Louise Erdrich on Drawing Inspiration from Native American Heritage

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Louise Erdrich’s imagination courses with the mingled myths and tales of her German and Native American ancestors. Drawing from the real and the imagined and from an unshakeable sense of place and language, Erdrich creates an imaginary metropolis in the American Midwest. Author of 13 novels, as well as volumes of poetry and children’s books, Erdrich also owns Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis. It carries not only books she and the staff think customers will love but also showcases selected Ojibwe and other Native American art and craftworks. Here, Bill Moyers talks to Erdrich about the impact of her Native American heritage and her newest novel, Shadow Tag.



BILL MOYERS: I recently had one of those experiences that I’ll wager is familiar to you—the book I was reading so possessed me that I happily gave up a couple of consecutive nights of sleep just to finish it. Here it is: Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich, who many of you know to be one of our most prolific and acclaimed writers.

LOUISE ERDRICH: [Foreign language]

BILL MOYERS: Louise Erdrich has created landscapes from her experience and imagination that become as real to her readers as their own hometowns. For her, it’s Argus, North Dakota, a town like the place where she grew up, on the endless Dakota plains. Like many of her characters she was raised Catholic and deeply influenced by a mix of cultures—her mother was French Ojibwe, her father, German-American, and both taught at a school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Louise went on to become one of the first women to graduate from Dartmouth College. After earning a master’s at Johns Hopkins she wrote poetry, while eking out a living as a waitress, lifeguard, and other odd jobs, including teaching poetry in a prison, until she was 30. That’s when her first novel Love Medicine was published to critical and popular success. She introduced us to several generations of three Native-American clans. And since then she’s produced thirteen novels in all, and volumes of poetry and children’s books.

But when she’s not in her writer’s attic, this is where she likes to hang out.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yes, that’s one of my favorite books…

BILL MOYERS: Birchbark Books, the independent bookstore she owns in Minneapolis—a local jewel of literature as well as Ojibwe and other Native American art and crafts. There’s even a reminder of the Catholicism of her childhood—a confessional.

LOUISE ERDRICH: We let people come in, it’s a forgiveness booth now. We’ve redesignated it.

BILL MOYERS: She’s become quite serious about preserving the Ojibwe language…

MALE VOICE: [Foreign language]

GROUP: [Foreign language]

BILL MOYERS: Even taking part in language tables organized by the Native-American community….

She’s with me now, and I’ve been impatient to ask her about Shadow Tag, her fierce account of a troubled marriage and its impact on three precocious children.

Louise Erdrich, welcome to the Journal.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Thank you so much. It’s good to be here.

BILL MOYERS: I have to tell you that when I opened that book and read the first page, it was like stepping onto a high-speed train that didn’t stop until it got to its destination. And even when I got to the last page, I didn’t want the trip to be over. I mean, it is a masterpiece of suspense and character.


BILL MOYERS: But where did this idea come from?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I wanted to write a suspense novel. I like that kind of narrative. And I wanted to do exactly what you what you picked out about it. I wanted to have a reader start it and—and keep reading it and want to know what happened.

BILL MOYERS: Where did the title, Shadow Tag, come from?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I’m wondering if you played shadow tag, because when I asked that question in a Minnesota audience, everybody raised their hands.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I did in east Texas—


BILL MOYERS: —that’s where you try to step on the shadow of the other—

LOUISE ERDRICH: The other person’s shadow.


LOUISE ERDRICH: That’s when you grow up in a place where you can play outdoors, under a street lamp, late into the night. And that’s what I did. I had that title for many, many, many years until it occurred to me that if the shadow selves in a relationship were to interact somehow, they would be playing shadow tag.

The shadow selves. I don’t really mean only the darker sides of people, but I mean the dream sides, the sides that almost—the subterranean sides that we don’t know. We don’t always know what our actions are going to be in respect to another person, and somehow, in this setting, under their trapped circumstances, their shadow selves begin to interact.

BILL MOYERS : There is a moment in this book when Gil and Irene—we sense their shadow selves. We sense the layer of deception that is at the heart of their marriage. And the fact is she hates him and she loves him. Right?

LOUISE ERDRICH: They’re very intertwined. Gil is a painter. And Irene is often his subject. He’s an artist.

BILL MOYERS: Most of his paintings are of her, at different stages and in different poses, right? That’s why it becomes sort of the story of a stolen identity about how a man steals his wife’s image and power.

