Weakened and Manipulated into Christianity in Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
The wild and untamed frontier that stretches as far as the eye can see was just waiting to be claimed by the new settlers, so it seemed. Nevermind if this land was inhabited already by dark skinned savages. The dirty uncivilized Indians did not need all of this land and worst of all they were not Christian. The Indians had already experienced vicious battles and the invasion of the French fur traders. Furthermore, the Indians had suffered robbery of their lands; fur traders had established themselves within the Indian communities in order to monopolize on the trade, along with inner-mixing with the Indian women. The Indians had been introduced to alcohol, which they quickly became dependent upon. The white society brought illness and disease for which the Indians had no tolerance. Consequently, when the Christian missionaries came along, the Indians were already undergoing dissection, separation, and despair.
How did the Christian missionaries persuade the Ojibwe Indians to give up their traditional ways? Were they manipulated by the white society and taken advantage of? Had the Ojibwe Indians been so beaten down by this stage that when the Christian missionaries came to their village they just followed along, feeling they had to in order to survive? Certain people hypothesize that the missionaries wanted to convert as many people as possible over to Christianity in order for the church to gain a large power base. The church would then be in line with other world powers to be competitive in an economic politically driven society. Others may think that the truthful motive lies closer to reality in being a non-Christian person seen as a heathen, and hence they must be saved.
In Erdrich’s novel, The Last Report, the author raises some suspicions about this theory of saving the heathens. Erdrich writes in the opening chapter of the book where Father Damien and Agnes DeWitt are talking about how things genuinely are on the reservation and what the Indians are like. Agnes says, “And what grave difficulties such a pious man as yourself will face when confronted with their shamans and hocus-pocus!”(Erdrich37). Agnes even goes on to suggest the Indians, “indulge in séances,” making the Indians out to be devil worshippers, in the Christian sense (37). Some Europeans were captivated by the Indians and others detested and feared them. Early on some colonists spoke of the Indians extremely judgmentally and would define them as “inhumanly cruel” and “brutish beasts of most wilde and savage nature” (Mintz2). Given this, Erdrich uses this perception by the white society about the Indians to establish the thought pattern and motivation behind Christians wanting to convert the Ojibwe Indian. Although, there are many more layers yet to be uncovered, such as the parceling out of Indian land.
Congress was busy at work writing and re-writing an act that would change history and the traditional ways of the Indians; this was known as the General Allotment Act of 1887. The purpose of this act was to divide tribal lands amongst the pure blood Indians; in turn this would encourage the Indians to leave their more nomadic way of life and settle down to farming and producing crops. The General Allotment Act of 1887 states, “ On February 8, 1887, Congress completed passage of the Dawes Act, or General Allotment Act, which codified for most American Indians the idea of dividing Indian lands into individual holdings to promote assimilation by deliberately destroying tribal relations”(Schwartz1). By overpowering the Indians and manipulating them into a corner they were forced to accept what was given to them by the white society. Thomas Jefferson wrote about the issues of the uncivilized Indians. He had talked to Congress about how the Indians were already selling their land to the whites and that he saw the need for more land because of the increasing numbers of new settlers. Nebraska Studies says, “The only solution that Jefferson saw was to encourage Indian people to stop their traditional patterns of annual hunts over vast territories and begin farming which would require less land (Nebraska Studies1). Erdrich writes about a man by the name John James Mauser in, The Last Report, who buys land where there are fewer Indians and this land he decimates by cutting down all the trees and mines for minerals. She says that:
He now purchases areas lost to the continual census that shows a dwindling number of Indians. He buys the land tax forfeited. He buys the land by having the Ojibwe owners declare incompetent. He buys this parcel and the next and the next. He leaves the stumps (Erdrich 106).
