Shades of Meaning: Exploring Literary Ethnography through Liminal Spaces

The following article is currently in process. Literary ethnography is a relatively new approach to research, and until recently, was not considered an accepted method for ethnographic research. However, scholars have pushed the boundary lines of what constitutes ethnography to include such disparate approaches such as autoethnography and ethnography in the classroom. This critical review will examine key texts produced by Native American writers, and will explore their conceptual framework of  liminal spaces as they observe their own culture through dual lenses.


Right and wrong were shades of meaning, not sides of a coin. (Erdich, 1984)

Louise Erdich, a Native American writer, is considered to be one the foremost authors of what has been termed the “second wave of the Native American Renaissance” (1975-1997), a historical revisionist and cultural movement centered on the reclamation, the revitalization, and the regeneration of interest in Native American heritage, texts, and artistic expression (Lincoln, 1985). Her first novel, Love Medicine, was published in 1984, shortly after she completed graduate studies in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Erdich, a member of the Anishinaabe Band (Ojibwa or Chippewa) in North Dakota, writes stories and poetry centered on her experience as an Ojibwa growing up in America. Although her novel, Love Medicine, is set in a fictionalized town, the text clearly represents the unique cultural and tribal relationships foundational to the social structure of the Ojibwa people. Her use of idiomatic language, narrative style, and liminality enables her to layer the various aspects of Native American storytelling with realistic characterization. Her characters exemplify the Ojibwa culture as a “liminal people,” a people struggling to exist “between the spaces” of American social and cultural influence (Rutten and Soetaert, 2013, p. 645).

Limen means “threshold” or a place of comings and goings, beginnings and endings. In anthropology, liminal spaces are often referred to as “rites of passages,” stages that are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and [the] ceremonial” (p. 645). Arnold Van Gennep’s (1977) seminal work, Rites de Passages, suggested a three-stage structure to rites: pre-liminal as the beginning stage, liminal as in between stage, and post-liminal as the ending stage (p. 21). Turner (1982) drawing inspiration from Van Gennep’s, work posited the idea that liminality included more than stages associated with the rites of passages. He included liminality as part of the transitional process inherent in the development of personality, the determination of agency, and the deliberation of experience (p. 80).

Liminality, therefore, is a critical component to understanding how different individuals, groups, and cultures develop socially. Erdich and other Native American writers use liminality to ground their stories, and in doing so, they are able to describe the temporal disconnect experienced by Native Americans as they pass through these ritualistic stages, from acculturation to acclimation to assimilation.

Purpose of Study

This qualitative study seeks to understand liminality as it exists within Ojibwa culture. The proposed study is grounded in exploration of the theme of liminality as it is expressed through culturally representative texts including John Tanner’s autobiography, The Falcon (1830), Louise Erdich’s novel, Love Medicine (1984), and her poetry collection, Jacklight (1984). Additionally, digital archives maintained by the White Earth Nation (including video, language studies, and folklore) along with select historical and ethnographic documents from Central Michigan University’s, Ojibwa Collection, will be utilized. These representative texts, collectively, will be analyzed using a theoretical approach based on Kenneth Burke’s (1985) theory of Dramatism (Agency) and Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) theory of Social Construction. The outcome of this study is formative and directed toward education literacy, critical studies, and pedagogical development.