LOUISE ERDRICH: And it’s also a book about diaries and about doubles. So—and I love the German word doppelganger, by the way. It’s a great—that image kept coming back and back and into this book as well.

BILL MOYERS: Now here she is, keeping two diaries.

LOUISE ERDRICH: She’s keeping a double diary—

BILL MOYERS: One—double diaries.

LOUISE ERDRICH: She begins to realize that he is reading her diary, and so she decides she can—

BILL MOYERS: Secretly, he—

LOUISE ERDRICH: Secretly. And so she keeps a diary that’s the truth. And he reads a diary that’s a falsehood.

BILL MOYERS: She’s writing these lies deliberately for him to read.

LOUISE ERDRICH: She’s manipulating him.

BILL MOYERS: Manipulating him.


BILL MOYERS: So from your own experience and from these characters you have invented, how much of love? How much of marriage involves holding back a part of ourselves?


BILL MOYERS: The shadow half?

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, I think the shadow half is very important to show in a marriage. That’s the thing that doesn’t happen really, you know. We wait and hold back and that half until we’re absolutely secure with each other. You know, you can’t completely immerse yourself in another human being.

BILL MOYERS: It seems to me this book’s theme is love, survival, and memory. And I would think that love, survival and memory are themes that come to you from your American Indian past, because that’s what Indians have done. They’ve survived, and memory is very important to them, isn’t it?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Memory is all. Memory is where the language resided, because it was an oral language. The stories resided. They were not written down. They were describing mnemonic devices. But I have to say that as you said that the image of my father came into my mind.

I thought about the letters he’s written me. He’s written me hundreds, maybe thousands of letters over my lifetime. And his letters are really the treasures of my life. They take in whole pieces of memory and they’re his gift to me. He described everything that was happening around him. And as I read back through, I have a very different life than what I remember. I have—and I have it in his letters.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I know you are very close to your father. But you don’t seem to live very close to that Germanic tradition. It seems to me that you really draw mostly from this Native American imagery that’s in your, in your past.

LOUISE ERDRICH: I think that is one of the reasons that Native American people puzzle other people. Why is that so strong with them? Why don’t they just become like the rest of us? What is it that’s so important in their culture that they cling to it so?

I think it has to do with the belongingness and the sense of peace that I feel among other native people, this sense of community; you’re in the comfort of a very funny, grounded people, who are related to everything that’s around them, who don’t feel this estrangement that people feel so often.

And that’s why being Ojibwe or Anishinabe is so important to me. I’m very proud and very comfortable with it.

BILL MOYERS: You heard Ojibwe spoken, growing up?

LOUISE ERDRICH: My grandfather spoke. And he spoke it as he prayed. And he had his medicine bundle and his prayer objects. And he would walk in back of the house. And he would stand in front of the woods and just go a little way in. And then I would stand behind him and listen to him praying.

And as I grew up, I believed and thought that Ojibwe was like Latin. Like, you know, it was a ceremonial language. And it wasn’t until I was in my teens that I walked into a situation where people in a store were all speaking Ojibwe. And they were laughing, and I wanted to know what jokes, what the jokes were. I wanted to get the jokes. And I began to think, “I have to know this language.”

When I moved to Minnesota, I found there was a thriving and determined movement, a grassroots movement, to revitalize the Ojibwe language. And I’ve never come to be a competent speaker. I have to say that right now. But even learning the amount of Ojibwe that one can at my age is a life-altering experience.


LOUISE ERDRICH: You see the world in a different way. And to be told that you’re working in a language in which there is a spirit behind this language. I think it has to do with this being one of the indigenous languages of this continent. In which, as you look around, you see the forms of things that were named long, long ago. And you see the forms of things that have been named relatively recently. You know, this is—

BILL MOYERS: Give me an example of what you’re talking about.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, I’m going to read to you from this book, because this is—

BILL MOYERS: What is this?

LOUISE ERDRICH: —a wonderful book. It’s a vocabulary project. It’s a book for Ojibwe immersion schools.

[Speaking Ojibwe]

That is a translation by a Rose Tainter of the first amendment.

BILL MOYERS: Is that right? Read it again.

