The Native Family Versus the Dominant Culture
in "American Horse" by Louise Erdrich
The current interest in what has come to be called "multicultural" literature has focused critical attention on defining its most salient characteristic: authoring a text which appeals to at least two different cultural codes. (Wiget 258)
Louise Erdrich says she's an emissary of the between-world. (Bacon) "I have one foot on tribal lands and one foot in middle-class life." Her stories unfold where native family and dominant culture clash yet rarely blend, a kaleidoscope of uneasy pieces. The reader becomes the mediator, an observer on the edges as two cultural codes (Wiget 258) collide. She creates dyads: shards of interaction as identities reflect patterns from both cultures.
Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, Louise Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Her heritage includes a French-Ojibwe mother and a German father. With encouragement from her father, she learned to write stories and read William Shakespeare's plays (Giles 44). Her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs School while her grandparents lived on Turtle Mountain Reservation nearby. She did not study the Ojibwe language or culture until she moved to New Hampshire with her husband, Michael Dorris. She had taking an anthropology class taught by Dorris at Dartmouth, which stimulated her interest in Native American storytelling. Feeling estranged from her family and heritage after moving away, she decided to learn more about the High Plains setting of her stories. (Habich)
During her lifetime, Erdrich probably experienced racism or prejudice because of segregation laws in the fifties. A member of the first coeducational class at Dartmouth in l972, she earned an MA in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. (Habich) She worked at a variety of jobs: life guarding, waitressing, teaching poetry in prisons, weighing trucks on the interstate and hoeing sugar beets. Erdrich found urban life different from reservation life when she became an editor for the Circle, a Boston Indian Council newspaper. She raised several children, some adopted, which provided insight and an understanding of human experience from yet another point of view.
Louise Erdrich reveals the Native American lifestyle and collects truths common to all races in her books of poetry, Jacklight and Baptism of Desire, and novels, The Beet Queen, Tracks, Love Medicine, and The Bingo Palace.
She commented in a 1991 Writer's Digest interview:
The people in our families made everything into a story. They love to tell a good story. People sit and the stories start coming, one after another. You just sort of grab the tail of the last person's story: it reminds you of something and you keep going on. I suppose that when you grow up constantly hearing the stories rise, break and fall, it gets into you somehow. (Giles 43)
Family for Native Americans means living as a tribe where all adults share some responsibility for socializing the children. The extended kinship system connects an individual to all members of the society, either by descent or marriage, or through formal religious or social affiliations. (Encyc of No Amer Indians) In "American Horse," Erdrich combines pieces seeking configuration.
Erdrich's characters are met the way people in real life are met: you meet them and then you start knowing who their family is and what their background is. (Huey)
Set on the North Dakota Indian reservation, Erdrich creates dyads of conflict where characters interface. A mirroring polarity also occurs between two feminine worlds in "American Horse." Albertine exists as the mother living in hiding and fear that the authorities will take her son, Buddy. The social worker, Vicki Koob, approaches with clouded notions of what is best for him. In all likelihood, she never has experienced motherhood. Each relates from her culture of inner core values and contradictions....
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