Freedom of speech: Birchbark Books, Louise Erdrich’s Minneapolis shop, sells great books, saves languages

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in December 2011. 

I confess, I love Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich’s Minneapolis shop, Birchbark Books, and you can, too. In fact, you can admit to anything you want there, in an honest-to-God confessional Erdrich rescued from a bar and set up in the corner of the multi-leveled bookstore. Find Birchbark Books
 in a tiny strip of stores in a leafy neighborhood, along with Kenwood Café, locally popular for its home-style soups and sandwiches, and Bockley Gallery, where exhibits often feature Native artists. Recently, the gallery showed colorful, slyly humorous paintings and prints by Jim Denomie, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe.

     The cozy store offers lots of spots where shoppers can enjoy a rich array of images and experiences. Kids can climb into a treehouse-like toy-filled loft, while adults curl up and read in sunny corners. If you want absolution for anything, take a seat in the confessional, which Erdrich has renamed “the forgiveness booth” (shown below, in background, along with Anishinaabe-language books.)

     “You can be absolved right away there without having to say thousands of Hail Marys,” she says. “It’s about taking away shame. Of course, it’s the Catholic Church that most needs to be forgiven for what it did to Native people in the name of assimilation.” 

     Natural-wood fixtures and Native crafts give the place a homey feel. “We used all recycled materials, including birch from trees that had fallen in a big storm in Wisconsin,” says Erdrich. “The trees even sprouted after we brought them back, which I found very moving.”

     Atop a bookcase are red-willow baskets by Georgianna Houle and by Curtis and Debi LaRoque, all from Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Erdrich’s home community. Alongside them are containers by Pat and Gage Kruse, a father and son from Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, who use birchbark as a medium—for the vessels you’ll find at Birchbark Books, as well as for fantastically detailed bark “paintings” represented by Bockley Gallery. Star quilts hang from the bookshop’s rafters, and silver pieces by jewelers Mitchell Zephier, Lakota, and Josef Reiter, Anishinabe, gleam in a glass-fronted case. Look for Reiter’s reproductions of Erdrich’s lucky feather earrings; when you wear them, she claims, wondrously fortuitous things will occur.

     The store attracts clients from far and wide, including members of the Minneapolis Native community, who hail from reservations across the country, and tourists arriving from all over the globe. “They are attracted by Louise’s reputation,” says store manager Susan White (shown left, ringing up a sale). “She is truly beloved.” Customers also know they can count finding books that are tasteful and accurate, White adds. 

     The store’s collection specializes in Native writers and subjects in several categories: fiction and poetry; memoir and biography; Native studies; indigenous-language books and instructional materials primarily in Dakota, Lakota and Objibwe; picture books for children; and young-adult volumes. It’s a small array, tucked into every nook and cranny of the 850-square-foot store, but a fine one. “People come here to feel there’s a person behind what’s on our shelves,” says Erdrich. The store’s book buyer Nathan Pederson explains that deciding what to offer is a “happy science.” He sifts through data, figuring out what’s selling, but also trying to ensure that customers will come across items they never knew they needed.

     For example, you’ll surely snap up Blackfoot Physics, theoretical physicist F. David Peat’s comparison of age-old indigenous teachings and the knowledge modern scientists are just now gleaning at the edges of the universe. Or American Indian Trickster Tales, by Richard Erdoes and Alfonzo Ortiz. A customer posts a comment on Birchbark Books’ website, saying that when she was young, she’d listen to the late Pueblo scholar Ortiz telling such stories: “This was in [New Mexico’s] Frijoles Canyon. I can still hear his melodious voice as he spun his stories in the dusk…I drew from his wisdom to realign my life many times.”

     If you can’t get to the store, browse online or subscribe to the newsletter via the homepage. Holiday-gift suggestions in this month’s issue: signed copies of Erdrich’s works, turquoise jewelry by Annie Star of Santa Domingo Pueblo and a T-shirt with an image of planet Earth and the message “What Would Gichi Manidoo?” (Anishinabe for “What Would the Creator Do?”). Receipts from shirt sales go toward stopping the controversial Keystone oil pipeline.

     Notable among the indigenous-language materials are three books in Ojibwe (and more to come) from Wiigwaas Press, run by Erdrich and her sister Heid, a poet and curator of Native American fine art (shown right with an Objiwe-language book). Most recently, the press published the engaging word-and-phrase book Daga Anishinaabemodaa (or “Let’s Speak Ojibwe”), by Pebaamibines/Dennis Jones, Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation and a University of Minnesota Ojibwe-language instructor. The illustrator is another Erdrich, Louise’s daughter Aza, Turtle Mountain and Modoc.

