mundanely (as part of our reality) a threat. Richard Whiteheart Beads is as poisonous as the toxic waste in which he deals. He kills Cally’s twin sister Deanna (albeit accidently), and is the most destructive force in the novel, bent on keeping Rozina and Frank apart.66 So both these heroes meet the criteria of having a threatening father.

            Destructive and creative forces revolve around the twins’ relationships with both parents, Radin reveals as his discussion of typical hero myths continues: “the mother must die before the hero can be born” (385). The Antelope Wife represents such a death of culture as mother in an early scene in which a universal Indian mother / grandmother is slain by the white soldier Scranton Roy. The events surrounding her death, especially whites invading and destroying Indian culture, do split apart the world of her people. In addition to this symbolic death of culture as mother, Matilda’s mother, Other Side of the Earth, dies in trying to bring her daughter back to her people. In fact, she is inadvertently killed by Matilda, who carries a white disease to which her mother succumbs. Radin mentions that the children are often the mother’s slayer in twin myths, though they also often resuscitate her (385). Cally’s mother Rozina seems prepared to abandon life after Deanna is killed. Rozina falls into a deep depression, but Cally’s illness draws her back to life in this world. Cally also “saves her mother’s life” by helping her to find happiness in what many characters consider her destiny to marry Frank Shawano. And Cally revives an important aspect of her culture, by becoming namer and by affirming the continuation and worth of her culture. Cally resuscitates both her mother and her culture.

            Finally mythological heroes typically face “a multitude of beings to combat and destroy,” according to Radin (385). While the monsters in The Antelope Wife are metaphorically or ephemerally monsters (e.g. white culture, Richard Whiteheart Beads, alcoholism), they are nonetheless worthy of battle. The symbol of the power with which one can heroically battle such demons is the blue beads that Blue Prairie Woman leaves with Matilda. As carriers of the beads, Sweetheart Calico and Cally become the two strongest forces for mediation, which is the symbolic equivalent of combating the forces of evil. Specifically Cally holds the culture and family together by accepting the beads from Sweetheart Calico, and by becoming namer for her people. Remembering the names, and how to name people, is of crucial importance, as her grandmother and Aunty Klaus tell her. Grandma Zosie relates what she was told when she tried to get the blue beads: “Our spirit names, they are like hand-me-downs which have once fit other owners . . . without the name those beads will kill you” (217). As with the monsters of old, Cally must overcome these modern dangerous forces to carry on traditions and living.

Healing Vision

Cally and Sweetheart Calico

            Initially Cally is afraid of her aunt, partly because she doesn’t recognize her as such, and partly because of what she represents, as is evident in this scene with her “Aunty Klaus” (Sweetheart Calico):

                        I have always been afraid of her. She is not just any woman. She is something created out there where the distances turn words to air and thoughts to stone. The blue beads, now, she wiggles the first from the broken place in her smile and then she pulls bead after strung bead from her dark mouth out into the open space between us. They gleam off her wrist, blueness of an unnatural dusk. That’s where she was keeping them all of this time, I understand. Beneath her tongue. No wonder she was silent. And sure enough, as she holds them forward to barter, now, she speaks. Her voice is lilting and flutelike on the vowels and sibilant between the jab ends of her teeth.

                        “Let me go.”

                        She offers me their blue sentence in exchange. (217)


The beads bind Sweetheart Calico. In the end we see they’ve kept her from talking. Once she releases them she talks and may leave. Cally is obviously the inheritor of “their blue sentence.” But what was binding and frightful in Sweetheart Calico’s mouth, becomes a means of hope for Cally and her generation. As carrier of the beads she is essentially the carrier of the traditions, the old ways. She sees them as a “sentence,” which may be read as meaning either a prison term, or words strung together. This latter meaning symbolizes the function of myth-maker which Cally accepts. The beads are her words, her legacy to Cally, yet Sweetheart Calico also offers other information and insight into this world before she leaves. 

            The complicated family lineage of Roys and Shawanos is sorted out for the readers only at the end of the novel, throughout which Sweetheart Calico represents the mental split which can be caused by forcing the old world into the new, or expecting the old world to be able to survive in the new. But in the end when she is finally freed she speaks in a “flute like” stream of consciousness before she returns home. She speaks her vision of what she has absorbed from her time in the city, of all “the things that amazed her”:

“They’re selling Christ’s coffin at Pier 1.67 I had a vision of it, deep in the heart of the night, a fragile loaded vision like old, long-buried socks. It was a basket coffin with a woven lid. And it was made of raw teak strips deep in a third world jungle and made of sharp bamboo by children in China in a stinking backwater polluted by coal fumes and in Borneo from the delicate and ancient barks of trees that never will again grow on earth and it was made by young virgins and their hands are scabbed raw and bleeding so an American has to hose those coffins down when they are shipped over here before they are displayed and he, Christ, was short, it appears, so the coffins are short, too, and just in time for Christmas!” (218-219)


“She raves on” until her “diluted” relative Cally (a Roy twin daughter) falls asleep. The Antelope Wife’s vision is an astute post-modern critique of the absurd reality of the world today. Her ranting reveals the injustices and hypocrisy of our materialistic system, where the products of bleeding children in Asia must be sanitized before they are sold to greedy Americans, and the delicate environmental balance is threatened globally. These inequities and absurdities of our world are seen clearly by an observer from another culture, but not easily absorbed by a member of that culture. So Cally falls asleep as her “Auntie Klaus” raves on.

            Her message continues as she and Cally walk through the city – known as Gakahbekong in Ojibwe – and Sweetheart Calico tries to make sense of the city world which is so foreign to her:

                        “Or should it be Easter with hand-painted Easter chairs and spongy ass pillows and pastel eggs? I’m drowning in stuff here in Gakahbekong. In so many acres of fruit. In warehouse upon warehouse of tools, Sheetrock nails, air conditioners, and implements of every fish from the seven seas and slabs of fat-marbled flesh of warm-eyed cows who love and nuzzle their young. And Klaus, and Klaus. I’m drowning in Klaus.”

                        And we keep on walking, walking north, past the river, where the lost always congregate. It is in the district where urban gardeners can claim land and farm a patch of cindery, glass-studded, nail-rich, irony dirt. Still listening as she raves on, I fall in and out of sleep until morning comes on at last, weary as old coins.

                                    She is gone when I awake.  (219)

When she awakes Cally has her own vision of her purpose in life. Here the catalogue of how bizarre this world seems to Sweetheart Calico, fits the image one could imagine our world would project to a representative of another culture, or the past. Indeed one of the most striking aspects of modern America is our excessive consumerism. Sweetheart Calico is “drowning in stuff here.” Significantly, Klaus is just more of the excess luxury (fruit, air conditioners, and fat-marbled flesh of warm-eyed cows) and every day junk (Sheetrock nails and fish implements) of this world in which she finds herself drowning.

            While she drowns in Gakahbekong, Klaus is overwhelmed by thirst (see discussion below). The gulf between their understanding and experience of the world couldn’t be clearer, as they use precisely the same metaphor, but with completely different results. There is never enough for Klaus, whose thirst undoes him. Meanwhile his antelope wife drowns, incapable of taking it all in. Yet of course, as an outsider critiquing a foreign world, she reveals in this commentary her ability to see our world realistically, as full of excess and junk.

            As representative of the old world, the antelope wife is not necessarily dangerous, and does have messages and insight to offer, but is not easily understood or integrated into the current world. Her twin relatives are in the end better equipped for the type of mediation necessary to maintain balance and carry on in the present day (though both Rozin and Cally have lost half of themselves – their twins – to the modern world and its problems – disease and suicide). Nevertheless Sweetheart Calico holds the keys (literally the beads) for healing, for sewing the pattern. But she relinquishes them, along with the naming her line of the family never experienced, to Cally. Cally is a more fitting and adept carrier of the beads, and interpreter of the world today because she is part of the city, able to understand and appreciate Gakahbekong. Though she may not fully comprehend the beads, nor the words and message of her aunt, she does literally accept them and the burden to carry on her family’s traditions and culture.

