In Western culture today, we often have a tendency to romanticize the Native American way of life. From Academy Award-winning film Dances With Wolves to history book half-truths like Thanksgiving, Native Americans have long been perceived as inherently good, in touch with the earth, but doomed by the corrupting forces of civilization. The trope of the Noble Savage recurs throughout Western literature and cinema, reinforcing this stereotype of indigenous people as admirable, yet naive, relics, ultimately of a bygone era.
The truth, of course, is always much more nuanced. But the reality is, Native Americans have traditionally had a much more significant connection to the earth, because, well, survival depended on it.
For the Chippewa, surviving the harsh northern winter meant one had to be clever, resourceful, and in tune with the season cycles and changing food sources. Poems like "Windigo," which deal intimately with the natural world, introduce a Western audience to a new way of perceiving the natural world—one in which man and the natural world are much more closely tied.
Questions About Man and the Natural World
- Why do you think Erdrich infuses "Windigo" with so many descriptions and images of the natural world? What does this add to the poem?
- How might civilizing forces change a culture's connection to the natural world? Think about American society today. What is gained or lost from this transition?
- Could this poem be set in a suburb? Why or why not?
- Could the Windigo exist in an urban setting? Why or why not?
Chew on This
The Windigo is a sort of anti-Noble Savage. It exists because of pressures put on the Native American way of life by Western society and is the manifestation of this tension.
Nature is much more than just a backdrop in this poem. It could even be considered another character in the story, an active player in the poem's events.