People

Heid E. Erdrich

Heid E. Erdrich lives in the center of a sacred world. You might live there, too.

Heid E. Erdrich
Photo by Caitlin Abrams

Franklin Avenue is many things to many people: a place for scoops of Sebastian Joe’s ice cream, the land of the dreaded slow-and-slower Route 2 bus, and a destination for Ecuadorian corn pancakes and Ethiopian bideena platters. To Heid E. Erdrich, poet and teacher, Franklin Avenue is more than that: It is proof in plain sight that we live on sacred ground.

The vernal equinox, of course, is that day in spring when the sun hovers directly over the equator, the day the sun rises precisely due east and sets precisely due west. Sacred prehistoric monuments around the world mark this important celestial event. Hereabouts, it is marked by Franklin Avenue.

The morning of the equinox the sun rises on the east end of Franklin, and when it sets it is still exactly lined up with Franklin Avenue to the west. Do people leaving the Taco Bell on Franklin ever think they’re turning onto our ancient and sacred Stonehenge? If they knew, would they think twice about dropping a taco wrapper on it?

In Minneapolis we tend to poke fun at ourselves for thinking we are the center of the world—we invent headlines about ourselves like “Plane Goes Down, Reflects Minneapolis Man.” But Erdrich thinks that tendency might come from the gravity of the land itself. “Places do exert their own influences,” she says.

For instance, the area we call downtown Minneapolis has always been a center of community life, a gathering place for far-flung folks. Before people gathered in skyscrapers, people made pilgrimages by canoe to Spirit Island by St. Anthony Falls, an island that was blown up in the 1960s to make way for the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam. And Kenwood has always been a fertile and stable place. Before it was known worldwide as the safe and leafy glade where single gals Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda could make it after all, it was known for millennia for its dense oak woods and abundant acorn harvest.

“This was the Dakota origin place,” Erdrich explains, the place where the Dakota Adam and Eve (and, as it happened, five other couples) came to live on Earth from their previous immortal existence deep inside the planet, among the gods. The exact cave Dakota Adam and Eve emerged from is in St. Paul, and their descendants thrived in the place we now call the Twin Cities. “This sacred place became the Dakota’s home for thousands of years—until they were recently and quite forcibly removed,” she says. “Imagine looking at Minneapolis and St. Paul that way: as the sacred center of the universe.”

Erdrich has hazel eyes, long hair, and a way of looking at you that fixes you in a calm contemplation of the vibrant present. Spend 10 minutes with her and it seems like this is what all poets should be. That’s what Erdrich is mostly: a much-published poet. She is also a teacher (for the MFA program at Augsburg), an independent curator, a playwright, a cookbook author (Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest), an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, and a publisher (of the Ojibwe-language Wiigwaas Press, with her big sister Louise, known in other circles as one of America’s greatest novelists, but to Heid as one of two sisters within a five-minute walk from her house).

Erdrich is also a maker of collages, both on paper and in a more general way, taking ideas, statements, or things and putting them together so that a story comes through. She credits her affinity for storytelling to her Ojibwe heritage, which prized tales and had a traveling bard tradition, like the one in Homer’s Greece, in which storytellers traveled from village to village and were greeted with feasts—though there was a sensible local twist: In Ojibwe culture you were required to save your stories until there was snow on the ground, when people really needed those stories.

Ojibwe life hundreds of years ago wasn’t marked by particular affection for Dakota origin stories. The two groups were often at war. Nicollet Island, now home to the Twin Cities’ best brunch buffet, was said to be used as a birthing island because the roar of the falls would drown out the sound of Dakota women in labor, thus not drawing Ojibwe attack.

The arrival of Europeans remade everything. In her own background, Erdrich counts significant European influence. Her father was German, there is French in her mother’s line, and there’s a strong vein of Catholicism. Erdrich considers all of them in her work. “I feel like there are a lot of stories in the world, and I feel like I’m comfortable thinking about all of them, instead of just one.”

In her cookbook Original Local, which is so threaded through with essays it’s more like a memoir, she has an absolutely economical and touching consideration of fry bread: “Fry bread was treaty ration food made of the flour and lard many indigenous people waited for—and starved for—when promised provisions did not arrive from governments that demanded we stop hunting and start eating the colonial diet. Yet, even with that conflicting history, we love fry bread. It’s a complex world.”

A very complex world, which Erdrich captures in a way that makes the complexity seem like a good thing that can help, and not something destined to swamp us. Focus on the feathers, she says, not the feather headdress.

“People always hanker for Indian culture, and especially for the objects: the dream catchers, the headdresses, ideally with extra feathers. But it’s the non-material things which are actually important. The feathers are just an indication of a worldview, a worldview which values birds. If I could, I’d just tell people: ‘Look. You might look funny and be offensive in a feather headdress—but you could just be thankful to creation. You could value and appreciate creation—the place that makes feathers—it’s right here.’”

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