            Although Cally ultimately affirms the possibilities of beads and their potential patterns, they are a complicated symbol in the novel and in Cally’s life. Her father’s name is Richard Whiteheart Beads, so beads are an inherent part of her name and destiny. They bought Cally’s ancestors for Augustus Roy. They bind Sweetheart Calico to a world she longs to flee. And Cally’s Grandmother Zosie once fought and gambled to win the beads but failed. So it is not surprising that the character who bears the name of the very beads used by Augustus, Richard Whiteheart Beads, is a negative force in the novel. He kills Cally’s twin Deanna and torments Rozina. Rozina finds happiness only after Richard is long gone. In an early, short chapter devoted to Sweetheart Calico, we see imagery of “dangerous bright junk” (52).68  Dangerous bright junk is everywhere in our world, like all the toxic junk Richard dumps and by which Sweetheart Calico is amazed (as in her speech about what she has seen in the city).

            From one perspective, the beads may also be a kind of “dangerous, bright junk,” so that even the blue beads have a dangerous edge. Only when Cally proves herself worthy and capable of keeping them does Sweetheart Calico release them. While everything Richard Whiteheart Beads touches seems toxic and junky, Cally is able to find and nourish beauty. By giving her the beads to hold, Sweetheart Calico empowers her to carry on the better aspects of her name and culture. As a tamed and civilized part of nature and the wild world, Sweetheart Calico lives in a world of bright, seductive junk, which keeps her from her true nature. Only when she is released from that junk, meaning the beads, the cloth that binds her and determines her name, and every other part of this world, is she able to return to her world. But as an anachronism she does not represent a necessary choice or interpretation. Nor does the ill-fated Richard. Cally – the blend of their bloodlines and possibilities, keeper of names and beads – is the hopeful representative of the women of this mixed-up world.

            Sweetheart Calico releases the beads to Cally who is in fact her relation. The two women are key characters, in a way another split of one character. This time the split is not between twins, but between past and present. Cally fits in this contemporary world as Sweetheart Calico (who never even has a fixed, modern name) does not. Sweetheart Calico is a fabric more fashionable a century ago than it is today. Cally is a modern, normalized form of Calico, who is part of the family, through marriage and through blood (though that connection is not revealed until the end). Cally’s family of remarkable women is complex.

            Once she has accepted her role, Cally trades Sweetheart Calico her freedom for the beads and the names.69 Cally thereby accepts her visions, of names, and of making sense of the story. Once Sweetheart Calico is gone, Cally remembers a vision her mother Rozina had but couldn’t interpret herself: “My Mama, she once blackened her face with charcoal around when she was my age. She went out in the woods for six days. There, she had a vision of a huge thing, strange, inconceivable. All her life she told me she wondered what it was. It came out of the sky, pierced far into the ground, seethed and trembled” (220). By realizing her purpose as interpreter / storyteller / mediator, Cally is now able to affirmatively interpret her mother’s vision, thereby offering meaning for her own and her generation’s lives:

                        Before the first birds . . . I hear the voices of the Hmong grandmas . . . . Every time their hands go to the dirt [to pull weeds], I feel better . . . . I know they are digging for me. This feeling comes up in me of how much and what I miss, my birth holder, indis mashkimodenz, little turtle connecting me back to my mother, her mother, all the mothers before her who dug in the dirt.

                        One grandma calls out hua! laughing, excited, and I know that part of my life where I have to wander and pray is done. When they did their fasting in the old days they saw their people’s whole future . . . . I see this: I was sent here to understand and to report . . . . What she [Rozina] saw was the shape of the world itself. Rising in a trance and eroding downward and destroying what it is. Moment through moment until the end of time if ever there is an end to this. Gakahbekong. That’s what she saw. Gakahbekong. The city. Where we are scattered like beads off a necklace and put back together in new patterns, new strings.  (219-220)


She understands the city as home, as the world itself, which it is for her and her contemporaries. By releasing her need to find a symbol of her identity – the “indis birth holder” that she lost as a child – she accepts her ability to go on in life, understand visions and remember her history, even without a traditional symbolic item connecting her to her ancestors. The dirt, the land, is still there underneath, as are identity and culture. Interestingly the voices of the grandmothers pre-empt the sounds of nature (the birds). Cally hears the women “before the first birds,” suggesting that human culture is more than just a connection to nature. While she feels acutely “how much and what I miss,” nevertheless there is a world left, which is rich and beautiful like the earth and the grandmothers who are there, laughing and carrying on. The city, the world, and people are neither good nor bad inherently, but simply the raw stuff for living, for making “new patterns, new strings” today. In accepting the vision, her world, and her place in it (as our reporter or interpreter), Cally fulfills her role as hero. She combats the monsters of modernity, sees beyond the cracks in the world, and accepts the whole of life and culture, along with her responsibility to shape it. Whatever tangible and intangible symbols and traditional ways may be lost, life and culture survive, just as the land survives even beneath the huge, seething mass of the city.

            The fact that foreign immigrant grandmothers trigger her understanding, along with the vision itself, represents Cally’s participation in and understanding of post-modern, multi-cultural Minneapolis / Gakahbekong and the Western world in general. Cultures may be mixed and blended into “new patterns,” yet still be inspiring, livable, and real. Rozina finds her own vision “inconceivable.” Cally’s comprehension and explanation of the vision affirms the dynamics and abilities of today’s culture members to make sense of their world.

            “I see this” Cally says, “I was sent here to understand and to report.” As our storyteller, which is to say our myth-maker, she represents her generation and Erdrich herself. Since myths serve to mediate, Cally is the mediator or “bricoleur,” confirming that the traditions and pieces may be “put back together in new patterns, new strings.” She makes sense of various cultural bits and pieces, and is able to patch them together and confirm the worth of the new product or culture. This affirmation of her reality mirrors Erdrich’s mythic affirmation of the rebirth of culture, the present reality.

            The bricoleur is a metaphor created by Claude Lévi-Strauss to explain what the myth maker does. Loosely translatable as a “tinkerer,” the bricoleur “solves” the problem of culture by assuring that mixing and changing cultures is natural, acceptable, good. Rather than worry about such “hybridization,” the bricoleur embraces it and uses it as the raw stuff of the new myths he creates.70 Deborah Kapchan and Pauline Strong affirm this as the bricoleur’s purpose:

Claude Lévi-Strauss offers the term bricolage to the analysis of mixed forms. A bricoleur unhinges forms from their rootedness in history and recombines them in novel ways. Lévi-Strauss applies the term to the seemingly arbitrary combination of myth motives (mythemes) that link families of American myth narratives. Expanded, this concept can be applied to many forms of cultural borrowings that tie together various influences to produce a new whole . . . . bricolage is particularly apt in describing the unmotivated combinations that characterize the playfulness of postmodern forms. (1999, 241)


The metaphors of Lévi-Strauss and Erdrich both draw on images of sewing and creativity. The new patterns of culture that trouble so many are affirmed as beautiful, real, and authentic by the mythmaker / bricoleur.

            Like the bricoleur in Lévi-Strauss’s imagination, Cally and Erdrich use the “beads,” symbolic of elements of culture, to make and affirm “new patterns, new strings” of meaning, worldview, and life. As a myth, Erdrich’s work fulfills its function as explained by Lévi-Strauss: “myth perpetuates the memory of customs that have disappeared or still persist in another part of the tribal territory” (1969: 45). This myth reflects the reinvigoration and perpetuation of customs and culture. It affirms life in this world. In fact, it builds the pattern of life itself. Such is a time honored tradition in myth, and particularly in myths of women.

            Marta Weigle likewise draws on the image of creation, as in spinning (like a spider spins s web), in her discussion of myth. Her discussion reveals Erdrich’s tale as a powerful myth in terms of feminist scholarship on myth. Creation myths, especially those with a male creator, provide, in Malinowski’s terms, a charter for society. Weigle shows that what they actually chart is male dominance in society. But mythology based on women is much more performatively efficacious, calling the universe itself into being. Erdrich resuscitates this feminine side of myth, using the classic image of sewing for creating the pattern of life itself (1982).

            Other scholars affirm the feminist strength of Erdrich’s works in redeeming the position of women from the stereotypes that Weigle highlights. Lorena Stookey, for instance, notes that “Louise Erdrich, whose novels present what reviewer Vince Passaro describes as a ‘leading and profoundly redemptive role for women’ is one of those writers, one who, in The Antelope Wife, depicts women’s power to defy traditions of masculine authority” (1999, 139-140). Erdrich writes a myth in which women are central and have and affirm the potential to transform the world. As Weigle notes of female-centered mythology, Cally the mythmaker, like Erdrich, spins a new world out of the thread of the old.