Erdrich wrote about Father Damien and Sister Hildegarde tending to the sickness that had plagued the village and losing track of the “land acquisitions and foreclosures”(Erdrich185). A foreclosure notice had been received by Fleur Pillager and Nanapush because of taxes not being paid on their lands. Father Damien has been made aware of this situation and blames himself, “I will write to the bishop” and “By raiding the church account, Father Damien was able to raise enough to keep Nanapush’s family from utter disaster. Still, the best of their land was lost” (Erdrich 186). Since the church has now helped out Nanapush’s family they will start to feel more beholding to the church and Father Damien. The breakdown continued with the intermixing of the French with the Ojibwe people.
Mixed-blood Indians were not fully accepted into the white society or the Indian communities. The mixed-blood Indians did not carry the respect as a full blooded Indian would in their community. Larson, Sidner wrote in The Fragmentation of a Tribal People in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks that “contact was encouraged by the fur companies as a means of keeping their men content, although most Frenchmen returned to Canada when the fur business declined. The children of these unions were called bois, Brules, half-breeds, mixed-bloods, or Metis” (Larson1). The inter-breeding with the fur traders helped with the break-down of the Indian families and the continued tension with the white society and church. Erdrich writes about a character named Leopolda in her book, The Last Report, being a half breed. Father Damien was being interviewed by Father Jude about Leopolda love for her people and Father Damien replied, “The love of a mixed blood for what is darkest communion in her nature, both the comfort and the downfall, source of pain and expiation, a complicated love” (Erdrich224). Leopolda could understand how the other Indian people felt being of mixed blood, a metis. But being of mixed blood was not the only problem that the Indians had to face. The diseases that the white society brought to the Indians were devastating and many thousands lost their lives.
Erdrich writes about the influenza hitting the small village of Little No Horse and how destructive it was. She writes how the Spanish influenza was hitting all over the world and not making any distinction between the young and the old, the rich and the poor. When the illness finally came to the town, Erdrich describes it like this: “Descended, really, on the wings of ducks, in the bones of clouds, on the city wagons, and in the pockets of used clothes” and “It was waved off the trader’s hands, and dusted tongue to tongue with the Communion Hosts served from Father Damien’s fingers”(115). Erdrich talks about how many families were lost to this illness and how they dreaded to come upon a cabin that had no smoke coming out of the chimney. There were many more diseases that the Europeans brought over that decimated the Indians, like chicken pox, diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhus, and tuberculosis. The Indian culture has many ceremonies that are for healing and when the ceremonies did not cure the infected of these new white diseases, the Ojibwe people’s faith weakened. Native America Netroots speaks about how the Christian missionaries took advantage of these situations, “Christians didn't seem to die from smallpox, some Indians began to reason, then it must be the power of their religion that saved them” (Striker2). Again the Christian missionaries took advantage of the despair that the Indians were feeling during this harrowing time. American Indians were considered heathens and some religious leaders thought this, “Catholic priests in California attributed diseases such as smallpox to tribal sin, especially the cardinal sin of refusing to believe in Christ” (Striker2). These diseases killed thousands of Indians that did not have the immunity that the Europeans had to these diseases. Unlike the diseases that cause fever like influenza there was another disease that affected the Indians, alcohol.
