Hitching rides on the stereotrope, with Lise Erdrich and other rowdy writers

The stereotrope, invented around 1860, used stop-action photography and persistence of vision to give the illusion of motion to three-dimensional images. In this it resembles the stereotype, which certainly counts on persistent vision and is intended to give the illusion of depth to the one-dimensional. On the other hand, the idea of the trope, which is a trope of itself, is usually defined as a metaphor or a pattern of metaphors, but this leaves out the way tropes trip up both those who carry them and those the tropes are supposed to be about. In this context, one might say that the stereotrope is the tightrope walked by American Indian people when confronted by the stereotypic knowledge about American Indian people. It is the balance between wicked humor and outrage.

My name is white and I’m white (even though I am really pink and blotchy), but because I write about Minnesota Indian history all the whitest people I know are coming to me and asking me what is wrong with stereotypes of Indian people and Native American mascots because, after all, the fans don’t mean anything derogatory, and isn’t intention what it’s all about? And besides, it is a sign of respect for the warrior tradition and the nobility of the race. And don’t Indian people have enough to worry about because of poverty and health issues, so do they really care about those mascots anyway? And now that many Indian people have casinos and are very rich, which is really ruining their lives, weren’t they better off when they were poor and we could feel sorry for them?

An American child of unknown ethnic origin, living in a state where trees grow in barrels, around 1910, wearing an Indian costume.

An American child of unknown ethnic origin, living in a state where trees grow in barrels, around 1910, wearing an Indian costume; postcard purchased in a Minnesota flea market, 2008.

I try to answer these questions politely and in great detail, without calling people names. I think that the job of the historian is like what Milan Kundera said was the job of the novel: to say that things are not as simple as you think. It is difficult to convince people who “know” the history of a people that they do not know what they think they know. There is often little truth contained in all the stereotypes, the tired tropes that people hold so tenaciously. Despite all the history books, the mythic knowledge persists because that knowledge is not real knowledge, it is what comes through movies, cartoons, television shows. It is a set of attitudes and remembered anecdotes. Convincing people requires not better history–because written history does not feed the mythic part of the brain–but better stories, to break through to the television part of the same brain.

Lise Erdrich, in a recent online interview was asked what a story should do. She replied: “It should open up a can of whup-ass. If it can’t do that, it should at least produce a question.” In her book Night Train (Coffee House Press, 2008), Erdrich tells a story entitled “Tribe Unknown (Fleur de Lis),” about an object sitting in a glass case in a village museum seen by a young woman, a medical student, whose “white-clad form suggests a sail in lull,” like the sails on the boats in the harbor outside the museum. Like many of Erdrich’s stories, this is a riddle, so you don’t get the full meaning of it until the end, only after you have gotten details from four hundred years of history: Henry Hudson’s arrival in North America, the charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company, the start of trade between Indian people and Europeans, the beginnings of the French and Scottish mixed-blood peoples, the formation of the Métis Nation, with its fleur-de-lis banner.

All this leads to the woman who made the thing in the exhibit case, Angeline, who was French, Cree, Ojibwe, and Scottish, and the story about how she sought aid for her sick child from an aged woman, a frightening healer–“although,” Erdrich says, “like a mysterious artifact, this story has changed hands so many times taking varied forms of clues and hints, that nobody living knows for sure what truth was meant to endure beyond the different speakers, families, rumors.”

Angeline holds out to the woman a beaded bag with coins in it. The woman–who looks like and then seems to take the form of a black bird–cannot save the child but offers her knowledge, then “flapped away into the trees.” Angeline survived to have eleven children and was a healer, a medicine woman, a trapper, a teacher in the ways of survival, skilled at beadwork. Her children all moved away, she lived on, until in old age, when, without enough to buy “a winter cache of groceries,” she met a “lady on the eastbound train” who said, “How bout that? I fancy that clever little purse,” and Angeline sold it to her, thinking, “I have outlived everybody and the one I would give it to as a gift is not here and never will be.” And so the purse ended up in a coastal museum to be photographed by a pale girl, who took a picture of it one day, to show her friend the anthropologist, wondering, “Why would an Indian make such a thing as this instead of something more Indian?” after which the story ends with the exhibit caption:

Woman’s Purse
Tanned deer hide with flap and thong closure,
Lined with Bull Durham tobacco pouch.
Outer seams finished with white edging.
Green shamrock pattern on back,
Yellow heraldric device bordered in black,
random pattern of seven white beads on black velvet.
H. 10.5 cm. W. 10.5 cm.
Collected in North Dakota, 1959.
Tribe unknown.

