The Native American Double Consciousness in Love Medicine
Double consciousness is a term that was coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk. According to Du Bois, double consciousness is a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (2). While Du Bois is speaking specifically about African Americans, the term double consciousness may be used to describe the Native American dual identity that exists as a result of European influence. Like African Americans who exist as both Africans and Americans, Native Americans exist as both Natives and Americans, and these two identities are often at odds with one another because of conflicting cultural traditions and ideals. Du Bois writes, “One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (2). Like Du Bois, author Louise Erdrich discusses the dual identity that stems from being a minority in America in her novel Love Medicine. This collection of linked narratives explores the Native American double consciousness by highlighting the causes of this dual identity and the effects that this internal conflict has on Native Americans and their culture.
Erdrich demonstrates a keen awareness of Native American past and present in her writing, and she uses this awareness to educate readers on Native American identity. Erdrich discuss some of the major turning points in Native American history, like the dwindling population numbers, forced removal, Native American boarding schools, and land allotment, and she reveals how those turning points have impacted the modern Native American identity, like the loss of language, cultural uniqueness, legitimacy, and feeling of unhomeliness. By showcasing the past and present states of Native American identity, Erdrich exposes the conflict of the double consciousness. In “More than Bows and Arrows: Subversion and Double-Consciousness in Native American Storytelling,” Anastacia M. Schulhoff notes, “Double-consciousness foists a tremendous burden upon the individual who must constantly negotiate between two cultures that may have two contrasting expectations for him or her” (17). The Native American double consciousness is constantly at odds with itself. There is one self, the pure, authentic Native, and there is the second self, the Native American who has been culturally assimilated. These two selves are always clashing against one another because of the violent and discriminatory colonial history that stands between them. As mentioned, DuBois theorizes about the African American double consciousness, and though this term is not typically applied to the Native American identity theories, it proves to accurately encompass the feeling of twoness that Erdrich depicts in Love Medicine. Schulhoff asserts: Native Americans and African Americans have much in common, including experiencing forced removal from their traditional homelands, enslavement, and oppressive acts of assimilation. By applying DuBois‘ theory to Native Americans, we can see both groups view “this society as a world which yields no true self- consciousness, but only lets [them] see themselves through the revelations of the other world.” (19-20) The inclusion of historical perspective is crucial for Du Bois’s theory, so it is important to recognize the oppression that Native Americans endured at the hands of colonists. Native Americans have had to witness the destruction of their culture, assimilate to conform to European standards of civility, and all the while attempt to maintain some form of connection with their authentic Native self. It is a difficult task to exist as both the colonizer and the colonized, yet Native Americans must exist in this manner every day.
To fully comprehend the nature of this Native American double consciousness, it is crucial to recognize the immense and intentional destruction of Native American culture at the hands of European colonists. According to The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature, “Pre-Columbian population estimates for North America range from 1 to 18 million” (Porter and Roemer 24). This means that before Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas in 1492, there was already a substantial and thriving indigenous population. Porter and Roemer note: When Europeans first arrived in the Americas […] they failed to comprehend the different, sophisticated ways of understanding human existence they encountered or the languages and dialects that articulated them. They came upon a continent that was home to over two thousand cultures with their own significantly differing ways of functioning. These cultures inhabited a great variety of landscapes, engaged in a range of sometimes interlinked economies, cherished their own shared memories of the past, and spoke languages often unintelligible not just to Europeans, but to their own Indian neighbors. In all, there were perhaps five hundred languages in what is now the United States and Canada: over five centuries later less than two hundred are still spoken. (42) With this knowledge, it is easy to dismiss the colonial perspective of the Americas existing as a “virgin land” that was free to be colonized. Clearly, the indigenous people of America were numerous, diverse, and legitimate, and their ties to the American land should have been respected. While different than the European idea of civilization, the Native population possessed complex societies that operated under their own laws, customs, and traditions. Still, because of Eurocentric ideology, the Native Americans were labeled as savages and uncivilized heathens. Following Columbus’s “first contact” with the New World, Europeans began colonizing the Americas, and by 1790, the Native American population had declined to an estimated 600,000 (Porter and Roemer 26). In addition to bringing their own way of living and standards for civilization to the Americas, the colonists carried infectious diseases, most notably smallpox, which plagued the Native population. According to Alan Taylor, author of American Colonies: The Settling of North America, epidemics wore away at the Native population of America and ultimately caused a tremendous population collapse. He writes, “After about fifty years of contact, successive epidemics reduced the native population to about a tenth of its precontact numbers” (39).