            In interviews Erdrich herself has discussed how “she uses those occasions when women take the form of animals to symbolically represent their transformation; when a women takes the form of an animal, she is enacting ‘her own power’” (Stookey 1999, 140).  Erdrich’s words in that interview illuminate the power of women to transform themselves and the world: “When, in some of the poems, it takes the form of becoming an animal, that I feel is a symbolic transformation, the moment a women allows herself to act out of her own power” (Erdrich in Bruchac 1987, 82). Annette Van Dyke finds such an example of transformation in Erdrich’s poem, “‘The Strange People,’ in which an antelope woman defies the hunter who thinks he has killed her, and yet she still waits for one with whom she could share the transformational power” (1999, 132). We may now add that this longing finds fulfillment in The Antelope Wife.71 Van Dyke concludes that:

                        Erdrich counters the stereotypes of Native American women as weak by using the traditional Chippewa concepts . . . . Her characters are shown as taking on the animal characteristics of their spirit guardians and acting out of their own power . . . . Erdrich brings these concepts firmly onto the contemporary reservation – offering images of strong, self-reliant, powerful Chippewa women. (1999, 142)


The Antelope Wife is merely the latest and fullest example of what has long been a pattern and concern in her work. Erdrich’s women are strong and capable heroes who shape reality and confirm life’s potential, even in the midst of change and confusion.

            In the first part of his explanation of myth, Radin emphasizes that myths are “remodeled folktales” which “reinterpret” and are “given new functions . . . to validate and sanctify certain types of reality” (370). If we apply the realities and impulses of contemporary Ojibwe culture, we must necessarily expect this new reality to result in new myths. Erdrich borrows from tales and myths and remodels them to validate and sanctify a type of reality – namely being Ojibwe in today’s world. Likewise, Cally validates and sanctifies her new reality and her role as interpreter. As a myth, The Antelope Wife validates new realities in terms of mixing Native and non-Native cultures, and in terms of new roles of power and centrality for women.

Part VI

Identity and Choice

Mythic Existentialism (Post-Modern Heroism)

            Klaus’ great thirst echoes Blue Prairie Woman’s preternatural hunger, and both stories harken to a common typology in Native American mythology of great hunger or thirst. The needs and longings of most characters in this novel are similarly overwhelming. Most of those needs and longings likewise revolve around crucial choices the characters must make. They all face practical and cultural dichotomies and make choices that shape their lives. They battle the “split” of cultures, and those who succeed (as Rozina eventually does – though only after great pain) are true to themselves and make good choices. Rozina accepts true love with the help of her community. Frank learns to laugh with the help of Roz and family. Cally learns to understand her heritage and visions and thereby fulfills one of her quests – to discover who her biological grandmother is. Sweetheart Calico is freed to return to her home once she releases the beads (thereby symbolically discarding the “sentence” that bound her to this world). Even Scranton Roy finds some fulfillment once he realizes the fruits (faith) taught to him by two cultures. Success seems dependant upon existential realization, but also a willingness to act within the world as it is, learning from the past, but looking to the future. Those characters who fail to weave a satisfying pattern for their lives – notably Richard and Klaus – fail existentially and culturally. When the characters overcome their various fears, as wise grandmother Zosie suggests, then they find balance.72 Everyone hungers and thirsts, but some hungers are deeper than usual, and much harder to fulfill.

            Healing, fate, and identity are issues Erdrich considers from various angles, finally encouraging a more humanistic perspective. At the very end of the novel Erdrich revisits Scranton Roy, who is plagued by visions of the old woman he killed. In his fever she visits him, offering a message not of unbridled anger, but of reconciliation and hope:

                        His body would endure anything to get rid of the soul riding in it, Scranton thought, violently dreaming. His fever built and Scranton saw her again. The old woman came to stand beside his bed this time and gestured flat-handed at the bloody hole his bayonet had made in her stomach. Her voice was oddly young, high and lilting, and she spoke to him in her language for a long time. He did not understand the words, but knew the meaning.

                        Who knows whose blood sins we are paying for? What murder committed in another country, another time? The black-robe priests believe that Christ allowed himself to be nailed high on the cross in order to pay. Shawanos think different. Why should an innocent god, a manitou spirit, have to settle for our bad drunks, our rage, our heart-sown angers and mistakes?

                                    Those things should come down on us.   (237-238)


His ability to comprehend her meaning suggests a connection with her family and culture at this point. She absolves him, but not according to his Christian beliefs, which may explain why he doesn’t understand or accept her message. She rejects the sacrificial philosophy of redemption at the core of Christianity. If there are sins of the past (“who knows?” she asks), she doesn’t blame their descendants. By putting this philosophy in the mouth of this representative and authority (an elder) of the old culture, Erdrich reveals her belief that this is an American Indian worldview. The woman he murdered, like Christ (even with a gaping wound in her side), offers forgiveness, but also points out each person’s responsibility. She asks not for sacrifice, but for taking responsibility for our own lives and actions: “Those things should come down on us.

            Scranton is consumed by guilt, so according to his beliefs he must atone for his sins:

                        Yet, though her heard her out, he still thought that he could make amends. . . . [He sees her] the old woman, stumbling toward him with a grandmotherly anxiety, her face not ferocious but pleading, hopeless, satisfied to divert his attention, shot, pistol, from the running children. She threw herself toward him, a sacrifice. With shame, he saw again her sight rush inward to meet her death.

                        Where were her people now? he wondered, at last. Where did her bones lie? How had she found him?  (238)

Scranton’s culture leaves him unequipped to forgive himself or accept her words, revealing a gulf between Natives and non-Natives. Instead he is left with the “shame” (a strong force in Catholicism visited in earlier Erdrich novels, most notably Tracks). But Roy does recognize here the old woman’s deed as “a  sacrifice” for the future – children. He wonders about those children. After a hundred nights of such visitations, Roy promises to redress his wrongs and takes his grandson Augustus with him on a journey to find the village of her people, at which point his fevers and delirium finally ease. Through his own religious worldview, he manages to understand some measure of her message and tries to shape his own actions responsibly. This may not be what the old woman’s beliefs implied, but it is an interesting compromise between cultures, setting off a further cracking apart of cultures and bloodlines.

            In the village of the old woman (a member of the Shawano family, her speech suggests), Scranton’s grandson Augustus is victim of “a destiny set into motion by his grandfather’s guilt and an old woman’s ghost” (239). Augustus trades beads for the twins he sees there, with whom he becomes obsessed. They trick him deliberately, easily into a menage a trois which seems to confuse him to the brink of insanity (cracking him apart and thereby achieving the atonement or balance his grandfather sought).73 He first sees them as one girl, and they baffle him even after one of them gives birth to a new set of twins:

                        He could not stop looking at her. . .declared that he would not leave the bashful one whose hands were in the water, the skillful one scraping the hide with a deer’s white scapula, the good one, the bad one, half of the set of ravenous gentle-eyed twins whom he would live with, who would start out thin and then grow fetchingly plump. Whose eyeteeth gleamed and who were modest and yet sly. Who had every reason on this earth to hate his grandfather. From whose cabin he would disappear. (239)


These girls are twins, representative of the duality of life like the primordial twins from the novel’s prologue: two yet one, good and bad, thin and plump, modest and sly, representative of hate and love. Their trickery is not surprising from a Native American perspective, as twins and tricksters often share storylines in traditional Native American mythology. Augustus’ inability to realize their duplicity (and their duality) represents the gulf between cultures. Confused by them, he disappears (leaves), representing one response of White culture to what they find confusing, yet attractive about Native culture.

            The beads Augustus trades for the twins are red with white centers, known as “whiteheart beads.” These beads provide the name for the family Augustus starts with these twins, the family of Richard, Cally’s father. And the twins must be related to Blue Prairie Woman, ancestor of Rozina and Cally.74 Furthermore, if they are descendants of the old woman (whom Scranton sought), then they are implied to be Shawano ancestors as well. Thus all the major families of the novel are inter-connected even before Rozina and Richard’s and then Rozina and Frank’s marriages connect and split them in the present day. As descendants of Blue Prairie Woman’s twins begot with a Shawano after leaving her deer husband, these twin wives of Augustus are members of the three key families, Roys, Shawanos and Whiteheart Beads, at once. Hence Rozina, Richard, and Klaus are closer relatives than is comfortable for kinship rules of intermarriage. Of course, time blurs such connections, especially in a world where clan lineages and kinship rules have become confused (i.e. the reservation today). Nevertheless Cally, the apex of such blurring and confusion of blood lines, the one to sort it out, understand the language and realize the way to healing, is a result of this tangled web: “Everything is all knotted up in a tangle. Pull one string of this family and the whole web will tremble” (239).

