Essay

The Bear & The Owl: Finding the Imagery in 
Louise Erdrich's Novel Tracks

© 1997 Shawn Vidmar

    Louise Erdrich's novel, Tracks, is a remarkably spun tale of psychosis, sorcery, and love within the traditional realm of the Chippewa people. Throughout the novel, there are several references to love, relationship triangles, and suspiciously magical couplings. Erdrich adheres closely to known Chippewa myth and lore in portraying her characters. She calls upon many legends to enhance them. Erdrich utilizes traces of animal folklore, evil forces, love medicine and Christianity, in constructing her two female characters, Fleur and Pauline.

   Fleur portrays the traditional 'long hair', or hold-out, for the Indian nation. She does not conform to colonization. She is the bear in this story. In fact, her clan marker contains four crosshatched bears (Erdrich 5). This "dodem, or totem,...is a mythical and psychobiological symbol of the ancestral life forces" (Grim 62). In Chippewa myth, the bear symbolizes strength and courage (Johnston 53). The Chippewa also reveal, during the midewiwin ceremony, that "Bear established the cosmic axis along which he brings their ceremony to flat-earth...from this the tribe understood that Bear had established manitou at the interface between the layers of power and human need" (Grim 84-5). This indicates that the bear is similar to a conductor between worlds, and that leads us to believe that those clans with his marker are also a conduit for this power.

   This infusion of the bear and power is introduced early in the story during the description of Fleur's clan as follows:

Power travels in bloodlines, handed out before birth. It comes down through the hands, with the Pillagers [Fleur's clan] are strong and knotted, big, spidery and rough, with sensitive fingertips good at dealing cards. It comes through the eyes, too, belligerent, darkest brown, the eyes of those in the bear clan, impolite as they gaze directly at a person. (Erdrich 31)

The reference to the bear is also seen during the birth of her first child, later named Lulu.

   At the time of this birth, Fleur has already been in labor for two days. She begins calling to the animals, which is traditional folklore for someone who is powerful. Nanapush can hear Fleur and the animals as he remarks about their presence and personality. He hears and thinks, "Turtle's quavering scratch, the Eagle's high shriek, Loon's crazy bitterness, Otter, the howl of Wolf, Bear's low rasp. Perhaps the bear heard Fleur calling, and answered" (Erdrich 59). When the bear lumbers into the yard, all were dumbstruck, especially since it takes a strong and powerful creature to kill a bear. The tale continues as such:

I [Nanapush] am a man, so I don't know exactly what happened when the bear came into the birth house, but they talk among themselves, the women, and sometimes they forget I'm listening. So I know that when Fleur saw the bear in the house she was filled with such fear and power that she raised herself on the mound of blankets and gave birth. The Pauline took down the gun and shot point-blank, filling the bear's heart. She says so anyway. But she says that the lead only gave the bear strength, and I'll support that...It barreled past me, crashed through the brush into the woods, and was not seen after. It left no trail either, so it could have been a spirit bear. (Erdrich 60)

Knowing her tribes belief in the bear spirit, it is odd that Pauline attempted to kill such a powerful dodem with the modern tool, a gun. She is a good example of the colonized Indian.

   Here she represents the colonized half-breed to Fleur's traditional 'long-hair'. She comes from unknown origin, in that "she was different from the Puyats [her clan] I [Nanapush] remembered, who were always an uncertain people, shy, never leaders in our dances and cures. She was, to my mind, and unknown mixture of ingredients" (Erdrich 39). She truly embraces the European culture, including its religion of Catholicism. This causes many problems throughout the novel, particularly in her relation to Fleur. As Fleur is linked with the spirit bear, Pauline is unfavorably represented by the spirit owl.

    The owl is often "regarded with fear" and is "associated with sorcery and death and generally seemed to be rather uncanny" (Johnston 141). This is seen overtly in Pauline's own vision after her first official aid in death. 

