Love Medicine

Love Medicine Summary and Analysis of Chapter 16: The Tomahawk Factory (1993 edition)


Lyman Lamartine is the first-person narrator for this chapter, which takes place primarily in 1983. After his brother Henry Junior's death, Lyman falls into a deep depression. He loses a lot of money. One day, he receives a message from the IRS informing him that he has been negligent. That day, he files his taxes with the IRS. He eventually realizes that the letter was sent to him by mistake, but now that he is registered in the system he decides to take a job with the BIA, or Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Lyman thrives in his new job, where he oversees the distribution of money to various Chippewa enterprises. His mother Lulu accuses him of selling out and tries to sabotage his job, going so far as threatening, in BIA superintendent Dizzy Lightninghoop's office, to burn a project that is going to Washington. Lyman reveals that his mother, along with Marie, has become an Indian rights activist. The project she is trying to kill is Lyman's plan to build a factory for Indian trinkets -- a plan that revives one of Nector Kashpaw’s old ideas. Lyman, however, has updated the plan and intends to produce museum-quality artifacts.

Lyman is transferred up to Aberdeen to run the factory. He is given a government box-house and sets about realizing his plans for the factory. His mother gives him advice about whom to hire, making sure to distribute jobs equally among workers from different families. Lyman pretends to take her advice while secretly knowing that he is going to oppose her. He will take on Nector's former role: the male antagonist in her life whom she must torment in order to live. "She was the kind of person who fell over unless she had a wall to bang her head against," he says.

Lyman's factory will produce war clubs, tobacco pouches, moccasins, patterned birch bark, and more. To guide production, Lyman hires his mother and Marie as consultants and instructors in beadwork. The two women often squabble at work, arguing over long-forgotten inter-family battles. Lipsha also works at the factory.

Eventually, Lyman tries to fire his mother, but she tells him that if he fires her all the workers will walk out with her. They have paid off their debts thanks to his jobs and no longer need employment. She says that she is the only thing keeping the workers from fighting with each other. One day, they will wake up and realize the inauthenticity of the products they are making. Lyman does not fire her. He ends up laying off many workers, though, since the factory's products are not being sold in large enough quantities. The demand for his product is drying up.

Lyman finds signs of worker dissatisfaction. He buys the employees donuts and coffee, yet find uneaten donuts hidden around the factory. One day, Marie heads to the employee lounge during her shift, and Lyman angrily asks her why she isn't working. She says that Lulu had snapped at her.

Back in the factory later that day, Marie and Lulu begin arguing again. Their fight turns to the topic of Nector and they bring up Lyman's parentage for the first time. Lulu dumps her blue and yellow beads into Marie's green beads, and this act sets off a violent factory-wide fight; this fight essentially destroys the business and ends with the workers leaving amidst the havoc.

In despair, Lyman surveys the damage and returns to his office to get drunk off potent liquor. Lipsha arrives but Lyman is so drunk that he is seeing double and tries to hit Lipsha with his chair. Lipsha leads him outside and Lyman goes to a bar, where he sees Marie. He apologizes to her and he asks her about his father. He realizes that her hands were injured by the punching birchbark machine at the factory. Lyman feels deep regret at hurting such a nurturing and stoic woman. He apologizes again and they dance together.



This chapter focuses on tribal history, its preservation and its remnants. Lyman opens a factory to sell manufactured museum-quality Chippewa artifacts; he has no sentimentality for the past and views many of the tribal revivalists as ridiculous. Yet the experience of seeing buffalo, a species that local activists are trying to protect and revive, stirs in him some primal longing.

Nonetheless, when Lyman thinks of the manner in which his ancestors lived -- "Carve off the hide. Chop the carcass into chunks. Dry it. Freeze it. Tan the skin with the beast's dull brains and live inside it as a shelter" -- he ends with an appreciation for his prefabricated government-issued house, or his "instant house," as he calls it. Lyman voices little sympathy for old-fashioned Native Americans, or, as he calls them, "back-to-the-buffalo types."

Lulu has unexpectedly aligned herself with these activists, though she still dresses in her tight dresses and heels despite her traditionalist role. She goes so far as to refer to animals as "four-leggeds" and humans as "two-leggeds," which irks Lyman to no end because he knows that she and like-minded activists grew up speaking English and are not "translating their ideas from the original earth-based language."

Through this conflict, Erdrich reveals a difficult struggle in contemporary Indian life. How can the Chippewa embrace a heritage that has been taken from them? Their attempts to reclaim it may appear, to observers such as Lyman, inauthentic. But how else can they protest the mass assimilation that has overtaken their tribe and others?

In her signature style, Erdrich explores this dichotomy through humor, which is especially apparent when Lyman goes over the assembly line process for assembling a war club. As the club moves down the line, it takes on more of its traditional qualities. Its inauthenticity is immediately apparent from the mechanized instructions Lyman has devised. At the end, Erdrich describes it as "An attractively framed symbol of America's past. Perfect for the home or office...Hand produced by tribal members." Lulu, though, tells Lyman that his workers will soon realize the error of their ways in making these replica products.

The struggle between authenticity and replication forms the crux of this chapter. It is not an issue that can be easily resolved, as the final fight in the factory shows.  Perhaps, as Erdrich indicates, a peaceful or easy reconciliation of these two qualities is impossible, despite the ingenuity of modern Native Americans such as Lyman.