Indian Affairs Summary
by Larry Woiwode

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Indian Affairs Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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Chris and Ellen Van Eenanam are still adjusting to life together as a couple, to the death of their stillborn child, and to the changes inevitable in young adulthood. Chris needs to complete the writing of his dissertation, the final step in attaining his Ph.D. in mathematics. In an isolated cabin in upper Michigan, Chris intends to concentrate on his writing and his marriage.

Chris Van Eenanam is of mixed blood (Lakota on his grandfather’s side) but has always considered himself more white than red, having been raised and educated in New York. His relocation will prove to be cultural as well as geographic, personal as well as regional, as he grapples with issues of self-identity. His move inland toward the center of the nation positions him closer to his heritage in a type of reverse migration. Through encounters with other American Indians, Chippewa whom he initially disdains, Chris gradually sees a reflection of himself and acknowledges his Indian heritage, but it comes at a cost—increasing estrangement from his wife, Ellen.

In this novel of personal reversals, Chris makes a final identity shift. His decision to return to New York at novel’s end suggests an abandonment of his newly acquired American Indian persona and a return to the assimilated mainstream Chris Van Eenanam, the selfsame character that he was at the novel’s beginning. In the final analysis, Chris appears to don identities as he dons clothing, wearing that which is most conducive to the social and geographic climate at hand. Woiwode seems to propose that in an age of uncomplicated travel and increasingly merged ancestries, a clear sense of self becomes difficult to sustain. That a unified Chris could emerge with a hybrid identity, one both white and Indian simultaneously, unfortunately is not an option.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Indian Affairs describes the internal and external events experienced by Chris and Ellen Van Eenanam as they live under primitive conditions in her grandparents’ hunting lodge in the wilderness of northern Michigan during a freezing winter in 1971. The novel is subtitled Book Two: The Native Son, identifying the work as the second volume of a planned trilogy by Woiwode. The first part, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, Book One: The Boy, published in 1969, tells the story of Chris and Ellen’s courtship, marriage, and honeymoon at the same hunting lodge in Michigan. Much of the background of the characters in Indian Affairs is provided, and although the second volume may be read independently of the first, familiarity with What I’m Going to Do, I Think greatly enhances the reading of Indian Affairs.

By the end of the first novel, Chris has decided that in order to provide financially for his wife and their expected child, he will not return to the graduate school where he has been studying mathematics. The child, however, arrives prematurely and dies shortly after birth. Indian Affairs opens with the couple returning to the hunting lodge in the dead of winter; six years have passed since the action of What I’m Going to Do, I Think. Chris has returned to graduate school, this time to study English literature, and plans to finish his dissertation on the poetry of Theodore Roethke. Ellen intends to write a personal journal that explores her feelings about the death of their child and their continuing childlessness.

Shortly after their arrival, Chris and Ellen learn of a fire that has burned down a shack in a small Indian village nearby. This is the first in a series of mysterious fires—apparently the work of an arsonist—that occur throughout the novel. Along with this mystery, Ellen and Chris have another: a prowler, possibly a peeping Tom, has been stalking about outside their cabin at night. A gang of young Indian toughs has repeatedly been threatening Chris because he has refused to buy them the liquor that are too young to buy for themselves. Ellen is lured to secret “women’s lib” meetings, held at the local library, by an oddly interested stranger.

As the plot relies on these events for its forward movement, the internal lives of the two main characters, and especially of Chris, are explored. Chris speculates philosophically on the nature of life, death, and of nature itself, inspired by the poetry of Roethke. Chris’s friend Beauchamp Nagoosa has provided him with peyote, a hallucinogenic substance, with which both Chris and Ellen experiment. Chris’s encounters with the local Indians, his studies of the historical and persistent injustices suffered by Native Americans, and his exploration of their current ways of life lead him to come to embrace his own Native American heritage. His final thought in the novel, a line from Roethke, is “I’ll be an Indian.”

Ellen, brought up by her grandparents from a very young age after her own parents were killed in a mysterious “accident,” comes to understand that her beloved Christian Scientist grandparents are extremely prejudiced anti-Semites and that her father was most likely Jewish. She believes that this conflict may have driven her parents to suicide and that, most likely, the automobile “accident” was actually a deliberate and calculated act. By the novel’s end, Ellen has, like Chris, realized that she must come to terms with her family history and her ethnic heritage.

The climax of the novel is reached after the mysteries of the prowler and the arsonist are solved and after Chris has achieved a tentative truce with the local roughnecks. He has finished his dissertation, and Ellen has completed her journal. She is pregnant. On the day they are to leave for New York to begin a new life, they stop to attend the funeral of Jimmy Jones, a local Indian who was killed in the most recent house fire. Because Jimmy is a war veteran, an incongruous color guard from the American Legion attends the funeral and honors the deceased with a twenty-one-gun salute. The genuine terror of the Indians at the sound of the gunshots, the sight of men, women, and children falling to the ground as they must have done at Wounded Knee, evokes images of Judgment Day and so horrifies and moves Chris that he feels a sudden sense of conviction that settles his life: the absolute surety of the resurrection of the dead, of the life of the world to come. This, finally, is the only way that justice may be truly had for all.