Louise Erdrich is one of our era’s most powerful literary voices. Whether writing of love, enmity, or ambition, her descriptions feel resonant, yet arresting in their originality. Her portraits of reservation life in the northern Midwest also make her one of this generation’s most important Native American writers. Erdrich’s fictional communities are characterized by intense and ambivalent relationships – of lovers, rivals, and mothers and daughters. Rather than centering on an individual or a single family, she creates networks of families, emphasizing their interrelatedness, their shared past, and the land they inhabit, building a compelling alternative world – one that is always under siege.
In her latest novel, “The Night Watchman,” Erdrich’s blend of spirituality, gallows humor, and political resistance is at play in the struggles of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa to survive the threat posed by the 1953 House Concurrent Resolution 108. The proposed change in policy would end treaties between the United States and American Indian nations. The architect behind the policy was Republican Sen. Arthur V. Watkins of Utah, a historical figure whose politics were influenced by his Mormon faith. He believed that Native Americans were descended from “Lamanites,” whose dark skin would be “brightened” as their souls were saved from paganism by conversion.
Night watchman Thomas Wazhushk perceives the gravity of the proposed law, which he renames the “termination bill.” The character is modeled after Erdrich’s grandfather, on whose letters she drew as a source. Wazhushk works for the first factory to provide jobs on the reservation. He also serves as tribal chairman. While watching over the factory in the dead of night, he keeps spiritual watch over the Turtle Mountain Chippewas’ lifeblood – their land – and thinks about ways to fight the expected passage of the bill.
Wazhushk is not the only watchman, however. His narrative alternates with that of Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau, a young Chippewa factory worker, who also keeps a night watch – in her case, to find her older sister who has disappeared in Minneapolis and to protect her family from her alcoholic father. Pixie watches over her own prospects as well, or tries to, as she searches for a possible future apart from marrying young and bearing children (this is the 1950s, after all). Pixie’s forays into the woods, and her visions while exploring them, form the most evocative parts of the novel.
Wazhushk entertains visions, too, but his are the haunted variety. He is visited by the spirit of a long-ago classmate named Roderick, who was locked in the cellar by their missionary teacher, an experience Roderick did not survive. Such treatment was an oft-used tactic to destroy tribes; by sending Native American children to boarding school, the government not only separated children from their parents, but also from their language and religion.
Like the cellar, concealed underground spaces become a motif in “The Night Watchman,” making the novel feel almost gothic in places, though the basis for the kinds of abuse Erdrich represents is well documented. Sections on the enslavement of Native American women in cities like Minneapolis may be hard to read, but they are important to understand the stakes of preserving tribal land and culture and what could happen to women who ended up in cities where they had no familial or tribal connections.
I won’t spoil what happens when Wazhushk leads his delegation – Pixie included – to Washington, as the bill makes its way to the floor of the U.S. Senate, except to say that some aspects of the conclusion at least are heartening.
We need more of these stories that recount collective resistance and the small victories that can accompany it, while also recognizing the toll they take (economically, physically, emotionally) on individuals and communities. There’s a need, too, to be more honest about the way our country’s policies have negatively affected generations of Native Americans. “The Night Watchman” may be set in the 1950s, but the history it unearths and its themes of taking a stand against injustice are every bit as timely today.
Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY and a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.