Interdisciplinary Teaching Ideas

Brief description

Louise Erdrich’s novel shifts through many different points of view and follows an Ojibwe drum from its discovery as an estate agent sorts through a house in preparation for sale.  Readers learn the history of the drum and trace the plot of the narrative from its tragic origins to its return to its people.

The three-part novel draws the strands of experience of different characters together into one emotional tale.  As always, this novel is ripe for analysis from the perspective of many disciplines.  The following are basic suggestions/”jumping off points” for incorporating the novel into various classrooms and disciplines.


  • The novel spans several generations of the Ojibwe people, and as such is appropriate for discussion in anthropology classes. The religious traditions (especially surrounding the titular drum) play a pivotal role in the work.
  • What is the connection between language and culture? In what ways does a culture change when the children do not speak the same language as their parents?


  • Base any visual art project on scenes from the novel.
  • Research Native American art of various tribes.
  • Examine the materials used in the creation of native artifacts such as the drum that provides the framework for Erdrich’s novel.


  • Research disease transmission during the colonization of the Americas.
  • Examine the likely health issues of those who experience a house fire such as the one in the novel, particularly children.


  • Research the role of technology in the restoration of lost artifacts such as the drum in the novel.
  • How was trade used as a way of changing the culture of native peoples in the United States? What peoples were affected and by what groups of colonists?


  • Research the laws surrounding Native artifacts. What legal issues might occur when an object is relocated (as the drum is when Faye finds it)?
  • What is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act? How has it been applied in recent court cases?
  • Research the Indian Child Welfare Act. What were some of the reasons for its institution?
  • Research other instances of cultural artifacts being returned to their owners/creators as we see in the novel (you may wish to consider art stolen in Libya, Iraq, Germany, etc. during various wars or conflicts).
  • Research the role of tribal police on reservations. What are some legal regulations non-native police must consider if they wish to pursue someone on reservation lands, for example?


  • Read and perform any of Louise Erdrich’s dramatic monologues.
  • Consider how you would dramatize and one passage from the novel as a one-act.
  • Read/perform the drama The Master Butchers Singing Club, based on Erdrich’s novel.


  • Research the relocation of native children in boarding schools as described in the novel. What were some of the effects on tribes as a result of the state-sanctioned removal of their children?
  • Read about the lasting impact of American Indian boarding schools in this NPR story and NPR story, part 2.
  • Read about the education and responsibilities of Ojibwe children in this page on An Ojibwe elder’s stories.


  • Examine any of the symbolic elements of the novel (some examples would be the drum, the bones, the dog on the chain, etc.).
  • For Children’s Literature, encourage students to choose a work of juvenile or teen fiction dealing with the theme of Native American identity. (Some suggestions might be Little You, We Sang You Home, Zoe and the Fawn, The Star People, In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse, )
  • Compare the Little House on the Prairie series to Erdrich’s Birchbark What racist attitudes is Erdrich combatting in her work, which she has indicated is a response to Ingalls’ series?
  • Examine the use of changes in narrative perspective and diction in The Painted Drum.
  • Discuss the role of the storytelling tradition in the novel.
  • Examine the effect created by shifting points of view in this work.
  • The novel introduces the concept of zwischenraum, or “the space between things.” What is the role of this concept in the various plotlines of the novel?
  • Read any other work by Louise Erdrich and compare to The Painted Drum.
  • Discuss the ending of the novel and if it may be considered an acceptable resolution to the work.


  • Visit the site Museum of the American Indian film catalog. This page of the Museum of the American Indian includes films “screened since 1995 at the National Museum of the American Indian in programs that present indigenous media from North, Central, and South America, the Pacific region, and the Arctic Circle. The Catalog includes information about productions (Titles), the mediamakers and actors who created them (People), and the film and media organizations that support their creation (Organizations).”
  • Research the ways in which Native Americans have been portrayed in film.


  • After reading, classes may discuss why shared reading (such as our college novel) is required on many college and university campuses nationwide.  See the description of our college novel initiative on the college website.  What is the purpose of the novel and how does that relate to a liberal arts education? How might that be tied into the idea presented in The Painted Drum that our history and culture is something that should not be appropriated by another?
  • The Painted Drum covers topics often considered painful portions of American history. What, if any, is the value for contemporary college students of studying fictional portrayals of issues such as the loss of Native American artifacts?


  • Compose a movie poster or book jacket forThe Painted Drum.
  • Illustrate any scene or theme from the novel.
  • Research the art of the Ojibwe people.


  • The novel deals with the history of native peoples in the United States, the appropriation of their artifacts, and the state-sanctioned kidnapping of their children and as such is ripe for examination on these topics.
  • Research treaties signed between the United States and native nations. The following NPR video provides a useful basic starting point: A Few Things to Know About Why Treaties Matter.
  • What was the role of the Indian Agent in the native tribes such as the Ojibwe? Research the impact these agents of the government had on the culture of the various peoples.
  • Research the governmental structure of some of the tribal nations currently existing within the United States.


  • The theft of Native artifacts has been an ongoing issue since colonization. Research the various ways news outlets have covered this topic using the historical newspaper databases at the SCCC library.
  • Evaluate the reporting in this story by Smithsonian Magazine on the recent recovery of stolen native artifacts:

Smithsonian article on recovery of looted artifacts


  • Research the effects traumatic childhood events may have on those who experience them, such as the house fire and subsequent escape by the children.
  • Discuss the parent/child relationships in the novel throughout the various generations. How do these relationships affect the development of the children?
  • Grief surrounding the loss of young children permeates the novel and draws the various narratives together. Examine the effect that such grief may have on the lives of those who experience it.
  • Revenge plays a large role in the novel. What might the psychological effects of long-term revenge plans be?  Do we see any such effects displayed by the novel’s characters?


  • The drum is not merely a musical instrument – Faye learns of the proper way to treat it as the novel progresses and the power that it exerts. Research/discuss the role that instruments play in the spiritual lives of native peoples.
  • Examine the role of music in the religious ceremonies of different cultures. Compare to the drum’s role in Erdrich’s novel.
  • Research the religious beliefs of various Native American tribes prior to colonization. How were those beliefs changed/adapted/eradicated with the onset of colonization?
  • Compare the creation stories of the Ojibwe to those of the Judeo-Christians.
  • Examine the religious beliefs of the Ojibwe people. This com entry is a basic starting point.


  • Research the role childhood trauma plays in the development of the novel’s characters.
  • Examine the treatment of native children prior to the institution of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Why were they removed from their tribe and where were they placed?  What was the long-term effect on the child and the family unit?
  • Why were native children forbidden to speak their own languages when they were placed in white schools? What is the connection between language and personal identity?
  • Discuss the factors that have contributed to high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse in native communities/reservations.


  • Examine the displays of cultural appropriation in terms of the events of the novel.
  • Research the role of linguistic diversity in the Americas. What role does the banning of languages have on the cultures forced to abandon them?
  • Explore the website dedicated to the Ojibwe language at The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary