The Block Island Times

Island library and the Big Read celebrates “Love Medicine”

By Gloria S. Redlich | Feb 05, 2014
Photo by: Gloria Redlich Loren Spears, director of the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, spoke during one of the events during the Big Read on Jan. 24 and 25.

The Island Free Library opened its doors to a series of events last weekend focused on “Love Medicine,” the first novel by acclaimed writer Louise Erdrich. The book centers on the Ojibwe (Chippewa) nation of North Dakota. Block Islanders braved the icy temperatures to participate in a number of projects related to the book, which was part of the Big Read, a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Through the joint efforts of Island Free Library Director Kristin Baumann and Loren Spears, Director of the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, the weekend program ran Jan. 24 and 25. Events included an art project connected to the novel, a book talk, a round-table discussion and a storytelling and dance performance by Spears.

In the first program on Friday afternoon, adults and children created collages inspired by themes extrapolated from the novel. Many of these colorful responses were hung along the circulation desk of the local library. Led by Spears and her mother Dawn Dove, both members of the Narragansett-Niantic tribes, a book talk followed that evening, engaging close to twenty island readers. Dove is a tribal elder.

As reflected in the discussion, Erdrich’s first novel probes — among many others —themes of racism leading to the displacement of indigenous people by the establishment society, the search for personal and cultural identity, as well as a celebration of the Ojibwe culture.

Spears connected much of what went on during the 1980s on and near Ojibwe reservations in the Northwest, which also provides the setting for Erdrich’s novel, and the predicament of modern day indigenous peoples. Citing an ongoing history of local racial profiling, she sought to disabuse her audience from thinking the days of discrimination of Native Americans had ended.

She described instances of herself and her sons being repeatedly and inappropriately stopped by police for no valid reasons “other than the darker color of our skin.” Concerns about discrimination of minority groups, such as Native Americans, carried over into discussions that evolved during a round-table presentation held the next day.

Spears and Dove led the round-table, at which two former literature professors also offered insights on the novel — each from their own perspectives: Spears and Dove spoke from the vantage point of indigenous peoples, and Debnam Chappell (and I) guided the group through a textual analysis of Erdrich’s language.

To resolve the devastating effects of racial discrimination, Dove said, it would be necessary to do what she had been taught long ago: “to have a foot in two canoes.”

Elspeth Crawford suggested it might really necessitate the larger offending groups “to learn to have a foot in each canoe,” in order to learn empathy with those who were victimized by blatant acts of bias.

The last event featured Spears in a one-woman show in which she shared aspects of the Narragansett-Niantic culture through story-telling, dance and song, into which she drew participants from members of her audience of adults and youngsters.

Below, some of the Native American artifacts that were on display. (Photo by: Gloria Redlich)
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