American Indian Literature and Cultures

English 558


Week Three: The Northeast

Reed College, Portland OR
Professor Laura Arnold


Readings: Louise Erdrich, The Bingo Palace
Artwork: Ceremonial Dress and Bingo Kitsch, Architecture (on line and slides)
Folklore: Chapter 16 of "The Song of Hiawatha" (available on-line or on reserve).
History: Duane Champagne, Portrait of the Peoples pp. 55-92
Essay: Kathryn Gabriel," Introduction," Gambler Way (on reserve)

Writing Assignment: please bring a one to two page reader response of Louise Erdrich's The Bingo Palace to class. Before you begin the readings for this week, I would like you to free write on your feelings about Indian casinos and gambling in general. The suggested topic for this week's one page paper is to write a second response to the casinos after you have done the readings. As usual you are free to write on other relevant topics if you would like to do so.


Focus: This week we will be analyzing the arguments surrounding American Indian gambling facilities. I'd like you to keep an eye out for articles in the Oregonian this week, but I will also post a variety of perspectives on the course web page. We will pursue our investigation of Narrative Cycles by examining a Chippewa Gambler story. In addition we will continue our discussion of the overlap between American Indian literature and culture and American literature and culture by examining the concept of postmodernism.

Click on any of the following topic for more information and relevant links:

1. Erdrich's Chippewa Saga and Characters

2. Gambler Cycles

3. Maintos and Chippewa Religion

4. Dancing and Powwows

5. Postmodernism and Nontraditional Narratives

6. Chippewa Culture Today


1. Erdrich's Chippewa Saga and Characters

Book Title          Order         Order in      Subject Matter                          
                    Written       Series                                                
Love Medicine       1             3             Lipsha Morrissey, a "took-in" member    
                                                of the Kashpaw family (abandoned by     
                                                his mother June) tries to come to       
                                                grips with his roots and bring his      
                                                grandparents back together with a       
                                                Love Medicine.                          
Beet Queen          2             2             (1930s) Orphans Karl and Mary Odare     
                                                (whites) arrive by boxcar in Argus      
                                                North Dakota.  The novel traces their   
                                                40 year story  and their connections    
                                                to Celestine James (a mixed-blood       
                                                Chippewa) and her daughter Dot          
                                                (Lipsha's step-mother).  Provides the   
                                                "white" side of the story of the        
                                                mixed blood  characters in the series   
Tracks              3             1             (1912-1924) Traces the early history    
                                                of several Chippewa families (the       
                                                Morrissey, Nanapush, Pillagers).        
                                                Gives the family stories of the         
                                                characters in Love Medicine  and The    
                                                Bingo Palace                            
Bingo Palace        4             4.5                                                   
Tales of Burning    5             4.5           Dot remarries.  Her new husband Jack    
Love                                            Mauser stages his death and she meets   
                                                /finds out about his four other         
                                                wives.  (Jack's first wife was          
                                                June--Lipsha's mother--but Lipsha is    
                                                not a major character in this book.)    
                                                Explains information about  the         
                                                ending of the Bingo Palace (e.g. who    
                                                the baby is; whose car is stolen).      

The family tree on the class handout will help follow you the characters. You will probably find this story to be less linear than Ceremony. What is the connecting thread between chapters? How does Erdrich move from one section or idea to another?


2. Gambler Cycles

Although Longfellow based the Song of Hiawatha on Iroquois[1] history and mythology, chapter 16 on the gambler Pau-Puk-Keewis is based on the Chippewa oral tradition (as collected by Henry Schoolcraft in the first half of the nineteenth century; Gabriel 53). Although Kathryn Gabriel considers Pau-Puk-Keewis "the nearly perfect archetype of the destructive Native gambler," she notes that he is "derived from Paup-pu-ke-nay, the Ojibwa/Chippewa trickster grasshopper who has the ability to shape-shift" (Gabriel 53). This connection is not completely improbable, as tricksters and gambler figures tend to share some essential attributes. For example, both figures are liminal--that is, they are threshold figures who can do things such as move between the world of the living and the world of the dead.


What is the difference between trickster stories and gambler stories, though? Obviously this will vary from community to community; however, in general, gambler stories tend to involve more characters than trickster stories. In addition, gambler stories tend to be more "gothic" than trickster stories which are usually more carnivalesque.[2] Gamblers preside over the world of the dead, rather than merely visiting it, and they are often associated with the end of the world. In contrast, the transgressive nature of the trickster is often a creative or generative force. Thus Gambler stories often are about an individual or community facing fear or the dreadfulness of annihilation.[3] As we saw in Ceremony, the gambler is often overcome by a cultural hero (see Gabriel page 18). Does this happen in The Bingo Palace? If so, who do you see as the cultural hero and what are his/her attributes? What characters, elements, and themes are present in this Gambler story? How do they compare to the general attributes of Gamblers mentioned by Kathryn Gabriel? Which attributes does Erdrich invoke and why? What is the purpose of Gambler stories according to Kathryn Gabriel? What is the purpose of Erdrich's novel?