You can hear echoes in Erdrich’s work of other stories, other writers, not because she is imitating them, but because she taps into culture, language, and humor, a method of turning the tables on the categories into which one might be put by circumstances. It feels like an Ojibwe or a Métis style of story telling, although even to say that builds up a new stereotype that immediately needs to be undermined. Lise Erdrich is unique, not a category. Filling out a job application, which requires a declaration as to race, Erdrich writes in the space under “Other (Explain)”:

I’m a fully processed Indian with official papers from the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs, eligible for hiring preference or to vote in tribal elections or receive a five-pound brick of USDA cheese, pasteurized process, American. Cheese was unknown until “Li Framaezh” visited in 1801 with high wines and sundry. Chippewa women had been marrying the furmen a la facon du pays since perhaps 1608.

At first, she writes they did not have the gene that allowed them to digest cheese, until through further intermarriage with various cheese-tolerating ethnic groups, “so that some arrived in 1960 processed nearly white! Not quite. . . .”

Indian people are some of the few groups of people whose identity seems to require verification and which is subject to the inspection of everyone. If a person told me he was Irish, I would have no reason to doubt him, even if he did not have papers to prove it or did not believe in leprechauns. Non-Indians have tests they give to Indian people, to gauge their degree and the quality of their heritage.

Some of Erdrich’s stories remind me of one I heard in 2006 from Don Gurnoe, the Chief Judge of the Red Cliff Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin, who went out with his cousin to bring in the nets from a fishing operation in the Apostle Islands area. They docked and stopped in for a “much deserved beer” when they were approached by a tourist who said: “The bartender told me I should talk to you. I have a question. Whatever happened to the French voyageurs?” Don Gurnoe said that he looked around the table at various tribal members, all of whom had French last names. “We had a pretty good idea what happened to the French voyageurs.”

In Night Train Erdrich tells her own voyageur tales, in a parody of much-too-serious historical narratives, as in her account “Jolly Beef, Métis Legend,” subtitled,

Remarks printed in the ossified section of various obscure journals concerting the life, times, artifacts, great works, and great northwest of Sylvain “Jolly Boeuf” La Coeuer, Métis Legend

Sylvain La Coeur bears a remarkable resemblance to the legendary Joe Rolette, though Erdrich makes clear that while Rolette stole the bill that would have moved the capital of Minnesota from St. Paul, it was Sylvain LeCoeur, “wordtrapper & marksman extraordinaire, an archetype who my important research indicates did the actually running away” with the bill. The narrator of the notes is an intrepid scholar seemingly lost in the wilds, seeking knowledge, and pleading for help and provisions, having expended most of the bales, bags, kegs, and trunks of goods and supplies with which she set out. Erdrich sets the pages of the old fur trade journals and travel narratives on fire with great enthusiasm, sometimes importing a few of the wild characters from the old accounts. Sherman Alexie, who should know, is right to call Erdrich’s work “rowdy.”

For many Indian people, cultural traditions are not clear-cut or cut-and-dried, as the anthropologist demands. Don Gurnoe, the tribal judge, lives many traditions in ways that do not fit stereotypical scenarios. His mother was Santee and his father was Ojibwe. While growing up in South Dakota, he played a tuba in a polka band. In the 1970s he became the staff person with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and he helped to draft and pass a major new law to protect Indian burial places in Minnesota. He told of finding unexpected support from Florian Chmielewski, a rural legislator and a well-known leader of a polka band. Once he learned of Gurnoe’s past, Chmielewski became a strong ally in getting the law passed.

Stereotypes are tenacious and relentless. Having to deal day-to-day with common ideas of what an Indian person is supposed to be and what an Indian person is supposed to do must be exhausting. Jim Clark, Naawigiizis, a Mille Lacs band member who grew up in Pine County, used to talk about living in Minneapolis after being a medic in the U.S. Army in World War II. He worked in a hospital in Minneapolis for thirty years, during which time people on the job who didn’t know anybody would walk in, see that he was Indian, and call him “Chief,” with that casual tone of someone who thinks he knows you because of your resemblance to a myth.

