Cultural Resilience in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Set on a North Dakota reservation, Louise Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine [1] is first of all a fictitious story. Despite a writer’s Indian heritage[2] it is unsound to read novels as a “true accounts” of reservation life, yet it seems to me that Erdrich’s depiction of Chippewa families includes some issues that are very much part of American Indian reality.

“Federal and private agencies have made a series of depressing reports as to the condition of American Indian youth, both in the home and in their interaction with the judicial system.”[3] Sentences like this one are ubiquitous in sources not only on young American Indians.

The problems usually mentioned are: Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, gang violence, rape, unemployment, jobs with little chance of career growth, depression, suicide and teen pregnancy.[4]

A number of explanations have been found. “Historical trauma response (HTR) theory is based on the hypothesis that when people were victims of cultural trauma, the aftereffects can be passed down through the generations.”[5] Variants of this are Transgenerational Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or “soul wound.“[6]

Another popular theory is that of “internalized oppression.”

This theory states that Natives have been oppressed for hundreds of years and as a group have taken into their own psyche the characteristics of the oppressors resulting in the tendency to oppress themselves even in the absence of an identifiable external oppressor.[7]

Greg Sarris writes: “I began seeing signs of internalized oppression as I remembered again people and events at home on the Kashaya Pomo reservation and in the town of Santa Rosa. [...] And when I looked back at Love Medicine, I found the same signs”[8]

Programs have been started by government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs but “it is still unusual to find an Indian community with adequate education and prevention programs in healthy nutrition, safe sex, planned pregnancy and alcohol and drug abuse.”[9]

Another problem is “that much of mainstream medical practices are also socially and culturally insensitive.”[10]

It might be assumed that programmes and practices dealing with American Indian’s legal problems are equally insufficient.

However, a bicultural or multicultural background does not only add to the problems. It can also function as a cure:

Resilience has been defined as a creative response to adversity and as an innate human characteristic that enables individuals to overcome negative situations in their lives. In Indian country a new construct for resilience has surfaced called "Cultural Resilience." This theory proposes the use of traditional life-ways to overcome the negative influences of oppression, abuse, poverty, violence, and discrimination.[11]

Healing, as a synonym for resilience, is a topic appearing in many American Indian’s texts such as Silko’s Ceremony, Momaday’s The way to Rainy Mountain and also in Love Medicine.

Although the title refers to a potion with the purpose of inspiring affection, this novel does not hail the all-encompassing omnipotent power of love but rather an approach along the lines of cultural resilience.

Erdrich’s American Indian characters do encounter a typical variety of negative situations.

Responses to these adversities differ from character to character, however, resilience is often inspired by Chippewa culture or a reinvention of it. Only in that case it proves successful.

Methodological remarks:

To avoid “nail[ing] down the Indian in order to nail down the text”[12] and being aware of its being fictional, I will not use any sources on Chippewa life apart from the novel and stick to a close reading. When I speak of Chippewa culture I refer to what is presented as such in the novel. The term culture, as I use it here, means neither folklore nor high culture but habits, customs and values of every-day life.

Also, I will not try to give a full survey of typically Native-American related social-, mental-, physical or spiritual- health problems appearing in the text.

Love Medicine is a non-chronological multi-narrator novel in which characters are the main structuring elements available while reading. Consequently, I will follow these threads in my analysis.

I have chosen those cases I found to be useful in investigating my thesis.

1. Moses

“It would be difficult to exaggerate the consequences of the exposure of American Indians to such illnesses as influenza, measles, typhus and above all smallpox. Millions died.”[13]

There is no explicit link between the actual historic event of contact with Europeans and their diseases and the time, in Love Medicine, “when that first sickness came and thinned us out.”[14] However, I think the connection will be established by an attentive reader who knows this historic background.

Interesting are the measures taken by Nanakawepesnick, Different Thumbs, to save her son:

She decided to fool the spirits by pretending that Moses was already dead, a ghost. She sang his death song, made his gravehouse, laid spirit food upon the ground, put his clothes upon him backwards. His people spoke past him. He lived invisible and he survived.[15]

Different Thumbs is obviously drawing on traditional belief in spirits as well as burying and mourning traditions when she devises her strategy. Moreover, her actions are supported and imitated by “his people”, who collaborate in refusing to speak Moses’ name in order to mislead the spirits.

Although the child survives, “the cure bent his mind.”[16] It can be supposed that the teller of this story, Rushes Bear, is biased[17] for “later when the coughing sickness swept through” Moses is reasonable enough to save himself yet again by leaving “for good, and [going] to the island in Matchimanito.”[18]

This island is sacred ground. He is not only retreating from the company of others who could possibly infect him but also drawing on the protection of “the water monster, Missepeshu,”[19] who lives in the lake.

His subsequent style of living suggests that he feels protected by the old traditions for he is “talking only in the old language, arguing the medicine ways, throwing painted bones and muttering over what they had lost or gained.”[20]

This way of living, however, is static and in effect confining him to the island. Years later, when Lulu, the woman bearing his child, tells him she has to leave the island for a midwife, she “saw empty fear out his eyes. He was not able to leave.”[21]


[1] Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. Hammersmith: Harper Perennial, 2004.

[2] Louise Erdrich’s mother is Ojibwe.

[3] Fuller, Gary. “A Snapshot Report on American Indian Youth and Families”, in: (taken Feb. 9th 2005).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Strand, Joyce; Peacock, Robert (eds.). “Resource Guide: Cultural Resilience”, in: Tribal College Journal http:/ (taken Feb. 2nd 2005)

[6] Kindya, Kenneth. “Native mental health: Issues and challenges”, in: (taken Feb. 2nd 2005).

[7] Ibid.

This sounds like a variation of Stanley Elkins’ notorious “Sambo-thesis” widely repudiated by the Civil Rights Movement because it negates African Americans’ agency.

[8] Sarris, Greg. Keeping Slug Woman Alive. A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p. 120.

[9] Rolo, Mark Anthony. “Indian Country‘s Hidden Healthcare Crisis”, in: Civil Rights Journal (taken Feb. 2nd 2005).

[10] ibid.

[11] Strand. “Resource Guide: Cultural Resilience”.

[12] Sarris. Keeping Slug Woman Alive, p. 128.

[13] Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation A Concise History of the American People. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004, p. 15.

[14] Erdrich. Love Medicine, p. 74.

[15] Ibid., p. 74ff.

[16] Ibid.

[17] She guesses at Lulu’s intentions to go and live with Moses and tries to put her off.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 236.

[20] Ibid., p. 73.

[21] Ibid., p. 83.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Cultural Resilience in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine
Humboldt-University of Berlin
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Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine;, cultural resilience, Native American, integration, alcohol, violence
Quote paper
Anja Schmidt (Author), 2005, Cultural Resilience in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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