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Heid Erdrich

True Myth
Tell a child she is composed of parts
(her Ojibway quarters, her half-German heart)
she'll find the existence of harpies easy
to swallow. Storybook children never come close
to her mix, but manticores make great uncles,
Sphinx a cousin she'll allow, centaurs better to love
than boys -- the horse part, at least she can ride. With a bestiary for a family album she's proud. Her heap of blankets, her garbage grin, prove
She's descended of bears, her totem, it's true. And that German witch with the candy roof,
that was her ancestor too. If swans can rain
white rape from heaven, then what is a girl to do?
Believe her Indian eyes, her sly French smile,
Her breast with its veins skim milk blue --
She is the myth that is true.

          — from Fishing for Myth (p.13)

Biography / Criticism

Poet, writer, and teacher Heid E. Erdrich was born in Breckenridge, Minnesota in November, 1963. She was raised in nearby Wahpeton, North Dakota, by her German-American father and her Ojibwe mother. In an interview with the contributors to this page, Erdrich described her family and educational background, her influences, and her various projects and goals as a poet, writer, and teacher.

Growing up in an environment where storytelling and writing were encouraged helped Erdrich foster her future literary pursuits. Along with her six siblings, Erdrich became interested in writing stories and poetry. Her childhood was filled with reading, writing, and performing (the Erdrich family did not watch much television). The experience of gaining discipline and intimacy with words as a child seems to have prepared her for a successful academic career. Having earned degrees from Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins University, she has taught at Johns Hopkins as well as Augsburg College in Minneapolis. She went on to become a professor of Writing and Native American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Union Institute University in Cincinnati, Erdrich is exploring how Ojibwe authors integrate the use of Ojibwe and English languages in literature and poetry. Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Ojibwe and lives with her husband, their two children, and their dog, Boozhoo, in St. Paul.

When discussing who has influenced her writing, Erdrich named her teachers, Cleopatra Mathis, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth, and Thomas Sleigh, Professor of Poetics at Dartmouth. Both instructors helped guide Erdrich's undergraduate writing. Her literary influences range from Roberta Hill, who was her mentor at the Loft Literary Center, to Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Joy Harjo, Louise Gluck, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Her literary-minded family and her father's love for reading out loud have also influenced her poetic practices today. As her father did, Erdrich takes great pleasure in reading her work to an audience or group.

Many of these influences and multiple interests, such as her love of language and desire to connect to her Native roots, are revealed in her rich and complex poetry. In her poem, "She Dances," Erdrich writes: "Though it's my right, I never dance. / Not in a shawl, with fluid moving fringes, not with beads offered up leggings, / no satin-worked ribbons or corn sewn / in V-shapes have ever drawn an arrow down / my hips to point the way to being woman" (Sister Nations, p. 29) This excerpt explains not only the connectedness to community and tradition that Erdrich feels as an Ojibwe woman watching a Native dance, but it also produces a kind of longing for something that she holds herself back from.

Erdrich identifies herself as an Ojibwe feminist poet, a mother, a teacher, a sister, and a daughter who loves to perform her work and is engaged in the recuperation and recovery of the Ojibwe language. Because actively learning Ojibwe is important to her, Erdrich incorporates many Ojibwe words and phrases into her work. Her dog's name, Boozhoo, for instance, means "hello" in Ojibwe. Learning the Ojibwe language has become a vital challenge for Erdrich. This dedication strengthens her connection to her heritage and to a language in danger of being lost.

Erdrich explains that she does not keep a journal but writes in a dream log from which many poems and stories are born. Like many of the poets who influenced her, Erdrich's writings are inspired by everyday life. She writes in the morning and during the rest of the day when she has free moments. Erdrich has also discussed how having children has made her writing more sincere. She speaks of wanting to contribute poems and poetry about the period of life just after having a baby. Erdrich feels it is imperative that there be more material written about the complex and intimate experiences of being a new parent. The balance and effort that it takes to maintain an "adult" sense of identity while parenting a newborn is a major theme in her work. She explains that she read a lot after the birth of her child, and in her new book of poems, The Mother's Tongue, she writes in the poem "In the Belly of My Baby":

In the belly of my baby
I am home not alone. In the belly of my baby
I have not forgotten sin and the city. the mission I fled, and the purge
still to come one day and spit me out.

