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Now we’ll look at a paper drawing on many of the same themes as Ashley’s and Stefanie’s paper but discussing a modern American novel about the Native American experience. In her modern American literature survey, Hannah read the novel Tracks by Native American writer Louis Erdrich.Louis Erdrich, Tracks (New York: HarperCollins, 2004). Hannah is particularly interested in the character Pauline, who attempts to erase her Native American identity and assimilate into white culture, particularly through her devotion to the Catholic religion. Hannah’s paper investigates many topics common to postcolonial and racial criticism, particularly the idea of mimicry. Hannah skillfully explicates the complex motives behind Pauline’s mimicry in the novel. Hannah demonstrates sympathy for Pauline while explaining the damaging social forces that led her to think as she does about her native culture.
Professor John Neary
ENGL 236: U.S. Literature II
3 April 20–
“Kill the Indian … and Save the Man”
Pauline Puyat and the Fragmenting Force of the U.S. Government in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks
In 1892, Capt. Richard H. Pratt delivered a paper, “The Advantage of Mingling Indians with Whites” at the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction. In this speech, Pratt infamously proposed to “Kill the Indian … and save the man” (Pratt 261). Pratt’s argument would become the most notorious summary of the mission of government-sanctioned Indian boarding schools, which attempted to forcibly assimilate Native American children into white culture. From the 19th into the early 20th century, the United States actively sought to destroy Native cultures through forced assimilation and, as Pratt requoted in his speech, believed “that the only good Indian was a dead one” (260).
Louise Erdrich’s Tracks unfolds in the 1910s, in the midst of Pratt’s boarding school culture. The Ojibwe characters in Tracks must respond to the United States’ threat to their culture and attempt to sort out their own cultural identities in the midst of profound racial tension. The two narrators of the text, Nanapush and Pauline, deal with the intense racism they encounter in different ways. Nanapush, the fairly stable, reliable narrator, rejects white culture and attempts to preserve Ojibwe culture despite social pressures to abandon it. Pauline takes a different approach. Unlike Nanapush’s voice, Pauline’s narrative structure is erratic, full of wild assumptions and bizarre occurrences. Pauline is at times cruel, manipulative, guilty, masochistic, morose, cunning, illogical, and, above all, highly religious. In light of Pauline’s many failings, readers may be tempted to view Pauline as the unmitigated villain of the story, and dismiss her story as irrelevant. Such a dismissive reading of Pauline overlooks the novel’s historical context, particularly the pervasiveness of discrimination against Native Americans and the arid cultural climate created by the United States’ boarding school programs. If audiences read Pauline without considering these crucial factors, Pauline’s character loses its essential historical commentary. While Pauline’s flaws are indeed substantial, they are not entirely her fault. Unlike Nanapush, who firmly believes in the value of his Ojibwe roots and rejects the racism of encroaching white culture, Pauline listens to the United States government’s stance on Native Americans. She comes to believe that in order to be accepted by the surrounding white society she must indeed kill her inner Indian to save her white identity. Over the course of Tracks, then, Pauline attempts to erase her Ojibwe identity through her extreme, conservative Catholicism. Herein lies the significance of Pauline’s character. As her quest to assimilate into white society and therefore ease her guilt over her identity continues, Pauline—and, through Pauline, her audience—discovers that she cannot assimilate the way the United States government wants her to. Pauline’s connection to her Ojibwe heritage runs so deep that when she attempts to “kill” it she inadvertently fragments her own existence and plunges into a frantic insanity. Through Pauline’s experiences, readers learn that the United States’ attempt to “kill the Indian … and save the man” is not only unethical, but impossible.
Pauline’s guilt over her racial identity causes her to distance herself from her culture by rejecting its values, specifically reproduction. Even before Pauline enters the convent, she attempts to reject reproduction in favor of death, recognizing that if she procreates, she will continue her Ojibwe line. Unlike Fleur, who celebrates reproduction, Pauline seeks out death and shows no interest in perpetuating her culture. While Fleur and Nanapush embrace their culture and see it as something desirable which ought to be preserved, Pauline only sees her guilt, and has absorbed the criticisms against her society. In Pauline’s eyes, her heritage should not be preserved. Whenever Pauline finds herself in a position which traditionally places her in control of preserving life (and, therefore, culture), Pauline attempts to deny or subvert her role. Pauline becomes a midwife for her community, but transforms this life-giving role so she becomes a symbol of death. When Pauline becomes pregnant, she sees her pregnancy as the continuation of an identity from which she distances herself. The other Ojibwe characters in the text celebrate new children as a hope for life in their rapidly shrinking community: they pamper Lulu and celebrate Fleur’s pregnancies despite their misgivings about Fleur herself. To Pauline, however, bearing children solidifies her bond to a community she feels ashamed of, and therefore attempts to abort her pregnancy. When Pauline feels Marie move later in her pregnancy, Pauline describes how “the fists of hate took me so hard that I wept” (133). At Marie’s birth, Pauline frantically attempts to stop her labor, afraid that if she gave birth she “would be lonelier … an outcast … a human being who could be touched by no other human” (135). Pauline rejects Marie because she continues a cultural identity. As a mother, Pauline would always be tied to her Ojibwe roots because she has helped perpetuate their society.
In order to stem her association with reproduction—and with it, her Ojibwe heritage—Pauline rejects not only procreation but also her own sexuality. After she banishes her sexuality, Pauline attempts to fill the sexual void she has created with voyeurism and manipulation, alternatives which never fully satisfy her repressed sexual longings. Pauline describes her own sexual encounters with Napoleon as unfulfilling, and rejects her own sexual tensions. Instead, Pauline contents herself with watching other couples have sex and manipulating the sexuality of those around her. When Pauline finds herself drawn to Eli, she responds by manipulating him and Sophia (another character Pauline oversexualizes) into having sex. Pauline takes the sexual expression which her culture values and attempts to turn it into something negative, by stigmatizing Sophie and threatening the relationship between Fleur and Eli. Pauline wants to punish the other characters in the novel for their sexual urges.
At the same time, though, Pauline seems to envy other characters’ freedom of sexual expression, and attempts to achieve her own sexual satisfaction by living vicariously through them. Even as she exploits Sophie and Eli, “pitiless” and declares that “they were not allowed to stop” (84), Pauline “shrank backwards into their pleasure” (83). When Pauline describes how “Sophie shuddered [and] her eyes rolled to the whites,” she also presents readers with the image of Sophie’s “skirt floating like a flower” (83). Pauline distorts the sex Eli and Sophie have, but she almost subconsciously slips traditionally beautiful metaphors into her otherwise coarse descriptions. Similarly, when Eli and Fleur make up in the winter, Pauline describes how the ice fishers outside their cabin celebrated their relationship and drew hope from Fleur and Eli (130). After Pauline fails to prevent Fleur’s miscarriage, her description of the end of Fleur’s pregnancy shows her ambivalence towards child-rearing. Though Pauline rejects sexual activity of her own, she nonetheless attempts to relieve her repressed sexuality, and at times seems envious of the other characters.
By becoming a nun, then, Pauline rejects cultural pressure to reproduce, but at the cost of her already-tortured sexuality. She enters into a way of life which discourages its followers from expressing sexual energy. By joining a community which forbids sexual congress, Pauline avoids confronting her heritage. Pauline can refuse to perpetuate her heritage without justifying her actions, because the rule of her religious order expressly forbids sexual activity. Rather than creating her desire to refrain from sexual relationships, Pauline’s decision to join a religious order justifies for her actions.
Besides allowing her an outlet with which to express her own sexual guilt, Pauline’s commitment to a religious order also helps her erase her guilt over her existence. Unlike Nanapush and Fleur, Pauline is genuinely ashamed of her Ojibwe identity. By becoming a nun, Pauline seeks to create anonymity in order for her to dispel her guilt about her heritage, and hopes to craft a new identity for herself where others would define her according to her lifestyle rather than her race. By joining a community where the members share a common dress, abide by common rules, and worship in a common way, Pauline seeks anonymity and, with it, a reprieve from her own self-loathing. Furthermore, the comparative isolation of a religious community provides Pauline with a buffer between herself and the highly racialized world outside the convent. She finds, however, that not even religious life erases her identity enough to make her forget her own racialized existence. Though Nanapush, Margaret, and Fleur treat Pauline “as they would a white” (145), the whites with whom Pauline longs to belong refuse to accept Pauline on the basis of her religious commitment, and they continue to evaluate Pauline in terms of her race. Towards the end of the text, Pauline’s convent declares that it will not accept any more Native Americans and, in doing so, clearly reaffirms the racial separation between Pauline and the white nuns at her convent (138). Pauline realizes that actually becoming white is the only way she can release herself from the shame she feels about her own identity. Catholicism, then, offers Pauline the chance to change her own genealogy.
Historically, Catholicism has revered mysticism as a plausible and, for certain people, a natural experience. Rather than reconciling herself with her guilt by learning to appreciate her native culture, Pauline tries to change her race. Pauline cannot erase her own racial identity, but, because of Catholicism’s acceptance of mysticism, she is able to reject it by having Jesus declare her “not one speck of Indian but wholly white” (137). Through her conversations with Jesus (real or imagined), Pauline attempts to actually change her own race by having Christ create a new one. Unfortunately for Pauline, characters cannot typically change their race at will, and Pauline gradually loses touch with the world around her. As Pauline’s struggle to create a white identity for herself intensifies, she finds herself edging towards insanity, and begins communing with statues, insisting on her own magical capabilities, and conversing with visions. Catholicism, though, allows Pauline to have these experiences and even provides theological justification for her actions. In the eyes of mystical Catholicism, Pauline’s religious extremism becomes not only possible but perhaps even encouraged. Even though Pauline’s extremism psychologically damages her, Catholicism encourages her to continue delving into her mystical experiences. Through her mystical experiences, Pauline is able to conform to the dictates of her society and believes she can create a new, white identity.
Catholicism also allows Pauline to justify her masochism and, in doing so, lends itself to Pauline’s self-destruction. Just as her insanity can be understood through the lens of Catholicism as mysticism, Pauline’s self-inflicted suffering can be seen as religious asceticism. Like mysticism, asceticism has historically held a prominent place in Catholic history—many saints (particularly from the Middle Ages) practiced “mortification of the flesh.” Just as Pauline’s desire to lose her identity and her visions are encouraged under some forms of Catholicism, Pauline’s masochism gains religious significance when she filters it through a religious lens. Pauline’s willingness to hurt herself reaches extremes in the novel, and she engages in clearly self-destructive behavior in an attempt to alleviate her guilt. Over the course of the text, Pauline scrubs her hands raw, takes to wearing potato sack drawers, and starves herself. Pauline regulates her most basic bodily functions—such as urination—in order to alleviate her guilty conscience. Though even the Mother Superior of her convent discourages her practices, the religious heritage of Catholicism makes Pauline’s practices more acceptable, and she is seen as overly devout rather than as psychologically unwell. Pauline releases her guilt by hurting herself while lessening her stigma.
However, Pauline also distorts the message of Catholicism. As Pauline attempts to scour her Ojibwe heritage from her life, she alters the traditional images of Catholicism to support her outlandish attempts to achieve racial superiority. As she delves deeper into Catholicism, she recognizes the hypocrisy of the racism she encounters and manipulates traditional Catholic prayers and images to express how angry and ostracized she feels. Pauline cannibalizes her religion in a desperate bid to make Catholicism once again relate to her. When she and Fleur encounter Margaret after Fleur’s miscarriage, Pauline imagines Margaret scolding her: “she jabbered at me, finding the blood, the cold ashes, how it was my fault, my fault, and my most grievous fault” (163). Pauline takes the mea culpa line from the Confiteor, a part of the traditional Catholic Mass, and changes it from a means of expressing her guilt to releasing herself from it. By invoking these words as Margaret accuses her instead of recording the actual charge Margaret brings against her, Pauline paradoxically attempts to step-side her guilt by drawing on overtly religious language to establish her own spiritual superiority. Margaret threatens Pauline because Margaret, like Nanapush, becomes a whole, healthy individual by embracing her culture. She reminds Pauline that Pauline psychologically unstable. To counteract her misgivings about herself, Pauline refuses to assign weight to Margaret’s accusations. Even the verbs Pauline uses seem to doubt the legitimacy of Margaret’s concerns: she depicts Margaret as “jabbering” at her instead of scolding her. The religious imagery Pauline uses creates a moral high ground—just as becoming a nun creates distance between Pauline and the other Ojibwe characters, Pauline relies on her religious knowledge to establish superiority over Margaret.