LOUISE ERDRICH: [Speaking Ojibwe]

You know, Native Americans put their deepest trust in the United States government. And they teach their children in Ojibwe what their relationship is towards this government—

BILL MOYERS: After all the bad experiences with the government that constantly was going back on its word, breaking its promises?

LOUISE ERDRICH: After all those bad experiences, Native Americans first fought in World War I before they had citizenship. The American flag comes out first at every pow-wow. There’s an incredible relationship that is felt—there is—a heart to heart feeling about the government that we are nation to nation with you.

It’s a sense of equality. That you will recognize us, that we did not vanish as you thought. That we survived. We exist. We are—we have our language. We have your words in our language. We have your constitution in our language.

BILL MOYERS: Are your children learning Ojibwe?


BILL MOYERS: For what reason?

LOUISE ERDRICH: That sense of community, peace, comfort and because this language, it speaks to our background. I’d love to meet my ancestors. I’d love to be able to speak to them. There’s a story that—a teaching that you’re going to be asked after you die what your name is in Ojibwe. That’s a teaching. You’re going to have to give your name. You’re going to have to speak to the spirit if you want to go to that place. Otherwise you will go to the Christian heaven, which doesn’t seem like much fun.

BILL MOYERS: So what’s the alternative?

LOUISE ERDRICH: You get to—you can do all sorts of things in your Ojibwe heaven that you can’t do in the Christian heaven.

BILL MOYERS: What—such as?

LOUISE ERDRICH: You can gamble. You can make love. You can eat. You—it’s like a world where there’s no sad consequence to any pleasurable thing you do. It’s a happy—it’s a world like this one, but you don’t have the pain.

BILL MOYERS: So when you reach the other side, and you’re asked your name in Ojibwe, what are you going to say?

LOUISE ERDRICH: [Speaking Ojibwe] or I’ll answer [speaking Ojibwe]. That was my grandfather’s name for me. [speaking Ojibwe] is a beautiful Ojibwe name that means golden—the feather of the golden eagle.

And I don’t know that I’m going to reach the other side, Bill. I don’t even—I keep shifting my spiritual beliefs about an afterlife.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you may have to invoke your Catholic past, right?

LOUISE ERDRICH: That’s the beauty of being a mixed person. You know, if there’s a German afterlife—it’ll all depend. I’m going to think fast.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you have that capacity.

Your cultures, plural, keep competing within your imagination, don’t they?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah. They do. They do.

BILL MOYERS: Where do your ideas come from, if you have this constant interplay between these many cultures?

LOUISE ERDRICH: You know, I live on the margin of just about everything. I’m a marginal person, and I think that is where I’ve become comfortable. I’m marginally there in my native life. I can do as much as I can, but I’m always German too, you know, and I’m always a mother. That’s my first identity, but I’m always a writer too. I have to write. I have to be an artist. You know, I have a very fractured inner life, I think.

BILL MOYERS: The first non-fiction you did about your pregnancy and your child’s birth. That first year of that child.

LOUISE ERDRICH: The Blue Jay’s Dance.

BILL MOYERS: The Blue Jay’s Dance. And what was the metaphor there?

LOUISE ERDRICH: It was a blue jay’s dance of courage in front of a hawk. And I saw it from the window as I was nursing my baby, I saw outside the window this—I kept feeders and all sorts of birds came down. I saw a blue jay. And then a hawk came down and missed it.

And the blue jay knew it was doomed. But it started to dance at the hawk. And it so startled the hawk that the hawk sort of adjusted its vision, I think, because the blue jay was confusing it. This dance of an inferior bird against a superior raptor finally so mortified the hawk that it flew away.

BILL MOYERS: So this is the mother’s role, the blue jay’s dance to keep the aggressive hawk at a distance, right?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I never really thought of it exactly that way. It may be that I thought about it in the book, but—yes. Well, it’s the advantage so many of us have, in a small way. It’s the advantage of behaving in a surprisingly courageous fashion, when the odds are completely against you.

BILL MOYERS: Which is what mothers do, right?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I’ve seen it—many do.


LOUISE ERDRICH: They do. They do.

BILL MOYERS: And it comes through in Shadow Tag.


BILL MOYERS: There’s this incredible kid in here named Stoney.