3. Maintos and Chippewa Religion

For the Chippewas (or Ojibwas) the ultimate sources of existence were the manitos--extremely powerful beings who might be roughly characterized as "spirits" or gods (Vecsey 4 ). Manitos provided people with food (through hunting) and good health (Vecsey 5). In addition to Pau-Puk-Keewis, the Chippewa Gambler, the following manitos from the Chippewa oral traditional will be useful to keep in mind as you read the Bingo Palace. The descriptions are all taken from Christopher Vecsey's Traditional Ojibwa Religion and Its Historical Changes.





4. Dancing and Powwows

It is useful to list the main types of powwow dances--both because they are mentioned in this book (Lipsha's girlfriend is a powwow dancer) and because you may see them at the powwow this week.



5. Postmodernism and Nontraditional Narratives

Louise Erdrich's characters are often mixed breeds struggling in a bi-cultural (or multi-cultural) world. To what extent are her narrative strategies "Indian" or "oral" and to what extent are they just "American" or "postmodern"? To answer (or discuss) this question, it is helpful to know what is meant by the term "postmodern" and what are common narrative strategies in general American literature today.


Michael Fegan provides the following useful definition of Postmodernism (the period from 1965-present). Postmodernism is

A cluster of theories most often associated with a group of 20th century French philosophers including Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, et al. Postmodernism focuses on four basic critiques of western philosophic thought: (1) Critique of the human subject; (2) Critique of history; (3) Critique of meaning; (4) Critique of philosophy. Postmodernism is suspicious of subject-centered reason or philosophies of consciousness. It has no faith in the progressivist and speculative discourses of modernity and the assumptions of the Enlightenment. Postmodernism abandons all metanarratives[5] which could legitimate foundations of truth, and claims metanarratives are not needed nor are they desirable (Sarup). According to Brenda K. Marshall in Teaching the Postmodern, "Postmodernism is about how we are defined within specific historical, social, and cultural matrices. It's about race, class gender, erotic identity and practice, nationality, age, and ethnicity. It's about power and powerlessness, and about empowerment. It's about threads we trace, and trace, and trace. But not to a conclusion. To increase knowledge, yes. But never to innocent knowledge. To better understanding, yes. But never to pure insight. Postmodernism is about history. But no the kind of 'History' that lets us think we can know the past. History in the postmodern moment becomes histories and questions. It asks: Whose history gets told? In whose name? For what purpose? Postmodernism is about histories not told, retold, untold. Histories forgotten , hidden, invisible, considered unimportant, changed, eradicated. It's about the refusal to see history as linear, as leading straight up to today in some recognizable pattern - all set for us to make sense of...The postmodern moment is not something that is to be defined chronologically; rather, it is a rupture in our consciousness"(4-5)

To what extent do the questions we have raised so far in this class overlap with these concerns? It is worth considering the ways in which contemporary writers have expressed their distrust of truths, metanarratives, and power relations so we might compare them to the "oral innovations" of writers such as Erdrich and Silko. (An excellent example of a postmodern film/narrative would be Pulp Fiction: if you aren't familiar with postmodern literature, you may want to keep this movie in mind as you read the list below.) Postmodern narrative strategies include

*GENRE: exploration of different styles and forms

*STYLE: fond of complexity and ornamentation derives meaning from relationship with other elements and context in which it is set

*ORIGINALITY: the rejection of the cult of originality in recognition of the inevitable loss of origin in the age of mass production

*TIME: confusions over time and space: breaking of past/present boundaries

*CULTURE: breakdown of the distinction between culture and society; the breakdown of the distinction between high art and popular culture

*LANGUAGE: wordplay

*PLOT the rejection of plot and character as meaningful artistic conventions: non-linear/rational narrative structures (e.g. stream-of-consciousness)

*THE REAL: the rejection of mimetic representation in favor of a self-referential "playing" with the forms, conventions and icons of "high art" and literature; and the rejection of meaning itself as delusory (Fagen and Keep).

Which of these narrative innovations does Erdrich employ, and does she use them for the same reasons? Postmodernism has been accused of "having giving up the world of social and political engagement for the solipsistic pleasures of word play"(Keep and McLaughlin). Would anyone ever argue this about Erdrich or Silko?


6. Chippewa Culture Today

Please don't forget to check out information about contemporary Chippewa culture and American Indian gambling on line at the Bingo Palace Web Page. The page will be posted by Friday June 27th.


Bibliography & Useful Resources

Anderson, Michelle, An Examination of Cultural Objectification and Pan-Indianism in Contemporary Oregon Pow Wows. (Reed Thesis May 1996).

Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and his World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968.

Michael Fegan, "Postmodernism,"

Gabriel, Kathryn. Gambler Way: Indian Gaming in Mythology, History and Archeology in North America. Boulder: Johnson Books, 1996.

Keep, Christopher Keep and Tim McLaughlin, "Postmodernism and the Postmodern Novel,"

Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.

"Welcome" (Indian Powwows), & dances.