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.
Weaving the World
Louise Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife as Myth
by Mary Magoulick
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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)
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.
Split Apart World
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
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:
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).
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
and 8) existential realities.14
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.
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
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
Hungry = Blue Prairie Woman = Other Side Of The Earth
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”
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
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
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
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
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:
are respectful of elders (who are wise): Shawano shows this with Badger when
he approaches him in a correct, respectful manner to ask advice.
are generous with what little they have: Shawano does not prosper as a
trader because he is too giving to his people.
have a different worldview: Shawano’s connection to "medicine"
and to nature (being married to an antelope/woman) reveal this difference.
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.
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)
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
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
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.
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
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
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:
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.
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)
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)
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
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
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
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
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)
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).
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
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)
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
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.
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
“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.
“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.
that sex thing,” said Richard, his look sage. “I have that effect on
“They run like hell.”
Klaus laughed too hard, furious, thinking of how his antelope girl could
take off and sprint. (96-97)
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)
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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)
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”:
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)
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)
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
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
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
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
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:
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)
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)
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.
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
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.
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)
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)
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
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.
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.
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
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)
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)
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)
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
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
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)
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.
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
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)
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).
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
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.
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)
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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