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Native American oral storytelling tradition? Reclamation of voice by a systematically silenced subset of Americans? 10-foot tall demonic wintry cannibal half-beasts? Yep, you will find all of this and more in Louise Erdrich's poem, "Windigo," a modern literary retelling of a traditional Chippewa Indian story.
Giant half-beasts aside, Louise Erdrich is a towering figure in modern Native American literature. Born in 1954, Erdrich is a member of the Chippewa, or Ojibwe, tribe, a subset of the Anishinaabe people indigenous to the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. and Canada. She's authored over twenty works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. This particular poem was published in her 1984 poetry compilation, Jacklight, and stands out in our eyes for several reasons:
In his boldly titled book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, historian and scholar James Loewen makes the fittingly bold claim that Native Americans are, in fact, "the most lied about subset of the American population" (99). What exactly does he mean by that? Wait—and why are our teachers lying to us?
Well, they aren't exactly doing it on purpose. Just open your U.S. history textbook to the section on Native Americans. You might see a blurb about the first Thanksgiving. There's probably a passage about Custer's Last Stand. Maybe the book discusses the treaties broken between the government and Native American tribes.
What our history textbooks usually fail to explain, however, is the extent to which European American society has attempted to stamp out Native American culture, all in the name of Manifest Destiny. The oppression of our indigenous communities didn't end in 1890 at the Wounded Knee massacre. It is still going on. Sure, the U.S. government isn't in the business anymore of blatantly destroying indigenous culture, the way it did through civilizing projects like the Carlisle Indian School—whose mission was to "kill the Indian, to save the man"—and the forced relocation of entire tribes as a result of the President Andrew Jackson-endorsed Indian Removal Act. All the same, the repercussions of these practices are still felt today. Indigenous populations currently suffer from poverty and illness at staggering rates, much higher than the national average. On reservations, these issues are especially severe (Source). Clearly reflected in these unsettling levels of poverty, addiction, dropouts, and suicides is a complicated and troubling history that our history books just don't show.
It's hard to point to a more ignored example in our society today than the genocide—both cultural and literal—of indigenous Americans. Disregarding these truths, no matter how uncomfortable they may be, is a disservice—above all else, to ourselves. As citizens of the world, we must be students of history, able to think critically about our society, in order to learn and grow from our past. It is our obligation to know where we came from, the difficult truths included. (We recommend paying a visit to the Shmoop guide to Native American history for a deeper analysis of this deeply neglected conversation.)
Our history books, as well as the media, treat indigenous Americans and Native American culture like relics of the past, passive victims of Manifest Destiny. This conception silences the Native American community today. Enter Louise Erdrich. Alongside fellow native writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie, and Paula Gunn Allen, Erdrich is proof that Native American culture is alive and thriving. In reading a poem like "Windigo," we can access these stories and begin to better understand these voices and traditions. Oh yeah, and did we mention this poem is about wintry demon cannibals? That's pretty awesome, too.
Life of Louise
Learn more about her life and work in this bio provided by the Poetry Foundation.
Louise on the M.A.P.
That's Modern American Poetry, for those of you not in the know (wink, wink).
In this short clip, Erdrich discusses her upbringing in Wahpeton, North Dakota, as well as her nomination for the Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence in Fiction.
Louise Erdrich = America
Louise Erdrich discusses her ancestry alongside eleven other renowned Americans including Stephen Colbert, Meryl Streep, Eva Longoria, and Yo-Yo Ma, on this PBS series all about what it means to be an American.
Ahh! Run for your lives!! Or, you know, just chuckle a bit at this poorly done fake vid.
Reading and Convo
Okay, so this is a video as well, but you can always just close your eyes and listen to Erdrich read and talk about her work.
Hear (and see!) Louise Erdrich (class of '76) give a commence address at Dartmouth College.
Louise, with Cat
This looks comfy.
Nope, Nope, Nope
There are lots of creepy drawings of the Windigo out there. This one ranks right up there on our "Things We Wish We Never Saw" list.
This one's a little better—cute even.
Indigenous News, Hot Off the Press
Curious about what's going on in the indigenous community now? Check out Indian Country Today, an all-indigenous media outlet, and keep yourself updated on all the issues currently affecting the Native American community.
The Paris Review Interview
Check out this interview with Erdrich, in the ultimate source for literary interviews.
Here's the collection featuring our poem.
Dig these new and selected poems from our poet.
Oscar-Winning Film, Wendigo
Just kidding—it didn't win any Oscars. And, after watching the trailer, you'll see why. The movie has a relation to the Louise Erdrich poem, but this is what happens, apparently, when mainstream America tries to appropriate Native American motifs.