April 18, 2005

Karen Louise Erdrich, Chippewa (1954-?)


Louise Erdrich is known for her moving and often humorous portrayals of Chippewa life in North Dakota in poetry and prose. In her verse and in novels such as Love Medicine, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, and The Beet Queen, she draws on her years in North Dakota and on her German and Chippewa heritage to portray the great endurance of women and Native Americans in twentieth-century America. She has won an array of awards and substantial recognition for her novels, as well as for her short stories, poetry, and essays.

Karen “Louise” Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, in 1954 and grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, a town on the border of Minnesota. Her father, Ralph Louis, was a teacher with the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at Wahpeton, and her mother, Rita Joanne Gourneau, was a BIA employee at the Wahpeton Indian school. 

The family lived in employee housing at the school, and Erdrich attended public schools and spent a few years at St. Johns, a Catholic school. She later noted that Catholicism-with its strong sense of ritual-had a powerful effect on her that remained a part of her even after she stopped practicing the religion.

Erdrich’s German heritage comes from her father, and her three-eighths Chippewa heritage comes from her mother. 

She often visited her mother’s people at Turtle Mountain Reservation, situated near Belcourt, North Dakota, when she was growing up. Her Grandfather, Pat Gourneau, served as tribal chairman at Turtle Mountain for many years. Louise Erdrich described him as having a clear understanding of-and involvement in-both Indian and Christian experience. Erdrich’s admiration for her grandfather can be seen in several of the complex male characters in her writings.

As a child, Louise Erdrich’s parents encouraged her to write. Her mother made little books with construction paper covers for Erdrich’s stories, and her father paid Louise a nickel for each one she finished. 

Her mother found out about the Native American program at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College and helped Erdrich apply in 1972. Erdrich was in the first class of Dartmouth that accepted women in the previously all-male school. Several grants and scholarships allowed her to attend Dartmouth, and Erdrich, who majored in English and creative writing, won several writing awards. Finding that poetry came easily to her, she decided to pursue writing professionally.

After her graduation in 1976, Louise Erdrich went back to North Dakota, telling herself, as she later related in an interview with Joseph Bruchac, that she “would sacrifice all to be a writer.” She took any job that gave her the opportunity to write. All in all, she reflected, “I think I turned out to be tremendously lucky.” 

Back in North Dakota, she worked as publications director of a small press distributor, and served in the Poets in the Schools Program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. She also worked on a film about the clash between the Sioux and Europeans in the 1800s for Mid-America Television.

Returning to the East, Louise Erdrich received a master of fine arts degree in 1977 from Johns Hopkins, she began writing fiction. She then served as editor of the Circle, the Boston.

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