     Wiigwaas Press just got good news, reports Heid Erdrich: the Chicago public schools have adopted another of its offerings, the illustrated story collection Awesiinyensag (shown above in photo with confessional) for use in Ojibwe-language classes. That follows an award from the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, which named Awesiinyensag Minnesota’s representative in a collection of books epitomizing each of the 50 states’ literary heritage. Editor Anton Treuer, a professor at Bemidji State University, in Bemidji, Minnesota, and a team of scholars, authors and elders produced the volume, which is already in use by educators throughout Minnesota, according to White. “We wanted a book that was monolingual and showed kids an Ojibwe text could be produced with pride and beauty,” says Louise.

     The press intends to save indigenous languages badly damaged by assimilationist policies but not to “preserve” them. Daga Anishinaabemodaa opens with a saying in Ojibwe, describing it as part of a living entity: “If you take care/of the language/the spirit keeper of the language/will take care of you.” That ongoing process is challenging and fun, according to Heid. “Ojibwe is poetic and wittily inventive,” she says. “Good speakers can get all sorts of information into one word, working the grammar as hard as possible and molding the language as they speak.” 

     That spirited originality allows Ojibwe to resist the codification English speakers are accustomed to (or should that be “to which they are accustomed”?). As a result, Heid says, many expressions and variants aren’t found in the few existing Ojibwe dictionaries. “The hallmark of a living language is that it changes as it’s used,” she says. “We’re happy to be a part of that.”

     Publication events for Awesiinyensag at Birchbark Books have included elders, and lots of food and conviviality, said Louise. “In fact, a huge range of people showed up, including kids, among whom language learning has really taken off. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a flourishing of language courses in Ojibwe magnet [public] schools, Ojibwe language-immersion camps and language nests, in which families speak Ojibwe at home, which produces an explosion of learning. I find it so touching that so many people are doing this.”

     Each month, the shop hosts several book events, some with food from adjoining Kenwood Café. In January, Louise will host the first dinner-club evening of 2012, a discussion of The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, which she called “a keenly written suspense novel—my favorite by Ondaatje since The English Patient.” She also confesses (in the booth? it’s not clear) that she enjoys talking about other authors’ works, rather than her own. Call or visit the bookstore (2115 West 21st Street; Minneapolis, MN 55405; 612-374-4023; birchbarkbooks.com) to reserve your spot ($50 for a copy of the book and the meal).

     It’s all about creating affinities. “We’re a neighborhood bookstore and want to create that feeling of community,” Louise says. “We’re a place where people come to read and talk about all kinds of books.”




21st-Century Anishinaabe
In “Prayers in a Song,” rapper Tall Paul starts out singing in English, then shifts to Anishinaabe, the language of his Leech Lake Ojibwe ancestors. He evokes his heritage in the distinctive syllable patterns and resonances of a language he began studying a few years ago while a student at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, his hometown. A performance of the song appears on the Minnesota Public Television website, along with statements by noted Ojibwe novelist, Louise Erdrich, elders and scholars about maintaining the language and the distinctive worldview it supports.

     Now a math and language tutor at a Minneapolis K-8 magnet school for Anishinaabe, Lakota and Dakota children, Tall Paul—AKA Paul Wenell—says he wanted to make a contribution to his culture through the song. “I felt using the language was a way to help maintain it. I also thought doing this might draw mainstream attention to Anishinaabe and attract kids as well.” He knows whereof he speaks. After rap gigs at clubs and powwows around Minnesota, young fans pursue him and his partner G. Malicious, who’s from Bad River, asking for autographs.

     “Prayers in a Song” came out of personal conflict, Tall Paul says. “I grew up in the city, away from cultural things. I felt I wasn’t a quote-unquote real Indian. I not only struggled to learn the language, I struggled to have a desire to do it. Writing this song was a way to help myself resolve all that.”

     In the song, he talks about disliking “deciphering conjugations,” but the satisfaction of finding he could make the language relevant to his life. “I take responsibility for being educated by my people,” he raps.

     The song has not been without controversy. “A few have said I shouldn’t rap in Anishinaabe, that putting it to a beat squeezes it into the rhythm. Generally though, listeners have been really positive.”

“Prayers in a Song’” can be heard on the Tall Paul and G. Malicious CD, “Brothers: From Different Fathers and Mothers,” put out under the band name Point of Contact. Find it on CDBaby (www.cdbaby.com/cd/pointofcontact1). See a video of the song on Twin Cities Public Television site, www.tpt.org/?a=productions&id=3#videos; scroll down to “Ojibwe Hip Hop.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard.