Trickster Figures in Louise Erdrich´s - Love Medicine -

Seminar Paper, 2001

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2.1 The Trickster
2.2 Nanabozho in Traditional Chippewa Culture

3.1 Gerry Nanapush
3.2 Lulu Lamartine
3.3 Lipsha Morrissey

4 Conclusion

5 Works Cited

1 Introduction

Louise Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine reveals a lot about Chippewa[1] culture: it is a story of love and hate, of violence and peacefulness, of isolation and inclusion, interwoven with typical aspects of Chippewa cultural heritage and mythic elements. Within the space of her novel, she allows traditional Chippewa myths of transformation to meet, contradict and relativize each other.[2] One of the most important figures in Native American tradition is the so-called “Trickster” and it is particularly this individual Erdrich makes use of in Love Medicine in order to form her protagonists.

Reading the novel as a variation of traditional Chippewa Trickster Tales, this paper makes an attempt to describe and analyze the trickster-ego in some of Erdrich’s characters. It will begin with a general description of the tricky Nanabozho in Chippewa oral tradition and then continue with connecting typical traits of the legendary trickster with persons in Erdrich’s fiction. The major emphasis is placed on Gerry Nanapush, Lulu Lamartine and Lipsha Morrissey although several other characters do certainly show typical aspects of a trickster as well, such as June, Old Man Nanapush, Sister Leopolda, Marie, Moses etc.

Louise Erdrich herself states that she indeed intended Gerry Nanapush to resemble the traditional trickster, as she mentioned in an interview with Kay Bonetti concerning the structure of her novel: “The shape really … resembles story-telling in the Native American tradition. … Gerry Nanapush as trickster in Love Medicine is very much part of this kind of tradition. It’s told in a cycle, it does come back; it begins in the same year that it ends, and that is very much part of its structure, as well.”[3] Gerry Nanapush is a quintessential anti-social hero, for whom we feel great sympathy. He is drawn back by family ties, he tries to live incognito each time he escapes from prison; he believes in justice not white man's laws. But he commits some spectacularly transgressive acts, which are both thrilling and amusing for us as vicarious spectators. His son, Lipsha Morrissey, is true to type and equally dangerous. His "love medicine" goes wrong, kills Grandpa Kashpaw and nearly kills Grandma Kashpaw too; and it goes wrong because Lipsha, like all the characters is a liminal character, caught on the threshold between Christian belief and American Indian belief. Maybe Lulu is a female trickster, or even a shaman (after all she escapes death by fire): she is Gerry's mother, and Lipsha's grandmother; she knows how to mark the cards and she is described as "the jabwa witch whose foundation garments was a nightmare cage for little birds."[4].

2.1 The Trickster

According to Paul Radin, the Trickster figure as a cultural hero is a universal archetype found in all of the world’s cultures, in the preface to his book, The Trickster, he wrote:

Trickster is at the one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being. . . . The Trickster myth is found . . . among the ancient Greeks, the Chinese, the Japanese and in the Semitic world. Many of the Trickster’s traits were perpetuated in the . . . medieval jester, and have survived . . . in the Punch-and-Judy plays and in the clown.[5]

Few mythological figures have such a remote origin in time and broad distribution among cultures as the one called Trickster. This character has long puzzled its commentators, largely because Trickster defies any purely rational or intellectual analysis. In fact, anyone who has studied any particular trickster story can testify to its disturbing undertones of perplexity and provocation. For Trickster contains a transcendent nature whose epic qualities are truly awesome. Yet with all his enormous power he is enormously stupid, the fool of the ages, the epitome or personification of human absurdity. They are omnipresent, ambivalent, and tragicomic. By such tokens we know the myth obviously has something of immense importance to tell us. But what? In world mythologies Trickster’s guises are legion; so much so that a well-known commentator, Joseph Campbell, has called him the “Hero with a Thousand Faces.”[6] He is Krishna as the World Magician, tricking all – men and gods – by his playful ruses as an incarnation of Vishnu, Lord of the World. He is Nanabozho or Hare of the Algonquian peoples. He is Eshu, the trickster-divinity of Yorubaland in West Africa; Raven of the Eskimos and Northwest Coast American Indians; Loki of Norse tradition; Coyote or Wolf of western North American native peoples, and Maui of Polynesian mythoi. He is also Hermes of early Greek mythology and personally he reminded me of Goethe’s Mephisto. Thus in this we have a clue.