I [Pauline] hooked my hands on a chair, just to hold steady. If I took off my shoes I would rise into the air...And that is when, twirling dizzily, my wings raked the air, and I rose in three powerful beats and saw what lay below...They say, or Bernadette does, that when they found me in the tree later that morning, everyone was shot with fear at the way I hung, precarious, above the ground...I knew that after I circled, studied, saw all, I touched down on my favorite branch and tucked my head beneath the shelter of my wing. (Erdrich 68-9)

There are many more inferences about Pauline's aquiline features. When she strips down to have sex with Napoleon, for instance, she remarks, "I hadn't like seeing myself naked, plucked and skinned" (Erdrich 74). There is another overt reference to her bird-like qualities when they take the bandages off of her severely burned hands, "new flesh grew upon my hands, smooth and pink as a baby's, only tighter, with not give to it, a stiff and shrunken fabric, so that my fingers webbed and doubled over like a hatchling's claws" (Erdrich 196). Pauline may appear weak, yet she is more powerful that most, and should not be dismissed lightly. Her power seems to swell and grow with each soul she assists into death, and as her belief in Christianity grows.

    Her conversion is suspect as well, for the Chippewa were highly suspicious of converted Indians, and the reciprocal was true for "persons who were not members of the Midewiwin, especially Catholicized Indians, [who] often looked, with suspicion and fear, upon the Midewiwin, suspecting it of being a school for sorcery" (Barnouw 10). The Midewiwin is a general reference that can be applied to all of the following three beliefs. It is the Ojibway (the term for Chippewa religion) shamanic society, the description of the ceremony of the Mide Society, and/or Ojibway  tradition taught by the Mide Society (Grim 67-8). The Midewiwin is the core of Ojibway religion and Pauline's suspicion of these ceremonies is strongly evident when she calls upon her Catholic God as she interrupts a curing ceremony for Fleur. Pauline becomes a crazy woman in this instance, "'I'm sent to prove Christ's ways,' she [Pauline] said...She prayed loudly in Catholic Latin, the plunged her hands, unprepared by the crushed roots and marrows of plant, into the boiling water. She lowered them farther, and kept them there" (Erdrich 190). She then leaves screaming from the tent, as the others watch on in astounded horror. Pauline is skeptical of the ceremony, and ruins it to prove her point. She is consistent in this destruction. Pauline is not a very likable character, but a pivotal character in the story with her obsession with sexuality, satisfaction, and her twisted notion of love.

     At the onset, it appears that Fleur brings the overt sexuality to the story. Erdrich uses all of the connotations of the bear myth in constructing Fleur and her spirit animal. In the tradition of the Chippewa peoples, the bear is associated with menstruating girls and upon the first menses, she is known as:

wemukowe--literally, "going to the bear"--and during her seclusion she is known as mukowe--"she is a bear". Contributing to this identification was a curious equation between hunting and courting. The same Chippewa term was used for both flirting and hunting game, while another Chippewa term "connotes both using force in intercourse and also killing a bear with one's bare hands." (Barnouw 248)

This idea, which mixes courting with hunting is also documented by Ruth Landes who states, "romantic sex was prized, seen as a 'hunt' and a game, by men especially" (65). Thus it is no surprise that Eli consults with Nanapush, his teacher in the art of hunting, to learn how to court Fleur.

    Erdrich pushes the courting and hunting metaphor even further by placing Eli and Fleur's first encounter at the scene of a hunt:

But the doe was real enough, he [Eli] told me [Nanapush], gunshot and weakening. The blood dropped fresher, darker, until he thought he heard her just ahead and bent to the ground, desperate to see it in the falling dusk, and looked ahead to catch a glimpse, and instead saw the glow of a fire. he started toward it, stopped just outside the circle of light. The deer hung, already split, turning back and forth on a rope. When he saw the woman gutting with long quick movements, arms bloody and bare, he stepped into the clearing. (Erdrich 42)

In the previous passage, the male and female roles have been blurred. Erdrich does this frequently in her characterization of Fleur. After the death of Fleur's family, "she returned to Matchimanito and stayed there alone in the cabin that even fire did not want. A young girl had never done such a thing before" (8). This gender role confusion is important to note because it is her sexuality that keeps the town's tongues wagging.

    Fleur is somewhat expected to have sued sorcery to evoke Eli's passion. Nanapush wonders if she has trapped Eli by "winding her private hairs around the buttons of Eli's shirt, if she had stirred smoky powders or crushed snakeroot into his tea. Perhaps she had bitten his nails in sleep, swallowed the ends, snipped treads from his clothing and made a doll to war between her legs" (Erdrich 49). This passage is particularly interesting because in Chippewa myth there is a love medicine ritual documented as:

Next the prepared dolls were wrapped in a small piece of buckskin and the power-wish was muttered over them: that even as the dolls were bound together within this hide, so should the reluctant girl or man in question desire to be close to the body of the magician, under his blanket. The magician carried this fetish somewhere on his body, often in the armpit; he stole a hair from the head of the desired one and wrapped it in the little bundle where it too got soaked in his sweat; he rubbed the bundle on his hands along with a love powder (prepared with the same invocations to the spirits) and passed his hands over some part of the desired one's body, via the doll--and the victim was secured. (Landes 66)

The idea the Fleur might use witchery on Eli is suspicious, since she is self-sufficient. It causes the reader to wonder if the rumors come merely from her open sexuality, her absence of shame, and from their open displays of passion. This passion is what the townsfolk seem to object to the most, that "they're [Eli and Fleur] like animals in their season! No sense of shame!...Against the wall of the cabin,...down beside it. In grass and up in trees" (Erdrich 48). Again, Fleur challenges the taboos, but does not break the law.

    Challenging taboos is never without reproach and Fleur's sexuality is often in question. Pauline remarks that "some say she married the water man, Misshepeshu, or that she lives in shame with white men or windigos, or that she's killed them all" (Erdrich 31). Pauline, an unreliable narrator, brings up the names of the evil supernatural spirits with whom Fleur is accused of coupling. The Chippewa believe the following about these forces of evil:

The many evil manitou are not located in the earth or sky regions but in the cosmic waters that separate our flat-earth from the earth below us. The principal malevolent force, personified as Michibissy or Matchi manitou, is a great underwater lion or feline being with horns and an encircling tail. Maatchi manitou not only assails the human order with disease, storms, and other intrusions, but also takes possession of certain shamans, who then claim this manitou as their patron spirit. (Grim 78)

In Chippewa myth, these "Evil Supernaturals were windigo and underwater creatures...Water monsters were the perpetual and recurrently defeated enemies of Sky Supernaturals, especially of Thunderbirds. The battle, eternally resumed, is analogous to the conflict between God and Satan in Christianity" (Landes 31). The conflicted one, however consistently appears to be Pauline, no Fleur, throughout the text.

    Pauline's suspicious battles suggest that she is the one coupled with Misshepeshu and windigos. Her relationship is introduced when she shows her knowledge of the beast's form as she describes it:

Our mothers warn us that we'll think he's handsome, for he appears with green eyes, copper skin, a mouth tender as a child's.  But if you fall into his arms, he sprouts horns, fangs, claws, fins. his feet are joined as one and his skin, brass scales, rings to the touch. You're fascinated, cannot move...Then he takes the body of a lion, a fat brown worm, or a familiar man. (Erdrich 11).

Pauline's belief in the windigo is maintained in the text when she rows out into the lake and calls upon the monster to take her life. When the water pours into her boat, she refuses to bail it out. When the waves threaten to overtake the boat, it holds itself together. Unlike previous attempts to contact the water monster, she survives. She does not offer any sacrifice to Misshepeshu, such as tobacco as others did, yet he does not take her life.

    We can see the ravenous tendencies of Misshepeshu. When Fleur encountered peril on the lake, she survived and three men died in her rescue. And when Napoleon, the father of Pauline's illegitimate child, attempts to save Pauline, he succumbs to Misshepeshu with some help from Pauline's rosary. By teaming with Misshepeshu, Pauline is enters a marriage pact with the monster. This marriage is supported by Landes' finding of the folklore regarding "water monsters [that] represented a sexually romantic obsession and turned their protégés into celibates, ...should the visionary have children, they risked being killed by the jealous water spouse...the visionary endured a 'miserable life,' which the tcisaki, or divining doctor, could diving, but not even a midewiwin [curing ceremony] could cure" (32). Pauline's entrance to her miserable life occurs after her encounter. Her "monogamy" toward Misshepeshu is seen on land by her conversion to Christianity and entrance into the convent. Her only child becomes estranged and "as good as dead" to her. She is conflicted by her sexually romantic obsessions with Eli and Fleur, and does everything in her power to retaliate and absolve her miserable life.

    Pauline's distaste for Fleur is evident throughout the book. She despises Fleur and attempts to spread unflattering rumors about her. Pauline's description of Fleur includes her pendulum of emotions from hatred to respect and envy. Pauline senses that Fleur's spirit animal--the bear--is stronger and more powerful than her own, and never misses an opportunity to dispel any mystery regarding Fleur's shape shifting. Although Pauline views Fleur's spirit Bear powers as detrimental, the irony remains that for the non-colonized Native American, the bear remains a very powerful animal. Pauline's ignorance is seen here:

She [Fleur] messed with evil, laughed at the old women's advice and dressed like a man...and went out, hunting, not even in her own body. We know for sure because the next morning, in the snow or dust, we followed the tracks of her bare feet and saw where they changed, where the claws sprang out, the pad broadened and pressed into the dirt. By night we heard her chuffing cough, the bear cough. (Erdrich 12)

Singularly significant is Fleur's rebellion toward colonization and gender roles. She dresses like a man and hunts like/as a bear. 