            Confusion about the time line further complicates our understanding of the lineage. Cally’s grandmothers are alive and well, wearing sneakers and eyeliner in the 1997 setting of the novel. This makes it unlikely that they could be these twins who tricked Augustus, yet that is the suggestion. Likewise it is possible that the Antelope Wife – Klaus’ “Sweetheart Calico” – is Matilda herself, rather than her descendant. Clearly these possibilities stretch the limits of reality, adding to the “magical realistic” bent of the novel.

            Ultimately the exact lineage of the families interlinked in this novel is never clearly revealed, prompting some reviewers to lament its inscrutability, even to call for genealogical maps, or “a computer program to stay on top of them all [the characters]” (Shechner 1998). Another reviewer, this one academic, also finds it “maddeningly complex” because of “too many plots and too many gaps” (Beidler 1999, 219). Even though he is frustrated by the confusion, Beidler also realizes some of  the purpose of the novel: “Through Cally Roy . . . we come to probe the relationships between the family and the individual, the past and the present, the dominant white culture and the marginalized Indian culture, men and women, parents and children” (219). He concludes that “Erdrich herself is seeking the larger pattern in the mixed-up beadwork of human existence” (221).

            Beidler’s focus settles upon the beadwork as “mixed-up,” when in fact Erdrich, like most beaders, creates a pattern, and a message, as her opening and final images affirm. Her characters’ relationships and the plot line are confusing and require effort from the reader. But while the fuzzy blur of lineage may confuse the reader looking for a linear, novelistic story, it symbolizes appropriately the novel’s mythic dimensions. The symbolic message is that lineages, of a particular, mythically tinged family like this one, or of our cultures in general, are intimately, confusingly interlinked. It is no easy matter to sort them out, and so the reader, like a member of our American culture today, is left to puzzle over them, perhaps without a clear solution. But there is the promise of an overarching pattern.

            In spite of the apparent destiny of the interlinking of the Roy, Shawano and Whiteheart Bead clans, there is no fate but what the characters make for themselves, as Scranton Roy’s actions show, and as Erdrich confirms on the final page: “Long after the beads were scattered and the blanket turned to rags, Richard Whiteheart Beads married the daughter of a Roy. He would have died in his sleep on his eighty-fifth birthday, sober, of a massive stroke, had his self-directed pistol shot glanced a centimeter higher” (240). Here Erdrich suggests these events are “long after” Augustus founded his family line. She offers an omniscient view of a life Richard might have had, had he been stronger, more capable of an “authentic” life. Richard chooses alcoholism and suicide and is the novel’s greatest failure as a character, the anti-hero existentially. He is a counter example for how to live and act. In contrast Cally chooses to accept and shape her reality. She tells the story. The message is one of existential humanism, not pre-determined fate. Heroism is a measure of acting and accepting responsibility in this world. It has taken generations for the split to heal – but Cally’s case offers hope for her generation.

            Yet in her final passage, even as she confirms her role as storyteller, Cally wonders about the pattern, and fate:

                        All that followed, all that happened, all is as I have told. Did these occurrences have a paradigm in the settlement of the old scores and pains and betrayals that went back in time? Or are we working out the minor details of a strictly random pattern? Who is beading us? Who is setting flower upon flower and cut-glass vine? Who are you and who am I, the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of this earth? All these question, they tug at the brain. We stand on tiptoe, trying to see over the edge, and only catch a glimpse of the next bead on the string, and the woman’s hand moving, one day, the next, and the needle flashing over the horizon.   (240)

In questioning reality and the nature of fate in her last words, Cally, and through her, Erdrich, question determinism in favor of volition – making our own realities. She offers the image of the beader in the last line. Try as we might, however, we can never know what the beader has in store for us. We know from the opening image that the beader makes reality. This final image of looking toward the “horizon” recalls Other Side of the Earth’s story. Lorena Stookey notes that the play between chance and design in our lives is a common theme in Erdrich (1999, 137). She feels this final quote implies that both fate and free-will combine to shape a life, in Erdrich’s conception: “chance and destiny are woven together” like lives in the novel (1999, 138).

            Blue Prairie Woman leans into the horizon looking and longing for her lost daughter Matilda so acutely that she is re-named “Other Side of the Earth.” Her people think her longing makes her insane, and indeed she loses her other family and her life as a result, but considers that she has accomplished her daughter’s salvation. Her actions in pursuing her daughter lost to the “other side of the earth” set up much of the world of the novel. So who makes the story? The primordial twin beaders from the opening image try to upset the balance of the world, yet it stays balanced, a whole pattern, in spite of their contest. So too, the world remains whole, however we perceive it as split, or even try to crack it apart: “Erdrich explores the interconnectedness of all the bits of ‘colored glass sewn onto the fabric of this earth’” (Stookey 1999, 138; Erdrich, 240).

            Although Cally (Erdrich) suggests the possibility of a greater hand sewing a design for us, the overall message of the novel suggests that the final passage is playful and challenging, rather than fatalistic. Cally is the storyteller, in control “all is as I have told.” She has beaded this pattern, and within the novel, she represents strength and hope. She lets these questions “tug at the brain,” but goes on beading her own pattern. Cally is a positive example for healing and wholeness because she chooses to accept and shape her reality, by telling the story. Taking Cally as a hero or model, the message is that we should sew our pattern, tell our story, or makes the patterns of our own lives, purposefully and honestly. Cally concludes her section with an affirmation of her story telling and creativity

            Negotiating the feeling of being lost in a new, contemporary world proves too much for Sweetheart Calico and others, but not for some exemplary members of this new world.75 Mythically, Cally fulfills her role by negotiating or mediating the various and possibly contradictory impulses and realities in her culture and life. The bricoleur / hero sorts through binary oppositions to make culture. These heroes are model representatives for how we all should act and live, and they provide a shape for culture to reassure fellow culture members. Erdrich affirms symbolically Lévi-Strauss’ message that contradictory cultural phenomena do not represent crises, but the processes of all human life. It is the bricoleur who helps us to realize that it is okay. Major changes in cultural patterns stimulate the feeling of critical change, which in turn stimulates the need for myth to reassure that life goes on. In Erdrich’s story the pattern of the myth weaves together coherence from apparent contradictions. The myth itself is an offering, a symbolic road-map for negotiating cultural change. Hence Erdrich succeeds as myth maker.

Names, Identity, and Fate

            The antelope woman the Roy women acknowledge as “Auntie Klaus” is in fact an auntie, as descendent of Matilda Roy, though none of them ever realizes this kinship fully. So she is, as Rozina described her, “one of us and different” literally. She is family, but now more a part of the antelope clan than of their mixed blood family line. Sweetheart Calico’s distinction may be a matter of blood. Rozina’s concern over maintaining and understanding traditions early in her life mirrors typical Native concerns today over blood quantum and merging cultures, but is ultimately revealed, in her story, as misguided.

            Erdrich discusses the mixing of bloods openly throughout the novel, at greatest length in the following passage, in the voice of Cally, who carries strong connections to traditions when she is realized as being a namer. She says of the various mixtures of bloods:

                        Some bloods they go together like water – the French Ojibwas: You mix those up and it is all one person. Like me [acknowledging her own balance]. Others are a little less predictable. You make a person from a German and an Indian, for instance [like Erdrich], and you’re creating a two-souled warrior always fighting with themself. I’m nondescript, I think. Average-looking girl, is what I’m saying – olive skin, brown hair, rounded here and rounded there. Swedish and Norwegian Indians abound in this region, too, and now, Hmong-Ojibwas, those last so beautiful you want to follow them around and see if they are real. Take an Indian who shows her Irish, like Cecille, however, and you’re playing with hot dynamite.

                        I think it’s the salt [because Cecille salts everything before she tastes it]. (110-111)


This passage is meant playfully as revealed by the final line. It should not be considered a serious racial theory so much as a reflection on mixed ethnicities, symbolic of the variety of personalities and cultures of the post-modern world. It also gives insight into these characters, whose mixed blood is symbolic of the mixing of cultures which the book problematizes.

