The physical tie between the characters is a piece of land originally allotted to Nector Kashpaw’s mother, Rushes Bear. Most of her children were assigned to parcels in Montana, but she managed to get a piece of North Dakota wheatland and live on it with her young twins, Nector and Eli. Nector went to boarding school, learned white reading and writing, and grew up to be Tribal Chair and a man of importance; Eli, hidden by his mother in a root cellar, lived in the woods and kept some of the old skills. These two men, who became adults in the 1930’s, represent the oldest generation in the novel; the women with whom their lives are entangled include Marie Lazarre and Lulu Lamartine. Marie went into a convent intending to become a saint; after marrying Nector, she compulsively takes in unwanted children. Lulu, with what seems equal compulsion, makes her own babies—eight boys, each by a different father, who grow up supporting, fighting, and caring for one another. Both Marie and Lulu know how to use power; Marie pushes Nector into becoming Tribal Chair, and Lulu, in a truly wonderful scene, forces the council not to sell her land by threatening to reveal publicly—right then in the meeting—who fathered each of her children. Both remain vivid personalities in their old age, strong and salty women using very different tactics to win what they desire.
The members of the middle generation are not quite so compelling; perhaps they are seen less clearly (none is actually a narrator for any extended story) or perhaps they are the generation that suffers most from the conflict between reservation ways and the modern world. June Morrissey Kashpaw dies in the first story; her discarded husband, Gordon Kashpaw, is the protagonist (though not the narrator) of the story “Crown of Thorns,” which is a careful, vivid, underplayed, and totally convincing portrait of delirium tremens. Lulu Lamartine’s son Gerry Nanapush spends half his adult life in prison after a three-year sentence for assault (he keeps escaping and being recaptured and doing additional time for escaping) before he makes the mistake of hiding out on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he inevitably kills a state trooper.
Albertine Johnson and Lipsha Morrissey, members of the youngest generation, are to a certain extent consciously searching for their roots and for a way to understand their ties to the past. Most of their generation has disappeared to Minneapolis or Chicago or somewhere even further beyond the pull of the house and land that form the gravitational center of the Kashpaw constellation. Both Lipsha and Albertine are still in the process of becoming. Albertine, in particular, can change quite dramatically from one story to the next, but despite her relatively small share of Chippewa genes and her sustained drive for education—she is studying medicine by the end of the book—she knows her own need for the bonds of blood and tradition. She tries to talk to her grandfather about tribal politics and how he got things done in the old days. Lipsha, who seems virtually impervious to any kind of teaching (he manages to mangle and misunderstand both the traditional skills he learns from Eli Kashpaw and the education he suffers in white schools) is a wonderfully naive narrator in the Huck Finn tradition. At the book’s end, however, he turns to home instead of lighting out for an individual destiny.
Marie Lazarre Kashpaw
Marie Lazarre Kashpaw, the wife of Nector Kashpaw. A loving and long-suffering woman, biological mother of five children and mother substitute to numerous others not her own, she is a kind of maternal ideal. She rears June and Lipsha Morrissey. Nector, when he meets her in 1934, calls her “a skinny white girl . . . pale as birch.” In her youth, she enters the Sacred Heart Convent as a means of escaping the reservation, but she later leaves. She marries and tolerates her husband’s infidelity, never giving up hope that she can have him exclusively. To that end, as an old woman she resorts to love medicine.
Nector Kashpaw, formerly a film actor and later tribal chairman on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota. A man of divided impulses and loyalties, he loves his wife, Marie, but also has a passion for his first love, Lulu Nanapush Lamartine. His vacillations are both serious and comic. His wife claims credit for his political success, having nominated him as tribal chairman and kept him sober enough to do the job, and he cannot control his attraction to Lulu. As an old man, he chokes to death on Lipsha Morrissey’s love medicine.
Lulu Nanapush Lamartine
Lulu Nanapush Lamartine, a strong and willful woman, the object of many men’s desire, and the mother of eight children, including Gerry Nanapush. Her many sexual affairs and her political clashes with the tribal council make her something of an outcast. She has a lifelong love for Nector Kashpaw that is less a secret than she thinks. Her narrative in the penultimate chapter pulls together many of the novel’s threads.
June Morrissey Kashpaw
June Morrissey Kashpaw, the wife of Marie Kashpaw’s son Gordie. She dies in a blizzard on Easter morning, 1981, and becomes a focus in the memories of many characters by the strength of her influence on the Kashpaw, Morrissey, and Nanapush families.
Gerry Nanapush, a leader in the American Indian Movement. His fugitive status with the federal authorities makes him a heroic figure, and his connection with June Morrissey Kashpaw produces Lipsha. He reveals his paternity to Lipsha on the way to the Canadian border for his final escape.
Lipsha Morrissey, a latter-day medicine man, June’s unacknowledged son, brought up by Marie and Nector Kashpaw. A gentle, naïve man, Lipsha plays the wise fool: “God’s been going deaf,” he says, “[Indian Gods] will do a favor if you ask them right.” His actions and observations bring to light many themes of love. He concocts a love potion for Nector at the request of Marie.
Albertine Johnson, a nurse and later a medical school student. An intelligent and sensitive young woman, she sees the poverty of reservation life and the self-destructiveness of both men and women there. Her career ambitions do not end her love for them; her life is hope.
Henry Lamartine, Jr.
Henry Lamartine, Jr., a Vietnam veteran, the son of Lulu but not of Henry. His sexual encounter with his then-fifteen-year-old cousin Albertine shows how ravaged he is by his life as a soldier and a Native American. He drowns himself in front of his brother Lyman Lamartine.
Lyman Lamartine, another of Lulu’s sons, the half brother of Henry. He tries hard but unsuccessfully to help his brother out of his post-Vietnam trauma. They share a red convertible and long summer drives, including a trip to Alaska.
Sister Leopolda, a nun in the Sacred Heart Convent. Her possessiveness and cruelty toward the young Marie constitute a unique variation on the theme of love.
Gordie Kashpaw, the son of Marie and Nector. After the death of his wife, June, he is consumed by grief and guilt and turns to alcohol. He identifies a road-killed deer as June herself, confesses to her murder, and then wanders through an apple orchard, weeping, in another improvisation in the theme of love.