Stereotypes spring not just from racist traditions, but also from the records assembled by those who have all the best intentions at heart to describe faithfully and accurately the patterns in the lives of a people. In her book Chippewa Customs, Frances Densmore assembled a great deal of valuable information, especially about the lives of Ojibwe women, but she helped in cementing some stereotypes, because she focused on “the way things used to be” at a mythic time in the past. She was more concerned with the canoes that people used in the past than in the cars and trucks they were using in the 1920s. The information she was collecting was not wrong, but it was incomplete, unbalanced by details of the lives people lived then. Her discussion of the seasonal round through the story of Nodinens from Mille Lacs was accurate, at least for Mille Lacs, but it did not take into account what happened later when Ojibwe people out ricing or sugaring were arrested for trespassing. The seasonal round was being criminalized and it was evolving. There was no timeless, mythic seasonal round, only the one people practiced year after year in different ways and different places.

It was just such mythic structures that Jim Northrup undermined, in his March 2004 Fond du Lac Follies column in The Circle, playing on the tropes of the seasonal round:

In the spring we spear fish and make maple syrup. I also take the Corvette out of storage. In the summer we make birch bark fanning baskets and I drive to powwows in the Corvette. In the fall we make wild rice, hunt, and I put the Corvette back in storage. In the winter I write stores, we snare rabbits and I order parts for the Corvette.

The anthropologist wants certainty, and authenticity is at a premium these days. Because of the sheer power of the stereotype, people sometimes seem to believe that authenticity lies in the adherence to all the received ideas. If you don’t follow the actions Frances Densmore describes, can you be a real Ojibwe? Authenticity, however, lies not in the rule, but in the practice, which transforms a seeming violation of tradition into an affirmation.

Linda LeGarde Grover, who teaches at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, gave a rich and interesting paper at a history conference in Collegeville in May 2008 entitled “‘Only Authentic Indian Stand on the North Shore’: A Case Study of Ojibwe Tradition, Compromise and Survival in Northeastern Minnesota.” More than a paper, it is a beautifully detailed story that describes how her family from Nett Lake made and sold seemingly inauthentic axes to tourists, and how both the making and the marketing were integrated into patterns of kinship and relationships in authentic ways. A historian might communicate the same facts in a drier fashion, but would be unable to touch the listener or reader as effectively.

Stories break down stereotypes and tired tropes. But even storytelling, such as the rich folktale traditions of a people, can be made to serve stereotypical ends in tiresome ways. Since the time of Henry Schoolcraft, Ojibwe stories and legends have been packaged in safe, wholesome, lifeless versions, in the same way that the stories collected by the Grimm Brothers have gotten less and less interesting through the generations. But the real stories that people tell come alive because they are not always told in the same way, and sometimes new things happen in them. In the 1930s Sister Bernard Coleman wrote down an Ojibwe trickster story in which Nanabushu talked about working for the WPA, yet another wrinkle in the seasonal round.

A postcard of the statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, dressed only in tropes, from Minnehaha Park, around 1910.

A postcard of the statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, dressed in tropes, from Minnehaha Park, around 1910.

In “Corn is Number One,” Lise Erdrich takes on a few of those folktales in telling of Sky Woman, the West Wind, her two sons, G. Howdy and G.I. Joe, who “ran off in order to cause various stories all over the earth,” but more particularly her four daughters. Corn, Squash, and Bean grew out of the ground. They were discovered by Old Magic Woman, who named them and “decided to invent Native American Agriculture.” The story tells of the relationship between the sisters and one can’t help wondering if this does not somehow deal with the relationship between other well-known sisters, particularly ones who write books, but, even though this will probably be the seed of someone’s dissertation some day, it is only a passing thought because I can assure you this is really a tale about plants.

Corn believed she was “the single most important plant in America”; readers “who need independent verification” are invited to Google “the importance of corn.” The sisters were a little testy with each other until along came the fourth sister Sunflower, whose job it was “to project a positive mental attitude. I will stand to the north, and thus encourage all living things in this beautiful and scientifically sound ecosystem, which is our joint accomplishment.” As a result the sisters all got along well, “because Sunflower could stand with Corn, which would take the heat off Bean and Squash, who could just go and do their things now.”

The story goes on and so does the book, taking on stereotropes, giving them a nice drubbing, a raucous rolfing, a can of whup-ass, as a result of what you might call an effective trope-a-dope strategy.


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