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Native American Humor:
Powerful Medicine in Louise Erdrich's Tracks 
by Leslie Gregory 

An old adage claims that laughter is the best medicine to cure human ailments.  Although this treatment might sound somewhat unorthodox, its value as a remedy can be traced back to ancient times when Hypocrites, in his medical treatise, stressed the importance of  “a gay and cheerful mood on the part of the physician and patient fighting disease” (Bakhtin 67).  Aristotle viewed laughter as man’s quintessential privilege:  “Of all living creatures only man is endowed with laughter” (Bakhtin 68).  In the Middle Ages, laughter was an integral part of folk culture.  “Carnival festivities and the comic spectacles and ritual connected with them had an important place in the life of medieval man” (Bakhtin 5).  During the trauma and devastation of German bombing raids on London during World War II, the stubborn resilience of British humor emerged to sustain the spirit of the people and the courage of the nation.  To laugh, even in the face of death, is a compelling force in the human condition.  Humor, then, has a profound impact on the way human beings experience life.  In Louise Erdrich’s novel Tracks, humor provides powerful medicine as the Chippewa tribe struggles for their physical, spiritual, and cultural survival at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

While the ability to approach life with a sense of humor is not unique to any one society, it is an intrinsic quality of Native American life.  “There is, and always has been, humor among Indians . . . ” (Lincoln 22).   In deference to their history, this can best be described as survival humor, one which “transcends the void, questions fatalism, and outlasts suffering” (Lincoln 45).  Through their capacity to draw common strength from shared humor, Native Americans demonstrate how “kinship interconnects comically . . . . [in] a kind of personal tribalism that begins with two people, configurates around families, composes itself in extended kin and clan, and ends up defining a culture” (Lincoln 63).  In Tracks, the power of Native American humor to profoundly affect human experience is portrayed through the characters of Nanapush and Fleur. 

In his role as “Nanabush” the trickster, a central figure in Chippewa (Ojibwa) storytelling, Nanapush demonstrates the power of Native American humor in his own life, when he challenges the gods and cheats death by playing a trick on them:  “During the year of the sickness, when I was the last one left, I saved myself by starting a story . . . . I got well by talking.  Death could not get a word in edgewise, grew discouraged, and traveled on” (Erdrich 46).  The trickster figure is characterized as a man of many guises, dualistic in nature—good and bad—and often considered quite a lover.  He is a survivor, physically and psychologically.  As one who endures, he transcends the temporal and functions as an affirmation of the self.  The trickster is also “central to the tribe’s worldview,” with power that extends beyond himself, guiding his people toward a view of themselves and of possibility that they might not have seen otherwise (Ghezzi 444).  To fulfill his role as trickster, Nanapush uses humor as powerful medicine not only for himself, but also for his tribe.      

Nanapush purposefully directs his own special brand of humor—raucous bantering—at  Margaret, guiding her away from her hardened widow-view of life toward the possibility of a romantic relationship with him.  He goads her by boasting of his sexual prowess, to which she is less than receptive.  Nanapush describes her as “headlong, bossy, scared of nobody and full of vinegar” (Erdrich 47), while she calls him an “old man . . . . [with] two wrinkled berries and a twig.”  When he replies, “A twig can grow,” Margaret retorts, “But only in the spring” (Erdrich 48).  Through humor, each comes to view the other with new possibility.  Out of their bantering evolves a deeper, more meaningful relationship, one that binds them together in strength, companionship, and love.           

Through a more subtle, gentle humor, Nanapush guides Eli Kashpaw, who is like a son, toward a successful romantic union with Fleur Pillager, a union that is both an uninhibited  celebration of life between two lovers and a symbol of hope for the people of their tribe.  When Eli pleads for advice on how to woo Fleur, Nanapush imparts the humorous wisdom of a man who has had three wives:  “I told him what he wanted to know.  He asked me the old-time way to make a woman love him and I went into detail so he should make no disgraceful error” (Erdrich 45).  He also gave him “a few things from the French trunk my third wife left . . . ” to help him in the courting process (Erdrich 45).  Nanapush is pleased when he hears nothing more from Eli after he returns to Fleur, interpreting this “as a sign she [Fleur] liked the fan, the bead leggings, and maybe the rest of Eli, the part where he was on his own” (Erdrich 46).  

A powerful, sensuous relationship develops between Eli and Fleur that provides solace to themselves and inspiration to their tribe during a bitter winter, when there was no food and little hope, and the people of the tribe chopped holes in Lake Matchimanito to fish.  They  “stood on the ice for hours, waiting, slapping themselves, with nothing to occupy them but their hunger and their children’s hunger” (Erdrich 130).  From Fleur’s cabin across the frozen lake, the people could hear faint calls “uncontained by the thick walls of the cabin.  These cries were full of pleasure, strange and wonderful to hear, sweet as the taste of last summer’s fruit.  Bundled in strips of blanket, coats stuffed with leaves and straw,” they pushed the scarves away from their ears to hear the sounds of pleasure that “carried so well through the hollow air, even laughing whispers . . .” Erdrich 130).   The people listened “until they heard the satisfaction of silence.  Then they turned away and crept back with hope.  Faintly warmed, they leaned down to gather in their icy line.” (Erdrich 130).  The celebration of life between two lovers, born from the humorous wisdom of Nanapush in his advice to Eli, was transferred to the tribe as spiritual nourishment and the possibility of hope.  