    Yet Pauline is drawn to observe Fleur's "insurgence" out of morbid curiosity and affection.  Pauline states that "I tried to stop myself from remembering what it was like to have companions,...but when Fleur came to us that June, I remembered. I made excuses to work next to her, I questioned her,...she touched my face one , as if by accident, or to quiet me" (Erdrich 15). Pauline also recalls fondly when Fleur puts her to bed, "I was lifted, soothed, cradled in a woman's arms and rocked so quiet that I kept my eyes shut while Fleur rolled first me, then Russell, into a closet of grimy ledgers, oiled paper, balls of string, and thick files that fit beneath us like a mattress" (Erdrich 20). Pauline cannot help herself from observing Fleur. She is drawn to Fleur and her habits. Pauline notes that "Every night, Fleur bathed in the slaughtering tub, then slept in the unused brick smokehouse behind the lockers,...when I brushed against her skin I noticed that she smelled of the walls, rich and woody, slightly burnt." (Erdrich 22). Pauline becomes obsessed.

    In her obsession, she wants to be capable of attracting men like Eli as Fleur does, but is ashamed of her sexual desires. Guided by her spirit marriage to Misshepeshu, she tests the waters of her own sorcery. In conducting love medicine, she breaks a Chippewa moray that saw love medicine as a great affront against the culture because it is a sneak attack on human will. Furthermore, poorly executed love medicine "was considered the ugliest sorcery and the explanation of rape" (Landes 65). Considering Fleur and Pauline's respective powers, weak love medicine concocted by Pauline results in the gang rape of Fleur. Pauline is aware that she remains responsible for the rape because she is riddled with guilt about the terrible thing she did in Argus. What is left for the reader to discern is if Pauline is talking about locking the group up in the meat locker with Fleur, or watching her own rape fantasies to be enacted upon Fleur as she watched. Her voyeurism proposes an interesting problem, primarily because she did nothing to halt the rape. The witnessing of the rape and her reaction is intriguing because the reader does not ever know if Pauline wished for the rape out of sexual obsession with Fleur, thus by watching she is aligning herself with one of the male rapists, or out of hatred, witnessing pain inflicted upon Fleur. 

     Therefore, either out of sexual obsession or hatred,  Pauline also uses love medicine on Fleur's lover Eli to produce problems for the couple. Pauline observes the consequences of her medicine upon Eli and Sophie:

I turned my thoughts on the girl and entered her and made her do what she could never have dreamed of herself. I stood her in the broken straws and she stepped over Eli, one leg on either side of his chest. Standing there, she slowly hiked her skirt. She was naked underneath, as always, when it was hot...She shivered and I dug my fingers through the claws of sumac, through the wood-sod, clutched bark, shrank backward into her pleasure...They went on and they went on. They were not allowed to stop. They could drown, still moving, breathing water in exhaustion. I drove Eli to the peak and then took his relief away and made him start again. I don't know how long, how many hours...I was pitiless. They were mechanical things, toys, dolls would past their limits. (Erdrich 83-4)

Pauline again partners with her spirit husband, evident in the reoccurring water references and drowning imagery, to conduct a physical and mental rape. Pauline enjoys her newfound power. She does not leave her subjects alone. Her obsession with Fleur causes her to go to their cabin to witness what happens when Fleur realizes Eli has committed adultery, even if it was against his will. Pauline's voyeurism mimics the owl, who unblinkingly observes all things from his high perch.

    Pauline's detached disposition is reinforced through her own self-mutilation and delusions. Her marriage to Misshepeshu doesn't fit into her converted Catholicism paradigm, so she reinvents him as Satan. Pauline explains that "he comes in the dark. He sits on the stove and talks to me" (Erdrich 138). Furthermore, while she is gathering more wood for the fire, she "notices that my own shadow moves when I do not, which is often how Satan reveals himself, pressing so close" (Erdrich 139). He, like Misshepeshu, feeds on death. As Pauline's tribe lay dying of influenza and consumption, she simply asks him, "What shall I do now?' I asked. 'I've brought You so many souls!' And He said to me, gently: 'Fetch more'" (Erdrich 140). Both spirit monsters, Misshepeshu and Satan, are believed to be evil incarnate. Pauline becomes a disciple of Evil.

