Dr. Tom Strawman on the Ecological Imagination


Dr. Tom Strawman presented a thorough explanation of one his favorite novels in his presentation titled Beyond the Human/Nonhuman Binary: Cultivating Ecological Imagination in Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse’ for the last installment of the Spring 2015 Honors Lecture Series on Native American Culture.

Dr. Strawman has served Middle Tennessee State University for 25 years, with countless achievements and publications on his research in American Indian literature. Before speaking formally, he thanked the audience for their attendance and hoped for us to “discover something of interest in [his] remarks.”

“It’s nice to enjoy this weather and be able to speak to you today,” he said.

Excerpts and explanations of Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse were mixed together as Strawman read from his notes.

Erdrich and other writers such as Vine Deloria Jr., author of God is Red, discuss traditional American Indian religious views and their relationship with Western Christianity. An outpouring of American Indian literature, termed the “Native American Renaissance” by literary critic Kenneth Lincoln, culminated as a result of renewed interest in preserving Native culture.

Erdrich’s novel is the story of Father Damien Modeste, a spiritual figure to his Ojibwe people, and Modeste, whose true gender identity comes forth towards the end of his life. The novel centers on Damien, occasionally telling the story of supporting characters on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. Eldrich depicts each family in sort of a saga, narrating stories over a hundred-year period between 1862 through the 1960’s. The author possessed intimate knowledge of the reservation’s forest and its nearby resources, having survived through northern winters on the same land.

By the novel’s end, Modeste and supporting characters embody what Strawman referred to as the “ecological imagination.” This is the ability to sense the connectedness of all living and non-living things. Eldrich’s protagonist promotes the kinship between all life as he himself lives in conflict with his dualistic identity. Ojibwe religious practices recognize the spirit within inanimate objects. Entire continents speak this spiritual language, communicating in ways humans cannot define or logically explain.

Strawman went on to express his understanding of non-human compassion exemplified by Erdrich’s characters. Within the novel is a subtle critique of gender as compared to gender identity through a Western interpretation. It’s a story about cultural relativity and Eldrich recognizes that no group is superior to another, just different. Individuals are always different when viewed as a single entity, but a group is whole and supports individual effort to create the whole. The reservation and communities’ needs reflect the roles individuals play in Ojibwe, and other American Indian communities.

The Spring 2015 Honors Lecture Series will conclude with thesis presentations from past MTSU alumni next Monday, April 27.

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To contact News Editor Max Smith, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com  

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