            Both Shawano men (Klaus and Frank) are needy and troubled, as are virtually all the characters in the book. Cally is overwhelmed by the variety of “bloods” among her community. She recognizes and troubles herself over the lack of absolute homogeneity, while at the same time drawing life from it, and finally celebrating it. Significantly, Cally recognizes herself as “well-mixed” and “all one person.” In fact she merges cultures and impulses more successfully than most of the characters. Existentially she is the most successful character in the novel. The blend of cultures and patterns inspires rather than worries her.

            The result of ethnic diversity is potential richness, as Cally’s metaphor here shows: “What we do with names is one thing. Where we get them is another. I am a Roy, a Whiteheart Beads, a Shawano by way of the Roy and Shawano proximity–all in all, we make a huge old family lumped together like a can of those mixed party nuts” (110). Nuts are a rich food, presented here as a good thing, though the alternative meaning of nuts as “crazy” is implied ironically as well. Cally accepts the richness and craziness, the fullness of the bloodlines and becomes a “namer.”

            The quality of Cally’s role is revealed at the end when she “remembers” (from a vision), among other things, the word “Daashkikaa.” This was the word uttered by the “grandmother” of her people when another of Cally’s ancestors – Scranton Roy – impaled her (213).76 Cally’s grandmother Zosie (whose specific identity as such she learns at this point) informs her that the word daashkikaa means “cracked apart” (213).77 Cally has her vision as she is carrying into the house a pan of turkey her grandmothers brought for a Christmas celebration. She slips and almost falls on the ice, “but at the last second with a skater’s twirl, I divert the energy of the fall into my balancing feet” (196). Clearly even in small images like this Cally has what it takes to regain balance. At just this moment, as she is relieved not to have fallen, she has her vision:

                        In a whirl of relief, dizzy, I cling to her. And then in my thoughts there is a sudden almost frightening break.

                        It is as though I am two channels all at once, flipping back and forth between us walking up the sidewalk together and me hearing an Ojibwa word, over and over, as the ice shifts, as the snow cracks, as the odd Christmas sun fades. I don’t understand why at all, but the word affixes me. Adheres. It is taped to the sides of my temples and it swings from my ears so that I repeat it, under my breath, all the way up the walk.

                        Daashkikaa, daashkikaa, daashkikaa. I don’t know what it means. (196)


Eventually her grandmother tells her what the word means, and what Cally’s remembrance of the word means as well.

              The word daashkikaa is key to this mixed or “split” or “cracked” blood family, who have had their share of mental cracks as well. The final words of the old woman impaled by Scranton Roy prove prophetic. In remembering the words, Cally proves the potential of her generation to carry on in spite of the split. She regains balance, remembers, and will mediate between worlds, bloods, cultures.

            Her grandmother is very happy they have found in Cally a namer, which they have not enjoyed recently. This wise grandmother considers this revelation a turning point for the whole culture. In contrast to the hope spurred by Cally, the grandmother grits her teeth in disgust at her peers as she describes them and their failure:

                         “like chicken. Afraid to be alive. . . . Yesterday, my girl, you know I had this awful thought – us Indians are turning into the bottom-feeders of white culture. Too much television sports. Eating all the fake puffed-up flavors and watching all the cranked-up images and out of our mouth no real humor only laugh tracks.” She shakes her head. (213-14)


Then she takes a big bite of unhealthy raspberry chocolate sugar cake, chews it, and enjoys the taste. This world can seduce people and make them afraid and culturally adrift. The grandmother realizes the dangers of the modern world even while she is part of it. She laments the unwillingness of her peers who are so afraid and unable to taste the fullness of their potential culture.78  Notably this grandmother’s taste seems acute, not only when she eats this cake, but when she tastes another cake – the blitzkuchen which symbolizes Frank’s quest in the novel. Grandma Zosie recognizes that the crucial ingredient it needs is fear, but she doesn’t tell anyone. Once the characters realize the perfection of the blitzkuchen with the inclusion of fear, the almost mystical quest for that perfect flavor ends.

            Fear may serve its purpose, but the grandmother shows cake need not have that “puffed up flavor” to be enjoyed. The chocolate raspberry sugar cake may also be puffed up with flavor, although its ingredients – chocolate and raspberries – are indigenous to the Americas, unlike the very German blitzkuchen. Nevertheless, clearly the cake in this form and in Minnesota (chocolate was eaten only in Central and South America before a few hundred years ago) is possible only because of the mixture of cultures. Symbolically then, the grandmother communicates that mixing cultures can be enjoyed and have good results if people like Cally and she have the courage and insight to make something worthwhile from the available elements.79

Part VI

Being Native

Mythic Messages from / for Real Life

            As a myth, Erdrich’s novel offers a symbolic resource and affirmation for living as Nishnaabe (Native American). We therefore expect it to reveal the worldview of Native Americans today. The most typical explanations I found during my fieldwork among Native Americans regarding what distinguishes Native American worldview and culture center around four concepts, including learning the native language, environmentalism, participation in ceremonies, and strong communal ties. Anthropologist Raymond DeMallie notes similar feelings among the Lakota:

                        For some, the native language is an important component of being Indian. For many, the values of family, of the closeness of the extended kin group, of sharing and rejection of the white man’s materialism are the foci of identity. Frequently today, expressed faith in Indian religion and participation in Indian ceremonies is an outward sign of identity. All these markers of identity form a complex whose meaning can be analyzed in both social and cultural components, providing deeper insight into the phenomenon of ethnic identity . . . . Stressing harmony with man and nature, oneness with the earth, Lakota tradition became reoriented during the twentieth century to reflect Indians’ criticism of white culture . . . . Their appreciation of nature reflects the truly Indian points of view. (4, 8)


Erdrich’s myth / novel reflects these four concerns as well. First, she integrates Ojibwe traditional language into the text, just as most Ojibwe people I know learn and try to integrate “the language” into their lives. She does not set off Ojibwe words with italics or any distinctive type. Instead the words are blended in, subtly defined.

            Many of the characters in The Antelope Wife are involved with “Indian spirituality” or ceremonies at some point. For example, Klaus finds his “Sweetheart” at a powwow, and Rozina and Cally have visions that connect them to traditional ways and worldviews.80 Rozina and her mothers Zosie and Mary all remember and enact various aspects of traditional culture (e.g. vision quests, cooking techniques, and ideas about the world sprinkled throughout the novel). Even Richard and Klaus in their drunken thirst remember to sprinkle tobacco in thanks to a woman who gave them money to buy more liquor: “‘Still,’ Richard called after her, ‘I’ll thank you. I’ll put down tobacco for you.’ She did not turn around. ‘That’s a sacred gesture. We’re still Indians’” (93). His claim echoes what many “Indians” suggest is the truth and value in maintaining traditional spiritual practices. Thus Erdrich’s novel presents in images and actions two of the typical markers of Indian identity, traditional language and spiritual practices / beliefs.

            As a whole the myth / novel affirms another such marker, the strength of community and extended kin. With all their foibles and quirks, this extended family manages to bring Frank and Rozina together in laughter finally, and fosters Cally so that she remembers the ways, stories, and names. Virtually every major character is interconnected as kin. Cally helps the reader realize these complex, almost impossible interconnections toward the end of the novel: “Everything is all knotted up in a tangle. Pull one string of this family and the whole web will tremble” (239). The interconnections of the family are intense, beautiful and fragile, like a web. The novel involves many scenes where the strength and frenzy of a big family finds expression. Before Rozina’s wedding to Frank, as this family struggles to organize the event, we see inside this family community:

                        Behind the closed doors of the bakery, the kitchen of the wedding was a calm madness of women. Each emanated personal intensity, moved in an aura of decision and risk  . . . . Here the implacable nerve of each Shawano or Roy woman stood the test, showed in the bloods – French, German, Ojibwa, surely a little Cree – in all composite zeal . . . . Though finicky cooks, these were professional women, high-achieving women, as were (and they cooked, too) the Roy and Shawano men.  (157)


The women and men of this family are complex, mixed-blood members of modern society, yet they retain something of their Indian identity that gives their community strength:

                        The guests moved in and out of one another’s circles, families of Ojibwa elders with children and grandchildren of varying tones from palest laughing blond to swirls of ocher and obsidian, all poking, eating, tasting, organizing. In one corner, the older ladies had gathered, comfortably served by teens threatened into momentary good manners. The ladies accepted heaped plates and commented on each dish, voicing all approval in English and criticism in Ojibwa to spare the feelings of the younger cooks. (171)


Erdrich builds detailed, complex pictures of this Ojibwa community as strong, full of extended families, and very much part of this mixed-blood, mixed-culture, mixed-language world. Lorena Stookey confirms this as a central theme of the novel: “In The Antelope Wife, the occasions for renewal often take the form of family celebrations; in scenes of a wedding party, a Christmas dinner, and a surprise anniversary celebration, characters gather together to affirm the bonds of love and friendship that knit their lives to one another” (1999, 128). Like the food they make and enjoy, the culture itself can benefit from mixing of bloods, languages, and customs, but still maintain an identity which is meaningful and tasty (even if it may need a little less salt here, a little more spice there).

