“We never had a name for the whole place, said Nanapush, except the word ishkonigan. The leftovers. Our words for the place are many and describe every corner and hole. We are called Little No Horse now because of a dead Bwaan and a drenched map. Think of it, nindinawemagonidok, my relatives.”1
In Louise Erdrich’s novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Little No Horse is a remote Ojibwe (Chippewa) reservation in North Dakota. Its exact location—somewhere not far from the borders of Canada and Minnesota—is one of many ambiguities presented in the novel. The reservation’s Catholic mission is run for over half a century by Father Damien Modeste, who is really a woman. Father Damien writes regular reports to the Vatican on the case of Sister Leopolda, a métis (mixed-blood) nun who may be a saint…or may be anything but. Meanwhile, the priest’s work and friendship with the Ojibwe community, especially with a tribal elder named Nanapush, are complicated by skepticism about Christianity and the double dealings of greedy Euro-Americans. It comes as no surprise that the story of how the reservation got its name proves to be redolent with loss, compromise, and mystery.
While Erdrich maintains that Little No Horse is a fictional place, geographically it bears a strong resemblance to North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation, of which Erdrich (whose heritage is Ojibwe, German, and French) is a member. The Turtle Mountain Reservation is located only about 10 miles south of the Canadian border in an elevated region of rolling hills, woods, and lakes and is bordered by plains. The reservation was established in 1882 with 10 million acres comprising 20 townships; within two years the U.S. government reduced this to less than 50,000 acres comprising two townships. Today the reservation’s area measures 6 by 12 miles. While the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians claims over 30,000 members, a much smaller number live on the reservation itself. The Chippewa began as Eastern woodland people who adapted to plains life as they moved to lands west of the Great Lakes. Indeed, one of the most stirring sections of Erdrich’s novel is the story of one of the last great buffalo hunts.
Read more about Louise Erdrich on Book Pages and the Paris Review. Read more about the Turtle Mountain Reservation on their own site and on Wikipedia. Find The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse at a local library or on Amazon.
1Erdrich, Louise. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. 360. Print.
René Ostberg is a native Chicagoan who still resides in Illinois. She writes a travel blog called Writing and Wayfaring (www.writingandwayfaring.blogspot.com). Her writing and photography have been featured or are forthcoming at Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Rockwell’s Camera Phone, Wilderness House Literary Review, We Said Go Travel, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog.
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