Nanapush unleashes an unmerciful humor on Pauline, the tragic, self-tortured figure torn between her Chippewa heritage and her desire to reject it, in order to guide her away from her path toward self-destruction.  Through his role as trickster, Nanapush tries to force Pauline toward a new view of herself, one that will end her persistent practice of self-mortification in rejection of her heritage and return her to her place within the tribe.  “[W]hen Pauline has limited herself to urinating only twice a day, Nanapush tells a ribald story, fills her with tea, and tricks her into using the outhouse before she is supposed to” (Towery 104).  Sadly, Nanapush’s attempt at survivalist humor, which can steer “a neurotic from the shoals of self-torment,” fails with Pauline, who chooses instead a path that leads her away from the kinship of the tribe, as well as from the humor that could heal and save her (Lincoln 166).  

Through Fleur, Erdrich epitomizes the power of Native American humor to ridicule fate and to transcend sorrow.  When Fleur learns that she has lost her land to a logging company, she devises a plan that allows her to “[alchemize] her suffering toward ironic perception and comic possibility” (Lincoln 166).  She will have the last, ironic laugh.   If her beloved trees must fall, she will not let them be felled by white men’s hands.  During the months that mark the logging company’s march of destruction through the forest toward her cabin, Fleur uses a stolen axe and a stolen saw to cut almost, but not completely, through the bases of the last remaining stand of trees surrounding her cabin.  When the loggers finally arrive at her doorstep, she is ready for them.  Fleur has alchemized her suffering toward an act of defiance that will give her the strength she will need to transcend the sorrow of her loss.      

A strong sense of uneasiness and foreboding drives Nanapush to Fleur’s cabin.  As he passes through the desecrated remnants of the woods, he sees that all that remains is “the square mile of towering oaks, a circle around Fleur’s cabin” (Erdrich 220).  When he reaches her cabin, Fleur is standing at the front door, surrounded by wagons and logging men, “waiting for the signal, for the word, to take down the last of the trees.”  Nanapush expects to see sorrow and defeat on Fleur’s face, but “[h]er face was warm with excitement and her look was chilling in its clear amusement.  She said nothing, just glanced into the sky and let her eyes drop shut,” drawing silent strength from the ironic triumph of her secret (Erdrich 222).  Nanapush realizes what Fleur has done when “along the edge of the last high woods, a low breeze moaned out of the stumps” and he hears the sound of the first tree crashing down beyond his sight (Erdrich 222).  As other trees fall, closer and closer to where the loggers are standing, Fleur has “bared her teeth in a wide smile that frightened even those who did not understand the smiles of Pillagers” (Erdrich 223).  A final gust of wind topples the remaining trees, and they fall away from her cabin “in a circle, pinning beneath their branches the roaring men, the horses . . . Twigs formed webs of wood, canopies laced over groans and struggles.  Then the wind settled, curled back into the clouds, moved on” (Erdrich 223).  In the quiet shock of the aftermath, Nanapush and Fleur “were left standing together in a landscape level to the lake and to the road” (Erdrich 223).  Although Nanapush urges Fleur to remain with the tribe, she rejects his offer.  “[W]ith her face alight,” she buckles herself to a small cart that holds no possessions, “only weed-wrapped stones from the lake-bottom, bundles of roots, a coil of rags, and the umbrella that had shaded her [dead] baby,” and sets out alone (Erdrich 224).  No force is powerful enough to reconcile the desecration of her land, but through her ironic act of defiance, Fleur has drawn the strength she will need to survive.   

In Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, Native American humor challenges fate, nourishes the human spirit, and gives strength and hope for survival.  “The powers to heal and to hurt, to bond and to exorcise, to renew and to purge remain the contrary powers of Indian humor” (Lincoln 5).  For the Chippewa, this humor provides powerful medicine for the physical, cultural, and spiritual preservation of their tribe.  

 Works Cited 

Bakhtin, Mikhail.  Rabelais and His World.  Bloomington:  Indiana UP, 1984. 

Erdrich Louise.  Tracks.  New York:  Harper Collins, 1988. 

Ghezzi, Ridie Wilson.  “Nanabush Stories from the Ojibwe.”  Coming to Light.  Ed. Brian Swann.  1st ed.  New York:  Random House, 1994. 

Lincoln, Kenneth.  Indi’n Humor.  New York:  Oxford UP, 1993. 

Sergi, Jennifer.  “Storytelling:  Tradition and Preservation in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks.”  World Literature Today  66  (Spring 1992):  279-282. 

Towers, Margie.  “Continuity and Connection:  Characters in Louise Erdrich’s Fiction.”  American Indian Culture and Research Journal  16  (1992):  99-115. 

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