Nature and Being Native

            The fourth popular image of what distinguishes Native American culture is a strong connection to and respect for nature. Erdrich offers some development of this theme in images such as Klaus finding his Sweetheart in the natural world of the Plains and then later being able to quench his overwhelming thirst only in the Mississippi River. Likewise Frank and Rozina first make love in a “forest” within the city, and Cally’s final epiphany comes from watching Hmong grandmothers digging in the dirt. But the most obvious and important image of connection to the natural world is signaled by the title of the novel: The Antelope Wife. As Gregory Schrempp notes in regard to Native American origin stories, or myths: “noteworthy in Native American societies is the number of origin stories that, instead of merely aggrandizing humans, emphasize the positive attributes and abilities of other natural species and the debts that humans owe to them” (16). Often this relationship between humans and “other natural species” reveals itself in specific relationships with animals, usually as transformer or trickster, or in “cosmic kinship.” This manifests itself in mother earth, father sky imagery, animal ancestry (sometimes resulting in clan totems), but most uniquely among Native Americans, in animal-human intermarriage (16-20).

            Schrempp notes that such affinal relationships between animals and humans are less common in most other cultures’ storytelling traditions.81 Their popularity in Native American traditions results from the wish to support a particular cosmic relationship or worldview: “The reason that cosmic in-law plots are so common in Native American origin stories would thus seem to lie in the fact that the in-law relation – based on the duty of cooperating and the expectation of sharing – is seen as the ideal way in which humans ought to relate to the other species of the natural universe” (Schrempp 23). Such a worldview produces the value system so often admired of Native Americans. Schrempp’s discussion of myths involving affinal relationships between humans and animals shows how these myths help foster an appreciation of nature as something with which one must live.

            This worldview directly opposes the typical Western one in which nature is merely a source for greater progress and materialism. Instead, in these animal spouse myths, “humans are portrayed not as possessing the right to unconditional exploitation of nature, but rather as possessing the prerogative to enter into relations of reciprocity with nature” (Schrempp 26). In reviving or maintaining a myth of the “antelope wife,” Erdrich supports the worldview of nature as kin and worthy of respect. Although Klaus fails in his marriage by having forced it (not showing proper respect) and by succumbing to modern problems, the marriage brings the antelope woman into the family. In fact the tradition of myths involving affinal relationships reveals a pattern of troubled marriages. Usually the animal spouse (often a woman) leaves or something tragic happens. It is not easy to establish a relationship with nature, but these myths stress that we have no option but to try. The complexity of this and other relationships is the focus of the novel / myth. The Antelope Wife is “Auntie Klaus” to the Roy and Shawano women, and it is directly as a result of this familial relationship that Cally is able to understand, accept, and enact her role as myth-maker. In this sense the whole revitalization of the culture stems from the marriage first of So Hungry to a deer husband (which produces Matilda) and then of Klaus to Sweetheart Calico, thereby bringing her into contact with all his kin.

            The Antelope Wife therefore fulfills symbolically the fourth marker of Native American culture today perceived by DeMallie and many scholars and members of Native American cultures – a strong, real, physical and symbolic relationship with the natural world. In spite of the title’s cue, the centrality of the relationships between Klaus, his antelope wife, and the rest of their extended family is not easily discerned, even with Cally’s help. The reader remains largely baffled about identities and relationships.82 In this “novel” myth, one must struggle along with Cally to decipher the complexities of characters’ interrelationships, and to recognize the symbolic message of working at a relationship with nature. Such a struggle to find meaning appropriately mirrors the situation of current culture seekers. The culture itself (like the myths) must be pondered and deciphered by those who seek to revive and enjoy it.

            The ecological worldview symbolically expressed in The Antelope Wife is directly opposed to or corrective of that of the Western world, where materialism and greed are evident. Sweetheart Calico’s speech reveals the exploitation and waste of Western culture’s materialism and “anti-nature” cosmology: “They’re selling Christ’s coffin at Pier 1 . . . . It was made of raw teak strips deep in a third world jungle and made of sharp bamboo by children in a stinking backwater polluted by coal fumes . . . and just in time for Christmas! . . . I’m drowning in stuff here in Gakahbekong” (218-219). While this representative from traditional culture sees only the ugly, awful, anti-nature, anti-human aspects of our culture, her modern counterpart Cally offers hope to her generation. The traditional world is not gone, but neither is it unchanged. Cally takes the symbol of tradition (the beads) from “Auntie Klaus,” but falls asleep in boredom or lack of comprehension during her speech about the city.

Part VII

Traditional Natives Today

            Unlike her aunt and mythic twin counterpart, Cally finds the city comfortable and even inspiring. She reveals her acceptance of the city as home in the following scene:

                        The house is too warm, though, so I decide to cool myself at the back door. I step out onto the tiny porch and stare from the steps out at the frozen gray yard and garage.

                        There are times in the city, rare times, when the baffle of sound parts. Through it a transitory silence rides. No cars. No planes’ roar. No buses or distant traffic. No spatter of television noise, even people talking. Then just as you define the moment by what it is, not by the absence of all it isn’t, someone laughs, a car door slams, there is a screech of tires, and it is gone, your moment of baseless peace.  (208)


What Cally sees and realizes after this revery is the true love between her mother and Frank Shawano. Such moments of clarity, realized within the world of the city, reveal to her that her “moment” of life, like this moment of stillness, is full, regardless of what seems to be missing. While the notion of “peace” may be baseless in the city (except for such rare moments), the city exists as her place for inspiration and realization. What she may lack in knowledge or experience from the past of her culture does not define her. She knows to “define a moment by what it is, not by the absence of all it isn’t.” Her life and all life is what we make of it, what we see in it. Rozina and Frank are happy, and Cally carries on the names, the stories, her culture.

            The Antelope Wife works as a myth of the revitalization of Native American culture. It serves as a symbolic resource for cultural values, worldview and cosmology. It provides an origin story of the renaissance of Ojibwe culture. If offers an exemplary hero in Cally who mediates and affirms the realities of the present world, which Lévi-Strauss confirms as the world building/affirming role of myths, especially those involving twins:

                        The really important point is that in all American mythology, and I could say in mythology the world over, we have deities or supernaturals, who play the roles of intermediaries between the powers above and humanity below. They can be represented in different ways: we have, for instance, characters of the type of a Messiah; we have heavenly twins . . . . (1978: 32)


Neither Sweetheart Calico nor Cally achieve the status of deity. Yet as twins (actual or incipient) they achieve the symbolic status of heroes for members of today’s complex world, where Native Americans struggle to negotiate identity. In the end Cally serves as intermediary between the old and the new and in her interpretation of visions, is intermediary, “between the powers above and humanity below” (Lévi-Strauss 1978: 32).

            The Antelope Wife symbolizes the revitalization of Ojibwe culture. Erdrich’s innovative myth is a resource for and a representation of her community, which serves a contemporary audience well by offering characters and symbols appropriate to the times, drawn from her own experiences, inspiration and creative resources, and maintaining traditional images and messages. Erdrich’s work may be considered a traditional story, or myth, given a dynamic and fluid view of tradition, as is favored by most scholars of tradition, culture, and folklore today. The complex and multi-faceted cast of characters in The Antelope Wife symbolically struggle with and celebrate the same issues and ways of living as do others throughout Native American communities today. Erdrich dramatizes, even mythologizes their lives. Understanding the ways in which the world seems cracked apart, confusing, and uplifting to people who live in two cultures, helps us to better understand the lives of those people whose culture is in a process of resurgence. The Antelope Wife represents the human existential struggle while affirming humanity.

            1 Language is a cue for the reader to realize the uniqueness and traditionality of modern Ojibwa culture. Erdrich includes a spattering of Ojibwa language throughout the novel (more so than in any of her previous writing). Erdrich does not use italic type for Ojibwa words in her text. The Ojibwe words are blended into the text and type, representing an impulse to blend old and new languages (and cultures) as seamlessly as possible. The language does not disrupt the flow of the novel, rather it validates the reality of Ojibwa culture as an “authentic” part of contemporary life.