In Love Medicine, Erdrich brings attention to the decline in Native American population: “I never let the United State census in my door, even though they say it’s good for the Indians. Well quote me. I say that every time they counted us they knew the precise number to get rid of” (278). Even before the forced assimilation and removal of Native Americans, the colonists had already negatively impacted the Native population tremendously. The purposeful attempts to culturally assimilate and remove the Native Americans expedited the loss of Native American cultural diversity and legitimacy. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was a policy created and enforced by the United States government in order to effectively remove Native Americans from land which the colonists wanted and force them onto reservations built on unhospitable and unfamiliar soil in the western United States. Deemed as godless heathens and ruthless savages, the colonists wished to rid themselves of the burden of Native American culture. The Dawe’s Act of 1887, also known as the General Allotment Act, worsened conditions for the Native Americans by forcing European standards, such as farming, land ownership, and European education, on Native Americans and dividing up reservation land for the benefit of white America. It was not enough to remove the Natives from their rightful land. In the eyes of the colonists, Natives needed to be taught the civility that they apparently lacked. Adult Native Americans were expected to farm their land and become contributing members of American society, and Native American children were sent to boarding schools and educated according to European standards. Erdrich includes historical allusions in her work so that readers may more fully grasp the conflict of the Native American double consciousness. The persecution of Native Americans and their culture is not something that is easily forgotten and swept under the rug. It is not just a simple snafu in the history books. The history of the subjugation, removal, and assimilation of Native Americans impacts the Native American identity and culture today. Again, the Native American dual identity consists of two selves: the authentic Native and the Native American. The conflict of this dual identity arises because of the disparity between the two selves. One self, the Native, possesses his or her own culture, does not wish or need to be colonized, and he or she recognizes the erasure of Native culture that results from cultural assimilation. The other self, the Native American, is irrevocably hybridized by his or her exposure to the European/American cultural standards and ideals that minoritized Natives in the first place. Because the Native population was so persistently persecuted by their colonizers, there appears to be an ever-present, lingering level of dissatisfaction with white America for many Native Americans.
Erdrich’s Love Medicine encapsulates this dissatisfaction: “the old-time Indians who was swept away in the outright germ warfare and dirty-dog killing of the whites. In those times, us Indians was so much kindlier than now. We took them in. Oh yes, I’m still bitter as an old cutworm just thinking of how they done to use and doing still (233). It can, therefore, be assumed that it is a conflict for Native Americans to remain so closely tied with their colonizers through their dual identity. In Erdrich’s Love Medicine, The Dawe’s Act of 1887 plays a critical role in the lives of the Native Americans who are presented in the work. Erdrich discusses the land allotments: “The policy of land allotment was a joke. As I was driving toward the land, looking around, I saw as usual how much of the reservation was sold to whites and lost forever” (12). In addition to discussing land allotments, Erdrich brings attention to the Native American boarding schools that were intended to assimilate young Native Americans. In the novel, two brothers, Nector and Eli Kashpaw, are raised in two different worlds. Nector is sent to boarding school and is taught the white way of life, and Eli is raised in the traditional Native manner. For readers, Nector and Eli’s differences demonstrate the effects of cultural assimilation. Nector, the brother who was sent to boarding school, apparently loses touch with his Native American authenticity. Eli displays a close connection with his cultural heritage and, as described in the chapter “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” is “the last man on the reservation that could snare himself a deer” (Erdrich 29). Opposite to his brother, Nector finds himself in many situations which are demeaning to his cultural heritage and identity. While Eli demonstrates the authentic Native self, Nector showcases the Native American self who exists as a result of colonial influence. While Eli thrives, Nector struggles to find his place in society. In one situation which showcases the colonial influence on Nector’s life, Nector is forced into a Native American stereotype in Hollywood. In the chapter “The Plunge of the Brave,” he begrudgingly plays roles that further demean the legitimacy of his cultural heritage. While his brother Eli remains authentic, Nector is becoming the face of a cultural caricature. In another situation, which is perhaps the most recognizably contrasted with Native American cultural heritage and identity, Nector holds a government position. As a whole, Native Americans in the novel rightfully possess distrust and disdain for governmental authority, yet Nector works for the government.
Nector’s character demonstrates the disparity between the Native identity and the Native American identity that resulted from the Native American boarding schools and forced cultural assimilation. The Native American distrust for governmental authority stems from the intentional destruction of their culture at the hands of policy and lawmakers. This distrust can be seen in the chapter “The Island” when Nanapush tells, “Sing me my songs and then bury me high in a tree, Lulu, where I can see my enemies approaching in their government cars” (Erdrich 72). While Nanapush sees the government as an enemy, Nector is a member of the government. Erdrich also discusses the loss of Native language as a result of cultural assimilation in Love Medicine. As mentioned, Native American languages were once diverse and abundant, but following the removal and assimilation efforts that were made first by the colonists and then by the United States government, their abundance and diversity began to dwindle. Erdrich describes the loss of the language through the character of Lulu Nanapush: “I lived by bells, orders, flat voices, rough English. I missed the old language in my mother’s mouth” (68). Lulu’s relays a feeling of comfort in the Native language that English does not provide. With an understanding that English is the language of the colonizer, it becomes apparent that the colonized have been silenced and placed in subjugation through the destruction of their language.
Du Bois’s theory of the double consciousness from The Souls of Black Folk may be applied to describe the Native American dual identity that resulted from their colonization. Erdrich’s Love Medicine identifies the Native American double consciousness, its effects, and the manner in which it was created and sustained. With the inclusion of historical allusions in her work, Erdrich highlights the causes of the Native American dual identity. She further explicates the Native American double consciousness by showcasing the internal conflict of existing as an authentic Native and as a Native American who has been culturally assimilated. The two selves are constantly at odds with one another. The native always remembers his or her oppression at the hands of his or her colonizer, and the Native American will always be influenced by his or colonizer.
Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford University Press, 2008. Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. HarperCollins, 2009. Porter, Joy, and Kenneth M. Roemer. The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2005. Schulhoff, Anastacia M. “More than Bows and Arrows: Subversion and Double-Consciousness in Native American Storytelling.” University of South Florida, 2010. Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. Penguin, 2002.
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