This poem challenges the notions that once motherhood happens to a woman, she must become "the perfect mother" and forget her past self. Erdrich denies this cultural message and instead says, "this was my life before. Now I am a mother and that is my life too. " Erdrich acknowledges that having children changes one's life immensely. She adamantly feels, however, that women do not need to have children to experience valid and profound creativity.

Erdrich also manages to do what remains elusive to many poets -- she writes convincingly and honestly about nature and her ongoing relationship with it. It is no easy task to look, smell and be in nature and then try to tell it in a way that is fresh and poetic. She accomplishes this with aplomb in many of her poems such as "The Cure," Erdrich writes:

She is a dreaming woman
Rocking this island like a lover, running her tongue along the shore. Who couldn't resist her? Who wouldn't submit
To the arms and the lips of the sea?

          — Fishing for Myth, p. 61

St. Cloud State University Professor Bill Meissner, author of Hitting into the Wind (SMU Press) and American Compass (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), teaches Erdrich's work and had this to say:

"What I admire about Heid Erdrich's poems is the way they integrate the everyday world with the mythical; she ties together subjects like carp, summer storms in the Dakotas, rivers, and her Grandmother's hands with the eternal themes of life, death, and spirituality. These are poems that celebrate both the murky depths and the clarity of life, the loss and the celebration. "

Creating a sense of community through her poetry is something that Erdrich strives to achieve. She is a frequent reader and visiting writer at many venues. Her recent appearances include The Library of Congress Center for the Book, Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, the Loft Literary Center, and the University of Minnesota. Recent residencies include: American Voices from The National Book Foundation; YMCA Writer's Voice in Sioux Falls, SD; University of Wisconsin Oshkosh; and The Mississippi River Writing Workshop, Winona State. She has gained valuable experience working with native youth in schools in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas. As an emerging writer, she inspires and encourages new writers to publish in the on-line publication Vermillion Hands. She is also a founder of the Birchbark Books Press and a co-founder of the Turtle Mountain Writing Workshop. In 2002 Erdrich taught "The Native Writer's Workshop" at Turtle Mountain Community College with her sister Louise Erdrich and another author, Al Hunter. The National Book Foundation, under the guidance of the American Voices program, sponsored the writing workshop. The aim was to help provide the tools Native Americans need to tell and write their own stories.

Erdrich has published a collection of poems called Fishing for Myth and co-edited an anthology of Native women writers entitled Sister Nations. She is currently working on a second collection of poems, the aforementioned book The Mother's Tongue, to be published by Salt Press. Erdrich was inspired to put Sister Nations together because there were "so many individual [Native] women wanting voices. " She wanted to draw a community of those voices together. Erdrich's work is increasingly becoming widely received. Her work can be seen in such publications as: Cream City Review, Borealis: Journal of Northern Culture, and Flyway literary review.

To Erdrich, poetry is like a prayer or a song that in turn creates a connection to community through words.

When you wake, pour all you can tell of your dreams
down into the pool of your sweetheart's sleeping ear. Let the details trickle from your dry lips
into the depths of the sleeper's own dream. Soon enough you will feel the sleeper rise, like a net
full of catch, like a bucket drawn up a well.

          — Fishing for Myth, p. 40

Selected Bibliography

Works by the Author

Works about the Author

Related Links

NativeWiki.Org
This site explores the writing of modern Native American authors, particularly poets. Most sections have been made with the collaboration of the authors.

Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians
Information, links, and resources related to this sovereign community located in the Miikinock Kijews (Turtle Mountains) in the extreme north central part of North Dakota.

The National Book Foundation
Detailed article on the Erdrichs' involvement with the Native Writer's Workshop pilot program at Turtle Mountain Community College.

National Museum of the American Indian Reading
This website highlights a discussion of the book Sister Nations between Native American women writers. The program is co-sponsored by the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.

Birchbark Books
This site tells the history story of the founding of Louise Erdrich's bookstore, Birchbark Books. It also gives several synopses of books recently published by Birchbark Books Press.

Report a dead link or suggest a new one by emailing voices@umn.edu.

Contributors

This page was researched and submitted by Kathryn Quam, Monica Wittstock, Chad Renz, and Andrea Peterson Bilotto on May 6, 2004.