            2 Noted from RHODES: all words with Daashki type prefixes have to do with splitting (as in half).

            3 Note that her definition differs slightly from Rhodes. “Cracked apart” has the connotation of insanity in colloquial English expression, appropriate for the themes of this novel.

            4 See Books in Print: Titles 1997-98 edition. The new title may well be an editor’s choice, but the reality of two titles is nonetheless representative of the sort of merging of cultures evidenced throughout the novel.

            5 Place names are often among few reminders and remnants of Indian culture in the United States.

            6 Bead work is also a major theme, and representative of an important and widespread aspect and byproduct of the Native American cultural revitalization process.

            7 See esp. pp. 332-33. There is also a discussion of twins among the Nuer culture and Evans-Pritchard’s treatment of their twins myth in Lévi-Strauss’ Totemism (pp. 79-82).

            8 Previously beads were made from shells, requiring much effort. Such beads were precious due to their rarity.

            9 Czech glass beads are known among beaders as especially well-made and this color of blue is considered particularly beautiful and relatively rare.

            10 For detailed family trees, see Beidler and Barton, A Reader’s Guide to the Novels of Louise Erdrich, pp. 37-42.

            11 Scranton Roy becomes hermaphroditic (splitting or blurring sex distinction) when he nurses two children from his own breast.

            12 Though the language is split between Ojibwe and English, Ojibwe words appear with no distinguishing italics, markers, or even definitions in most cases.

            13 The contemporary half of the novel’s setting is Minneapolis, which confuses the Antelope Wife – child of nature.

            14 Characters are heroes or anti-heroes based on choosing to realize, enact, and mediate their identity, or failing to do so.

            15  This family Roy interacts with is filled with twins, who are representative of the mixing or splitting of families and cultures. And through him the bloodlines are mixed as well.The old woman recognizes the role he will play.

            16 He literally nurses her, while her mother, in grief nurses a puppy to relieve her suffering. While he thinks he has saved her, ironically he has also stolen her from her mother and culture.

            17 This is true both in this section of the novel and later when he goes to make amends to the family whose matriarch he bayoneted.

            18 So she can get an education.

            19 She will marry Roy and die bearing him a son, whom he also nurses, but none of this occurs until Matilda leaves with her mother.

            20 Naming is clearly a crucial element. It gives one identity as well as representing one’s identity. This is especially true of these Ojibwes of the past. Modern characters have modern names that do not change except in rare and unusual circumstances.

            21 Many Indian children were essentially, often literally kidnaped, forced, enticed, or otherwise persuaded to live in the white world, at boarding schools or other non-Native run schools. For instance several of the consultants with whom I worked in the Upper Peninsula attended such schools, and few have fond memories of them. From the white perspective this was often seen as “saving” the Indians, and was part of the general government policy of assimilation:

During the latter part of the nineteenth century the Bureau of Indian Affairs made an intensive effort to assimilate the Indian into American society. One important aspect of the government’s acculturation program was Indian education. By means of reservation day schools, reservation boarding schools, and off-reservation industrial schools, the federal government attempted to obliterate the cultural heritage of Indian youths and replace it with the values of Anglo-American society. One of the more notable aspects of this program was the removal of young Indian women from their tribal homes to government schools in an effort to transform them into a government version of the ideal American woman. (Trennert 1982 in Nichols 1986, 218-219)

 Many such schools were run by Christians and white “civilization” was believed to be superior in general. It was a part of the U.S. government’s assimilation policy and affected most tribes and reservations throughout the United States and Canada from the middle 19th to the middle 20th centuries. See for examples of Indian boarding school experiences and history: Johnston 1988, Trennert, 1982, Debo 1970, Bonnin 1900. Erdrich herself invokes the horrors of non-Native schools for Indians in some of her earlier novels (notably Tracks).

            22Carlisle was a famous Indian Boarding School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

            23 It is also typical that however successful their education, many boarding school children returned to their mother / culture after school (Trennert 1982, Bonnin 1900).

            24 The beads, like Matilda herself, are a concrete symbol of the meeting of the two worlds.

            25 For evidence of such feelings of being lost between worlds see Trennert 1982, and Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa), 1900.

            26 Though estimates vary about the extent of the impact of white diseases, which hit this continent as “virgin soil epidemics,” there is little doubt that the majority of the indigenous population in America was killed by European carried and introduced diseases to which they had no immunities. See Crosby 1976 in Nichols 1986. Furthermore, such death from European introduced diseases persisted into the late 19th century.

            27 Obviously Other Side of the Earth, who lived with hooved ones, may find this world acceptable, but most human members of any culture (including Blue Prairie Woman’s brothers) would prefer a human family. In the end the descendants of Matilda and the antelopes are less than functional, though Other Side of the Earth may have been satisfied with their lifestyle.

            28 She does carry with her perfectly, impossibly blue beads later developed as a major image. Her descendants also remain “officially” nameless so far as we know (i.e. Sweetheart Calico, all of whose names are makeshift).

            29 The beads themselves are products of the other (white) world, but traded for and used by Natives for many years in their designs. Czech glass is very common today. These artifacts from the other world become elements in Indian meanings, invested with memories with each trade and bequest, worked into patterns of Indian design representative of Indian worldview. These particular beads are particularly meaningful, though they are not literally worked into a floral pattern. They are the only concrete connection between Matilda and both her birth mother’s and her father’s culture. These European trade goods, along with the Sweetheart Calico for which she or her descendant is named, link these mythical antelope women to the world of the descendants of Scranton and Blue Prairie Woman. Their blue color links them to Matilda’s mother. Their European origin links them to Roy. They are trade goods, representing the links between cultures generally.

            30 Matilda is most likely a child of this girl – Blue Prairie Woman – and her deer husband.  In any case Blue Prairie Woman met her deer husband during a period of insatiable hunger for food. She eats so much the village cannot support her, and while in the woods she is attracted to a deer whom she decides is “no different” from men (56). Only after spending a night with the deer does her appetite subside. And it is the “hooved ones” or “deer people” with whom she shares a mystical connection, who warn her to run away and tie up her baby to the back of a dog (57).

             31 The novel itself continues to move – or mediate – between past and present.

            32 Even before Europeans came, there was extensive trade among tribes. For instance, historian Angie Debo summarizes of Eastern tribes: “They traded extensively with each other, traveling by established trails or on their many rivers, using birchbark canoes in the north, dugouts or rafts in the south” (1970: 13).

            33 Badger’s animal name points to his ability to better understand animals, and certainly his predictions and warnings about the Antelope Wife and Klaus’ people inability to handle her prove presciently accurate.

            34 Her name from a bright patterned fabric (an Indian fabric!) represents the lovely but cheap and multi-cultural/colored life she’ll enter into with Klaus (likely symbolic of other Indian lives today). Jimmy Badger, whose name may reveal his own closer than average connection to the animal/natural world, advises Klaus that antelope are attracted by bright moving cloth. Klaus had specifically requested how to successfully hunt an antelope. The cloth literally binds the woman/antelope to Klaus and this new life in the early days. She is also later sometimes referred to as “Auntie Klaus.” Calico became part of Indian traditional dress as early as the mid 1700's, valued as a status symbol. Named for Calcutta, India, where it was produced under colonial, slave-like conditions of the industrial age, Calico is an appropriate cloth to bind the antelope to a new world where she is herself uncomfortable and enslaved. Trade bound Ojibwes and all Indians to the modern world by separating them from traditional subsistence patterns. Similarly this cloth, symbol of colonial abuse in India, and trade among Indians, binds Sweetheart Calico to Klaus and his foreign world.

            35 These speeches are examined later in this chapter.

            36 Or this may symbolize that her people, whom she would call, are long gone and hence cannot be reached.

            37 Kidnaping wives and children (usually in war) was known to traditional Indians from many tribes, including the Ojibwe. See for example John Tanner’s and many other narratives of captivity (Tanner, 1956).

            38 Sweetheart Calico is only of a different culture because of the split precipitated by Scranton Roy.

            39 He becomes an alcoholic who cannot quench his tremendous thirst – discussed in a later chapter.

            40 It is possible that Erdrich draws this character representative of the old ways from the Plains because Plains Indians were encountered later than Ojibwas by Europeans and therefore maintained their traditions longer. Although traditionally relations between Ojibwe and some Plains Indians such as the Sioux were hostile–often over hunting disputes (see Hickerson 1970), some Ojibwe settled on the Plains (including Erdrich’s Turtle Mountain band). Certainly today, more Sioux speak their language and retain traditional ways than Ojibwe. Yet the revitalization process is occurring throughout the Native world in North America. So it is interesting that Erdrich represents this rivalry in knowledge symbolically here.