Pauline’s guilt, though, also makes her angry at the religion to which she belongs, and her prayers gradually develop a sardonic edge as she realizes she cannot become whole. As Fleur desperately attempts to save her child, Pauline prays to the “God who bound my wrists, who tripped me, [the] Lord and Author of all Lies” (158). Later on, as she lies ill at the convent, she prays, “Dark from dark … True God from True” (195). In both these instances, Pauline takes traditional religious imagery and reverses it, applying typically negative imagery to the Catholic God. In the first instance, God takes on a traditional title for Satan and becomes the “Author of all Lies.” The Catholic God has failed to assuage Pauline’s guilt and has created a world in which she cannot achieve the unracialized (read: white) existence she longs for. Pauline has attempted to erase her heritage with her faith, and realizes that even her religious vocation cannot free her from the racism of the society around her. The second prayer, which she adapts from the Nicene Creed, changes the Creed’s “light from light” to “dark from dark,” thereby reversing God’s origin story. The God Pauline trusted in to provide her with equality betrays her, and she realizes that not even her deity seems able to forget her race. Pauline’s religious commitment changes then, and she declares that “Christ was weak” (192). Her comparatively devout tone at the beginning of her religious quest gives way to her distrust in the promises of her religion, and she eventually rejects the religious belief in the superiority of Christ entirely.
Pauline, though, is not the only character to draw from her spirituality in order to deal with her racial identity. Nanapush recognizes Pauline’s struggle because he has worked through similar issues. He, however, ultimately accepted his Ojibwe heritage, and can therefore develop into a healthy, fulfilled adult. As an older man, Nanapush has already dealt with his own misgivings about his identity, and has developed his own philosophy for dealing with encroaching white society. At the beginning of the novel, Nanapush recounts witnessing the deaths of his relatives and friends. By this time, he is familiar with white society—in his youth, he served as a guide for buffalo hunters (139). When the novel begins, then, Nanapush is acutely aware of the racism of surrounding white society. Unlike Pauline, though, Nanapush has decided that the best way to confront discrimination is not to assimilate and attempt to erase his cultural heritage but rather to hold true to his cultural heritage and reject the pressures of white society. Nanapush does not ignore racism; rather, he acknowledges white society and then manipulates it to his advantage. Like a traditional trickster, Nanapush slyly waits until he has an opportunity to exploit the system which oppresses him, then strikes. Because of his own background Nanapush recognizes Pauline’s struggle to deal with her guilt and, in his own trickster way, attempts to convince her that she cannot find fulfillment by rejecting bits of herself. Nanapush is observant, and takes it upon himself to point out Pauline’s actions to others. When Pauline begins wearing her shoes on the wrong feet, Nanapush declares “God is turning that woman into a duck,” and draws everyone’s attention to Pauline’s feet (146). When Pauline takes to wearing potato sack drawers and bars herself from urinating during the day, Nanapush cleverly pokes fun at her practices by plying her with liquids and then telling a story about water (149). By constantly drawing attention to Pauline’s practices, Nanapush turns her devotional practices into a joke, and attempts to show Pauline how ridiculous her actions are. However, Pauline cannot or will not accept the alternative Nanapush offers to her own guilt, because she is unwilling or unable to recognize the goodness of her own culture.
Though, Pauline wants to “kill the Indian … and save the man,” she discovers that this approach to dealing with her identity not only fails to assuage her guilt but also drives her insane. Over the course of Tracks, readers watch Pauline unsuccessfully try to separate herself from her Ojibwe heritage. As Pauline slips into insanity, readers realize that Pauline cannot develop into a healthy individual without first accepting herself.
Erdrich, Louise. Tracks. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.
Pratt, Richard H. “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites.” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of Indians” 1880–1900. Ed. Francis Paul Prucha. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1973. 260–71. Print.