BILL MOYERS: And he comes to an amazing truth that you describe in this short passage. Read it, and I want to ask you about it then.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Irene bent over and held her son. With her arms locked, she backed up to the living room couch and toppled them both onto the pillows. Stoney tightened his arms around Irene, still sobbing so harshly that he couldn’t form words. There was nothing to do but stroke his sun-shot hair. Soon Irene could feel the hot tears soak through her shirt.
What is it?
The crying began all over again with the same miserable force. Then Stoney quit.
I don’t want to be a human, he said. His voice was passionate. I want to be a snake. I want to be a rat or spider or wolf. Maybe a cheetah.
Why, what’s wrong?
It’s too hard to be a human. I wish I was born a crow, a raccoon, or I could be a horse. I don’t want to be human anymore.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, unpack that moment when he says, “It’s too hard to be human.” This is a six-year-old saying this. What were you saying?

LOUISE ERDRICH: That we rationalize ourselves out of shame. We can rationalize anything away as we get older and older, but a child hasn’t that capacity yet. And so when the shame hits, it’s being knocked over. And it’s the truth of shame. And it’s what comes back to us.

Sometimes when we are—and it—this is what happens to everybody. There’s going to be a time, no matter who we are, that we participate in the very oldest of human sorrows. We are at one with other people in our loss, in our shame, and we come to the very limit of who we are as people. We face that part of ourselves that we never wanted to look at. And then we experience shame the way a child experiences it.

BILL MOYERS: And how is that different?

LOUISE ERDRICH: It’s pure. It’s pure and that moment and other moments like it link us with other human beings, I think.

BILL MOYERS: Well, there’s something else that comes up here too, which is that no matter how much a mother or a father, but in particular a mother can love a child, you can’t protect him from the cruelty of the world, can you?

LOUISE ERDRICH: No. You can put up—you know, a mother is a frayed net, you know. We stretch ourselves over everything we can. But there’s holes all over the place where things get through and we do everything we can and fathers and—you know, as parents, we try so hard. But we can’t do it all. We can’t completely protect.

I think in a very odd sense, I want things to be in ordinary for my children, routine. I want things to be simple, you know, for them to cope with. But that’s not what the world is like. And that’s not even what they want. They want to grow. They want to grow in every way that they possibly can and that’s going to involve pain.

BILL MOYERS: I came across this very well-known reviewer who said that with each successive novel Louise Erdrich is writing, she’s writing more like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Albert Camus. I mean, that’s a heavy burden, isn’t it?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I think if I thought that way, you know, I wouldn’t be able to do a thing.

BILL MOYERS: No, but the reviewers do, so the next novel you write, it’s got to be Hemingway, Camus or Faulkner.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Just got to be Erdrich. I can’t do anything else. I’m going to read this, ’cause this is what I finally had to do. I had to give myself advice. You know, I—there’s many more—there’s many writers who are more deserving of that sort of praise, but I don’t think as many of them have as many children, as much—as messy a house. Advice to myself.

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs at the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew in a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls under the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzle
or the doll’s tiny shoes, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic.
Go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementoes.
Don’t sort the paperclips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience.

BILL MOYERS: You know, I do have women writers, mothers, who say to me, “You know, how can she be so prolific? How can she find time? My kids have got out of school today because it was a snow day. And now I was planning to write, but I can’t.”

LOUISE ERDRICH: How do I do—I don’t know. I’ve—my sisters have seen me. My husband has seen me. My kids have seen me every day, and they don’t know how it happens, but I suspect it has to do with a small, incremental persistent insect-like devotion to putting one word next to the next word. It’s a very dogged process.

LOUISE ERDRICH: I make myself go upstairs, where I write, whenever I can, no matter how—one thing about this is I never have writer’s block, because I—if I went up there and I had writer’s block, I think I’d lose my mind. You know, I have to get up to my papers and my books and my notebooks. I jot things down all the time. I just keep going.

BILL MOYERS: I guess that goes to the heart of the mystery of the writer. Writers don’t really know why they write, do they? They just have to write. I mean, you’ve come such a long way from those days when you were a waitress, a single woman at a construction site. You kept getting a lot of rejection slips, didn’t you?