            41 a. But only in an unreliable form of communication. He gathers the old ways and stories by interpreting her looks, not a very trustworthy method of communication. Such communication is less trustworthy than language because it is less precise and open to interpretation. In his obsessiveness, Klaus borders on insanity and is thus prone to reading what he wants into her looks. Furthermore, within the novel his success as a mediator plunges after he kidnaps Sweetheart Calico, suggesting his skill as an interpreter has waned or disappeared.

             42 The speech she gives at the end, discussed in Cally’s section, verifies how bizarre and useless she finds the modern world (to be discussed later).

            43 Nevertheless she proves helpful as a transmitter of good things and as a spur to act for the contemporary women of the community.

            44 This may be a comment upon Minnesota Ojibwe vs. Plains’ people’s connection to the traditional way of life. For the most part, traditional culture was never as completely suppressed in the Plains as it was in the Midwest, so the Plains awareness of and connection to traditional ways may be stronger. Nevertheless her relatives Cally and Rozina do seem to benefit from her.

            45 He is an alcoholic whose drinking buddy – Richard Whiteheart Beads – kills himself.

            46 Only one of the twins Mary and Zosie had daughters but they share the mother / grandmother role, keeping the truth shrouded until the end, when Cally is realized as namer. Likewise past twin ancestors shared the love of the Scranton Roy’s grandson and mystified him. They are thus more one person split in two than is typical for twins. The families are split too, as these daughters are Whiteheart Beads and descended from the old woman who dies at the hands of Scranton Roy.

            47 Other Side of the Earth left behind twins when she sought Matilda Roy. These daughters pair with the grandson (Augustus Roy) of Scranton Roy and his white wife. The interweaving in the family recalls beadwork, which sometimes requires several threads to complete a beautiful pattern.

            48 Zosie and Mary, descendants of Other Side of the Earth, and Scranton Roy are her ancestors. Because she has Roy blood she does have white/diluted blood.

            49 In a humorous chapter in which we see through the eyes of a dog called “Almost Soup,” we see the role of dogs in the past, as food. Cally saves this puppy, who lives to be an old dog devoted to her. Time here is blended, as the dog seems to be from the past when dogs were routinely used for soup. But in fact it is Cally’s dog. The changed attitude or relationship with dogs reveals that changing the past is not always a mistake, and living entirely with the old customs would not make everyone happy.

            50 In fact the lives of these two are intertwined, even confused. The police trailing Richard believe Klaus is he, and arrest him in Richard’s place..

            51 Such actions indicate an individual who is neither centered nor healthy. It is the centered, healthy characters who stand as role models. At no point in this novel does Richard stand as a role model or in any way admirable.

            52 Though Frank and Rozin are related through kin lines as directly as are Sweetheart and Klaus, their love is clearly not ultimately as forbidden. Although their affair triggers Richard’s terrible actions, in the end they are presented as truly happy. Frank and Rozin’s success may stem from their lack of real connection to the old way of life, whereas Sweetheart is simply too deeply entrenched in the old ways to live with Klaus.

            53 Frank is also a split from his brother Klaus. Frank is true to his quest to make the perfect blitzkuchen and to love Roz, and is rewarded in both measures. Klaus is left with a thirst so great that only the Mississippi can quench it.

            54 I am indebted to Greg Schrempp for these ideas, whose published discussion (1998) of these ideas is considered later in this chapter.

            55  Presumably Erdrich is referring here to the fairy who flies around sprinkling fairy dust with her magic wand at the beginning of television programs by Disney. There is also a fairy from Pinocchio who was dressed in blue and has supernatural powers.

            56 Their journey is reminiscent of Cally’s journey with Sweetheart Calico just before she departed and imparted her understanding of the city to Cally. In both cases we get realistic modern portraits of the city and a focus on the nature upon which the city is built.

            57 Though throughout the novel the viewpoint switches between many characters and even dogs.

            58 Another important quest and symbol in the novel revolve around Frank, who has twin desires to bake the perfect Blitzkuchen cake he tasted as a boy, and to find laughter within himself. Rozina helps him on both accounts.

            59  The Grandmothers present themselves as one person; both Rozina and Cally lose their “other half” early in life, reducing the obviousness of their “double” nature.

            60  When interpreting her mother’s vision Cally is inspired by seeing women digging in the dirt of the city, and in other scenes characters search through the city to get back to the land, water and other natural elements “beneath” the city.

            61  Like her ancestor Blue Prairie Woman, Sweetheart Calico has 3 names. Sweetheart Calico comes from the cloth Klaus used to attract her attention, steal her, and bind her to him. She is also known as “The Antelope Wife” and “Auntie Klaus.”

            62 The Windigo is a feared spirit in traditional Ojibwe myth. Sweetheart Calico is a descendant of the union with the deer husband. The other twins (Zosie and Mary) descend from the union with Shawano.

            63 Like Blue Prairie Woman, Rozina has an affair with the “deer man,” but marries another man. There has been an interesting twist in characters and families, however, since the deer lover is now a Shawano and the husband with whom she has twins is different. In fact Rozina’s Shawano bears the same family name as the windigo Shawanos from the past. But Frank Shawano’s character is not determined by this “fate.” It is the Whiteheart Beads man who acts in a bad way, and the Shawano man whom Rozina truly loves, perhaps suggesting the potential to escape destiny and make our own fates.

            64  She may be the same person because we never hear of Matilda’s story once she is left on the Plains, and Sweetheart Calico has the blue beads last seen with Matilda. Also, she seems to be a representative from the past way of life.

            65 Sweetheart sees the ugly materialism and exploitation of contemporary culture, whereas to Cally it is home, and even inspirational. The fact that the representative of the old way of life has the less useful point of view (for today’s culture members) affirms the possibility of living authentically today.

            66  Richard Whiteheart Beads is a corrupt, suicidal alcoholic. One attempt at suicide is what causes Deanna’s death. A later successful suicide is purposefully designed to destroy Cally’s mother’s happiness / marriage to Frank Shawano.

            67 Interestingly, Christ had no coffin. But Sweetheart Calico is noticing the commodification of culture typical of America. Along with all the other re-interpretations and new patterns, this one blends in not too shockingly.

            68 Erdrich switches voices throughout the novel, devoting chapters to various characters. Sweetheart Calico’s chapters (one of four pages, and two of two pages) are as short and cryptic as she is a presence of real substance in the novel.

            69  Though Cally makes the trade for Sweetheart Calico’s freedom and walks her to the edge of the city, it is her kidnapper / husband Klaus who finally unties the knots of sweetheart calico cloth that binds her to him and lets her go back home to the Plains.

            70 Lévi-Strauss’s discussion of the bricoleur may be found at the end of the first chapter of The Savage Mind.

            71 Van Dyke wrote her essay before the publication of The Antelope Wife.

            72 See Grandma Zosie’s speech about the crippling effects of fear and refusing to make a choice below.

            73 Scranton thus visits his sins upon his sons, as his worldview condemns him to do.

            74 Zosie and Mary reminisce about the very kind of trickery that these twins played upon Augustus.

            75  Sweetheart Calico represents the past while Cally represents the present.

            76 A grandmother traditionally and currently holds status as an elder, teacher, and guide for her extended family and perhaps her community at large. She is thus symbolic of the wisdom and all good things of her people.

            77 Thus her grandmother reveals her own knowledge and connection to traditions and wisdom of the culture.

            78  Perhaps caused by their white run education.

            79 For instance a delicious cake from the mixture of ingredients or a harmonious pattern from the available mixture of beads (i.e. cultural elements).

            80  Rozina goes on a vision quest, and Cally has visions of the names.

            81 There are some such stories in the European tradition (for instance the swan maiden), but not consistently. In most traditions such stories are idiosyncratic, whereas among Native Americans they were a common pattern.

            82 It is hard to say if listeners would have been equally baffled by relationships in traditional myths. But it is likely that the relationships were equally complicated and difficult to maintain.Various reviewers describe the novel as “confusing.” See for example reviews by Kris Radish and by David Milofsky.

Bibliographic references

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