For under whatever name, Trickster evolves. This outlandish yet remarkable thing in human form learns, grows in understanding, changes and, at a certain point in his adventuresome blunders, is transformed. Until that moment, however, Trickster keeps changing shape and experimenting with a thousand identities, including shifts in sex, in a seemingly never-ending search for himself. During all this he inflicts great damage on those around him and also suffers innumerable blows, defeats, indignities, and dangers resulting from his thoughtless, reckless forays. On entering upon existence he is first seen as a blurred, chaotic, hardly unified being, having no self-knowledge or life-knowledge, despite his divine parenthood. It is only later on in his peregrinations that Trickster emerges as a culture hero, demigod, and savior of peoples. But this occurs only after his transformation or self-integration takes place, and brings to the fore the great and epic qualities initially given him by his divine progenitor.

The trickster, then, is both a symbol and a medium. He is a symbol of life as it actually is; but he is also a medium into understanding and reconciliation. He is “Everyman”, embodying every one of us and everything. He doesn't feel ashamed. He steps between worlds – between the world that we dream of having, that we construct, and the world that really is, that is given us. “The trickster,” explain Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, “is a rebel against authority and the breaker of all taboos. He is what the best-behaved and most circumspect person may secretly wish to be. He is … at the same time imp and hero – the great culture bringer who can also mischief beyond belief, turning quickly from clown to creator and back again.”[7] Thus the trickster is the antithesis of our perfectionism. In all of this, he reminds us of what we could be, and he reminds us that all of these instinctual impulses are still within us. Most of all, he reminds us that, when we are most focused on some well-reasoned plan, we are blindest to the complexity of our own motivations, as Nanapush claims: “The greatest wisdom doesn’t know itself. The greatest plan is not to have one.” (76)

2.2 Nanabozho in Traditional Chippewa Culture

Nanabozho, or Winibuzhu, and Windigo are important personages in Chippewa folklore. Nanabozho is a central symbol of traditional cultural identity among contemporary Chippewa. An older North City Indian hypothesized that the Chippewa greeting bazhú is a shortened form of Winibuzhu and means, “We are fellow Chippewa.”[8]

Christopher Vecsey states that the Chippewas’ “relation with Nanabozho was one of intimate identification. Although he rarely served as an individual's guardian, received few offerings, and seldom appeared in cultic activity, his mythic actions confirmed the Ojibwas as hunters. He secured the right and ability of humans to hunt, he instituted vital cultural elements; he created the present world and formed Ojibwa identity. Without Nanabozho the Ojibwas in their own estimation would not exist.”[9] Having said this, it is important to note that Nanabozho was a multivalent character who both helped make the world and yet sometimes "was a witch, a manipulator of his relatives, an example of heinous behavior to avoid.”[10] It is worth considering what it would mean for a main deity to have both aspects in a culture.


[1] There are three principal designations for the Chippewa: Anishinaabeg, Ojibwa and Chippewa. Vizenor reveals that Chippewa and Ojibwa are contemporary labels used by white Americans to designate these peoples, whereas they refer themselves as Anishinaabe: Gerald Vizenor, The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) 13-14. For this study I have selected Chippewa because Erdrich prefers this variation.

[2] cf. Joni Adamson Clarke, “Why Bears Are Good to Think and Theory Doesn’t Have to Be Murder: Transformation and Oral Tradition in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks,” Studies in American Indian Literatures: The Journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures 4.1 (Spring 1992): 32.

[3] Kay Bonetti, “An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris,“The Missouri Review 11.2 (1988): 90.

[4] Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine, (London: Flamingo, 1994) 332.

In the following, page numbers from Love Medicine are given in parentheses in the text.

[5] Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1972) xxiii.

[6] Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1949).

[7] Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, eds., American Indian Myths and Legends (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984) 335.

[8] J. Anthony Paredes, ed., Anishinabe: 6 Studies of Modern Chippewa (Tallahassee: UP of Florida, 1980) 379.

[9] Christopher Vecsey, Traditional Ojibwa Religion and Its Historical Changes (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1983) 78.

[10] Vecsey 86.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Trickster Figures in Louise Erdrich´s - Love Medicine -
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Institute for English Philology)
Proseminar: Native American Literature
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
460 KB
Trickster, Figures, Louise, Erdrich´s, Love, Medicine, Proseminar, Native, American, Literature
Quote paper
Jennifer Künkler (Author), 2001, Trickster Figures in Louise Erdrich´s - Love Medicine -, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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