But when you received rejection after rejection, why did you keep writing? That’s, I think, what concerns most young writers. Why do you keep on, in the face, in the slap in the face?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I kept writing because I grew up as a Catholic. And my—the one place you’re allowed to be emotional and to really talk about yourself is in the confessional. And in the darkness of the confessional, where you are safe. And the priest is supposed to not is supposed to be a conduit just to God, you’re not—

And then in the, you begin to think, “Well, I have a sacred entity that is also able to receive these unknowable emotions.” And it begins to move outward. Eventually, I began to write about what was innermost, but as I’m from a small town, it sometimes astonishes me what I’d read on paper, because I don’t mean to have written some of those things. And sometimes, mothers come up to me in my daughters’ grade schools, and they look at me and they say, “It must be unique, living in your head.” You know? How could you read that? How could you write that?

BILL MOYERS: Of course—

LOUISE ERDRICH: Because it’s—I don’t know why the filter is not there, but I have to be as truthful. It’s the—it’s—I have to get as close to the bare truth as I can.

BILL MOYERS: The truth of what?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Experience. When I talked about the insulation between yourself and your experience, it’s not there as a child—you don’t develop that skin of insulation. You don’t develop it until you begin to be hurt, over and over, until you began to rationalize, over and over.

But when you can go back to it as an adult in writing, it’s a relief, you just hang on for dear life. You know, I loved writing because of that. And it—I’m able to live in a world where I can be expressive and I can be truthful about emotion and about human nature.

BILL MOYERS: You grew up Catholic because of your German father and background—

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, well, both. My mother—the Turtle Mountains was missionized by Benedictine priests and by Benedictine nuns. And my mother’s a very strong Catholic. Very wonderful, I think, in her level of faith and understanding. She was the one I went to when I wanted to change a priest into a woman. She said, “Go for it. Do it.”

BILL MOYERS: Oh, yes, that’s what’s—that’s Damien?

LOUISE ERDRICH: That’s from, Father Damien—


LOUISE ERDRICH: —in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.

BILL MOYERS: Decades later, he turns out to be a she?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yes, because she, although—having worn the habit of a sister, a nun—knows that she’s called to be a priest. So knowing that, she has to be a priest and is a very good priest. The best priest I have ever written about.

BILL MOYERS: Did you want to be a priest when you were growing up?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I wanted the power of the priest. The priest had a great deal of power. And I think a lot of the women who taught me who were Franciscan sisters could have been happier as priests. Their power was thwarted.

BILL MOYERS: That’s a theme to many of your stories.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Thwarted power.

BILL MOYERS: Thwarted power.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Thwarted female power. Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: And stolen identities, stolen often by the men in their lives and especially by the husbands in their lives, right?


BILL MOYERS: And do you feel different having written about this woman?

LOUISE ERDRICH: About Father Damien?


LOUISE ERDRICH: Oh, Father Damien is my favorite character, but she sacrificed—

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, she—

LOUISE ERDRICH: —a great deal to live as the priest.

BILL MOYERS: She sacrificed her female identity.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yes, she did. But she lived as the priest. She was able to do that.

BILL MOYERS: Was there a moment you push the lapse button? I mean, do you have an assured faith now?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I go through a continual questioning. And I think that is my assurance that if I was to let go of my doubt, that I would somehow have surrendered my faith. My job is to address the mystery. My job is to doubt. My job is to keep searching, keep looking. When I think about my version of what a God is and I keep changing it, right now I think of this creator as a great artist, we don’t understand works of art when we see them.

They’re—the greatest works of art are—we see them through a glass darkly. We don’t understand them. They’re very difficult for us to understand. So with this great work of art in which we’re all participating, this great artist has made beauty and terror and death and cruelty and humor and mystery part of who we are and commerce. And health care reform. Everything is part of this mystery.

BILL MOYERS: So who is God in Ojibwe?

LOUISE ERDRICH: This interrelationship of spirit is also guided by a kindness of the creator believed to be the [speaking Ojibwe] or [speaking Ojibwe] the great kind spirit, the spirit that looks after all of the good in the world but has as well, looks after all that is painful in the world. It’s not different than the spirit that I think every single religion or dogma tries to get at in one way or the other.

BILL MOYERS: So God is life.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Endless form’s most beautiful.

BILL MOYERS: Louise Erdrich, thank you very much for joining me on the Journal.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Thank you so much. It was a delight to talk to you.

BILL MOYERS: That’s it for the Journal. Go to our website at pbs.org were there’s more about Louise Erdrich and you can watch my entire conversation with Andrew Bacevich. That’s all at PBS.org.

I’m Bill Moyers and I’ll see you next time.

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