During the 1800’s the fur traders introduced alcohol to the Indians. The traders would exchange whiskey for furs and take advantage of the Indians in their drunken state. The whiskey that the fur traders were bargaining with was not what it seemed. According to Margaret A. Kennedy, “The people traded anything they owned for alcohol, which left them destitute and defenseless against winter temperatures. This was not quality alcohol. The so-called whiskey given out by traders for buffalo robes and other furs was a lethal concoction of alcohol mixed with anything that would give it colour and substance—bluestone, burnt sugar, castile soap, Jamaica Ginger, Perry Davis Painkiller, tea, ink and sometimes, horrifically, strychnine (a poison)”(Kennedy1). The Indians became so crazed over the alcohol that they would do just about anything to obtain it and this in itself was another cessation to the Indian culture, which furthermore helped destroy their family oriented tribal community. Erdrich speaks of alcohol in a passage of her book, The Last Report, about how it has affected this woman that Father Damien knew and now recognized, Mashkiigikwe. The Father tries to ask her questions but he has noticed that she had weaved back and forth like she had had something to drink. The woman says to the priest, “Winos don’t have names, priest. Go back and save the others like you saved me” (286). Father Damien feels guilt and gives this poor woman money, but he says, “Here and here. Take this! Ando miniquen! I didn’t put the bottle in your mouth! I didn’t make you suck the sauce!”(286). Although Father Damien and the likes of him didn’t put the bottle to the lips of the Indians physically, they did by introducing it to the American Indians in order to benefit financially in fur. The character Marie Kashpaw in Last Report, talked about how she was able to support herself after she left Lazarres. She had managed to steal a few dollars before she left Lazarres and she used this money to purchase some whiskey. Marie Kashpaw must have known how the fur traders had pulled the wool over other Indians about the whiskey and Erdrich wrote, “Then I added some slough water to the good stuff and made four bottles in all, plugged neatly with white strips from my nun’s pillowcase” (298). Erdrich seems very aware of the tricks that the fur traders did to the Indians with the trade of the whiskey for fur. She also seemed acutely aware of the effects that the alcohol had on the Indians which caused a breakdown in the family and tribal community. Now it was time for the Christian missionaries to wiggle through the crack and began to assimilate the Indians into their religion through manipulation and trickery of miracles.
Erdrich writes in The Last Report, about when the Spanish influenza hit the village and how Father Damien fought against this terrible disease and many Indians were wiped out due to this illness. But in the end, only when Father Damien allows Pauline Puyat, otherwise known later as Sister Leopolda, to assist him does the actual curing begin. Pauline followed Father Damien to the next families’ house to help, but in her pockets were apples. Apples were said to contain the cure for the illness, due to a child eating one and reportedly recovering. The families that Father Damien and Pauline had been attending were saved. The Indian families saw Pauline in a different light. Erdrich wrote in The Last Report, “The ugliness of death brought out of her an angel (122). Karen Janet McKinney wrote in False Miracles and Failed Visions in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, “Missionaries were apt to represent events like eclipses, lightning strikes, and medical healings as miracles in an effort to manipulate and awe the Ojibwe into conversion (McKinney155). The Ojibwe Indians at this point, along with many other American Indian tribes were desperate to save their families and it appeared that their traditional ways were not working. The Ojibwe Indians became susceptible to conversion by the Christian missionaries because they had seen the Christian faith cure the white man’s diseases and many other unexplained natural events that the missionaries deemed were caused by the hand of God.
The layers of events that took place on the lands of the American Indians during the late 1800’s thru the 1900’s contributed to the manipulation and dissection of the Indian tribes. These events left the American Indians susceptible to the Christian missionaries’ message of conversion. The American Indians had experienced the robbery of their lands, diseases, alcohol, mixed blood relationships and manipulation of cures and natural events contributed to the belief of the Christian god. Erdrich does bring these issues to light in The Last Report, while she spins the tale of Father Damien’s adventures with the Ojibwe Indians. The American Indians spirit was broken and the only way that they knew to survive was to be converted into Christianity.
Erdrich, Louise. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. New York: Harper, 2001. PRINT.
Kennedy, Margaret A. The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains. Introduction of Alcohol Through the Fur Trade: A Brief Overview. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.
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McKinney, Karen Janet. "False Miracles and Failed Vision in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine." Critique 40.2 (Winter 1999): 152-160. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 176. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.
Mintz, S. Native Voices, Introduction: Part II. Digital History, 2007. Web. 12 Nov. 2011.
Schwartz, E.A. What were the Results of Allotment? Native American Documents Project. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.
Striker, Matt. American Indians and European Diseases. Native American Netroots. 2010. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.
“The Struggle to Convert Native Americans to Christianity.” Nebraska Studies. Web. 12 Nov 2011.