Imagined places and characters: Louise Erdrich’s Recasting of “The Plague of Doves”

Praying Away the Doves

Erdrich imagines the Ojibwe Indians accused of the Lochren murders in The Plague of Doves as quite different from the Dakota Indians accused of the Spicer murders. Thanks to the kindness of four Ojibwe Indians, the Lochren baby survives. The only thanks that those Indians get is a rope around their necks.

Not even Cordelia is grateful to her rescuers. She eventually returns to Pluto to set up her medical practice in the house once occupied by her murdered parents and siblings. By then, of course, she has learned about the murders. Believing the stories that the murderers had been Indians, she refuses to accept Indians as patients, except for one man with whom she has a long-term sexual affair. On the other hand, she does offer medical treatment to the white psychopath Warren Wolde, not realizing, and not wanting to guess, that he had been the murderer of her parents and siblings.

The towns of Winona, where the Spicer murders took place, and Williamsport, where the lynchings took place, are now gone. Winona was abandoned when Fort Yates ceased to have a military presence and became the

Standing Rock tribal headquarters. Williamsport was abandoned when the Emmons County seat was moved east to Linton. Neither town appears on modern maps of North Dakota.

Erdrich’s imagined town of Pluto in The Plague of Doves is apparently headed for a similar fate. After Cordelia has been elected the historian of the dying town of Pluto, she comes to realize that a grave injustice had been done: “Not only were innocent people hanged, unbearably murdered for nobody’s justice, but even that boy was not the killer after all” (PD 308). She comes to realize that in refusing to give medical care to Indians, she was doing a great injustice to the people to whom she owed her life. She comes to see that by giving medical care to Warren Wolde, “I saved the life of my family’s murderer” (PD 311). An old woman at the end of the novel, she comes to understand that when her family was murdered, “a group of men ran down a party of Indians and what occurred was a shameful piece of what was called at the time ‘rough justice’ ” (PD 297).

Cordelia’s realization that the town of Pluto was founded by white men on Indian land, that it was a town built on a flimsy foundation of shame and injustice, comes too late. The town she lives in is doomed: “the trains are gone and we are still here, stranded” (PD 297). She comes to see that the town, originally named by a white man for “the god of the underworld” also shares a name with the planet that is farthest from the sun: “It is not without irony, now, that Pluto is the coldest, loneliest, and perhaps the least hospitable body in our solar system” (PD 297).

Pluto, the town, is also cold, lonely, and inhospitable because she, and others like her, have made it so. Like the white towns of Winona and Williamsport further south, Pluto will soon disappear.

Erdrich’s novel begins with reference to a plague of doves that devastated the North Dakota countryside near the end of the nineteenth century:

In the year 1896, my great-uncle, one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood, put the call out to his parishioners that they should gather at Saint Joseph’s wearing scapulars and holding missals. From that place they would proceed to walk the fields in a long sweeping row, and with each step loudly pray away the doves. (PD 3)

The narrator here is Evelina Harp, the grandniece of Severine Milk, and the granddaughter of that aboriginal priest’s brother Mooshum. Mooshum tells Evelina about the plague of doves:

The women erupted in a raging dance, each twirling in her own way, stamping, beating, and flapping her skirts. So vehement was their dance that the birds all around them popped into flight, frightening other birds, so that in moments the entire field and the woods around it were a storm of birds that roared and blasted down on the people, who nonetheless stood firm with splayed missals on their heads. (PD 8)

The doves sustain several levels of symbolic import in the novel, but here they represent the white people who came to Indian lands and devastated them. In trying to dance the doves away so that Indians can return to their lands and prosper once again, the Indians are in effect trying to dance away the white people. Father Severine, then, becomes a kind of stand-in for Wovoka, the Paiute founder of the Ghost Dance religion. In 1890, just seven years before the Spicer murders, Wovoka had tried to mobilize Indians into dancing away the white man. With the murder of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, the Ghost Dance ended in failure. The fates of Winona, Williamsport, and Pluto suggest that Erdrich imagines that Severine’s crusade to dance the doves away may be more successful.