    The second half of Tracks involves a symbolism shift from Chippawa to Christian, as Pauline--a narrator--eschews the "hold out" for the traditional ways mentality and moves toward a more conventional and Christian approach, her perception invokes parables rather than traditional myth. Yet throughout the text her sexual obsession with Fleur never ceases. And in the following seductive scene, Fleur takes on a Christ-like aura as Pauline retells the account.

I did not mind stripping down, although I tried to hold a blanket up for modesty. "We're all skinny this year," said Fleur, tugging at my shield. I tried holding it around me, made her pull harder, till she jerked at me in annoyance and struggled to put me in the water. She ripped off my homemade underwear, threw my shift and knickers in a steaming iron cauldron...I stepped into the warmth...for I gave myself up then, closed my eyes and decided not to question Fleur's habit of sudden tenderness. It was like that night she carried me to Fritzie's closet and lay me among the ledgers. I gave in...Then Fleur washed me, but I warned myself not to experience any pleasure. I sat down in the water, felt its heat as a sharp danger, but then I forgot. The child [Lulu] soaped my back with a slick plant, and scrubbed away the agonizing itch of rough twine and harsh woolens. I gave her my hand. She washed each finger, then each toe. Fleur pared the overgrown nails with a knife. The girl rinsed away the sting of nettles, aggravation of hooked burrs. She dislodged the invisible stands of screwgrass that had woven into my skin. Fleur poured a pitcher of warm water over me and then began to shampoo my head and hair. It was so terrible, so pleasant, that I abandoned my Lord and all His rules and special requirements. I think I fell asleep, lost awareness, let the water course over me and let the hands on my hips, my throat, my back, my breasts, the cupped hands under my chin and around my feet, break me down. (Erdrich 153-55)

As Fleur pampers her enemy, Pauline, we see two things happen. First, Fleur takes on a Christ-like quality. Especially in washing Pauline's feet because Christ is said to have washed his own disciples feet. Second, Pauline is baptized. Unfortunately for Fleur, Pauline's conversion isn't permanent and later when asked to assist Fleur in giving birth, she realigns with Satan/Misshepeshu, and causes Fleur to miscarry. As Fleur feels she is going into premature labor, she employs Pauline to retrieve the Alder to stop the labor. But Pauline is unable to complete this task. She notes that she "went into the tiny tacked-on room hung with wrapped leaves and roots, small packets of park, as well as several packages of ground wheat, acorns, lake rice in tight birchbark containers. That was the food they had left for the winter, I know. In my haste I knocked the containers to the floor and they broke for mice" (Erdrich 155). Pauline is unable to retrieve the Alder and destroys Fleur's winter stores in the process. Later Pauline remarks that she "moved away from her, fumbled in the woodbox, down in corners, tipped the water over, scalding my own leg, and had to boil it again. I do not know why the Lord overtook my limbs and made them clumsy, but it must have been His terrible will" (Erdrich 157). Here she is again working with her monster lover. His powers of Evil run through her as she fetches him more souls.

    Throughout this whole text, Fleur and Pauline are juxtaposed to one another in many instances. Their mythical vision animals are clearly characterized in the traits and powers associated with the animals. Fleur is a bear and Pauline is an owl. Although most of the villagers believed Fleur to be the mistress of the lake monster, Misshepeshu, Pauline is the character who most embodies the traditional Chippewa consequence for pairing with the water creature. They are also sexually contradictory, where Fleur prizes monogamy, Pauline plays with the power of sex to fulfill her master's sinister tastes. Erdrich masterfully weaves a tale of many tales, which she states "comes up different every time, and has no ending, no beginning" (31).

Works Cited

  1. Barnouw, Victor. Wisconsin Chppewa Myths & Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1977.
  2. Erdrich, Louise. Tracks. New York: Harper and Row Inc., 1988.
  3. Grim, John. The Shaman: Patterns of Siberian and Ojibway Healing. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1983.
  4. Johnston, Basil. Ojibway Heritage. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P. 1976.
  5. Landes, Ruth. Ojibway Religion and the Midewiwin. Madison: The U of Wisconsin P, 1968.
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