Rescuing and preserving a threatened indigenous culture (Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indian Reservation, northern North Dakota, 1950s): The Chippewa Indians, also known as The Ojibwe, have become known through the award-winning novels of Louise Erdrich, herself a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, near the Canadian border. The Night Watchman, her 16th novel, is the work of a master storyteller.
Dedicated to the historical legacy and spirit of a great, hardworking man – Patrick Gourneau, the author’s grandfather – who barely slept toiling day and night as both a night watchman at a factory near the Turtle Mountain reservation; and as leader of the Chippewa governing council, fighting to save his Anishinaabe (First Nations) people from being wiped out by the Federal government in the ‘50s under the guise of white-washed words like assimilation, emancipation, relocation.
The Chippewa survival story is centuries-old. Yet its relevance and poignancy can be seen today in their public struggle to uphold their American right to vote.
Historical genocide, mid-century “termination,” and contemporary racism towards the Chippewas shows the worst of humanity. Which is why Erdrich’s ability to infuse beauty and love is outstanding. Through authentic, interconnected characters who profoundly believe in their connectedness with their promised land and Mother Earth, she, like the tribe’s weaving skills, weaves eloquent prose that pays tribute to real and fictional heroes. Impoverished yet unyielding, “even poor people can love their land.”
Erdrich’s masterwork also serves as an action call to human rights activists, environmentalists, and all of us to do better with the things we possess, take for granted, aspire to, advocate for.
For readers, the storytelling is heartfelt and heart-tugging, genuine to the core. Dialogue comes from many multi-generational voices whose words aren’t fancy, rather, gentle and simple in a stoic, beautiful way. Despite depths of accumulated bitterness and raw anger, the prose reflects despair without resorting to profanity.
A 3rd person narrator shares elders’ wisdom, spirituality, and the strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities of characters. Often seen in forceful dreams and visions in the form of ghosts, benevolent and evil. Erdrich’s ghosts are everywhere, imbuing magical realism, bridging the real world and the supernatural one.
Fictionally, grandfather Patrick is Thomas Wazhushk, part of the “after-the-buffalo-who-are-we-now generation.” Asking, “how should being an Indian relate to this country that had conquered, and was trying in every way to absorb them?”
Except for Thomas, all the other Chippewa characters are fictional. The goal is not to focus singly on eye-opening history, but to tell it through symbolic, vivid stories of the realities of daily life, bolstered by a oneness with Nature, real and mystical.
Patrice, Thomas’ loosely-defined niece, is the other central character. Offended when anyone calls her by her nickname Pixie, since she’s strong-willed, serious, smart, and has ambitions.
Patrice’s mother Zhannat symbolizes survival – the lengths she goes to protect herself and her family from the physical abuse and trauma inflicted by her terrifying husband, always drunk. He’s what “all misery” looks and feels like as alcoholism is pernicious and pervasive on reservations. No surprise Patrice aspires to different things in life other than marriage and children. Her self-protectiveness constantly tested as two men are infatuated or in love with her. One is white, the other Chippewa, providing another dimension to Native American and white relationships.
Zhannat’s strength is something to behold. How she’s able to still nurture her family – including Vera, Patrice’s older sister and Pokey, her younger brother – and others who seek her out for healing. Foods, teas, and medicines she concocts from “bear root, wiikenh, prairie sage, sweetgrass, kinnikinnick,” the effort it takes to hunt for these ingredients, are powerful acts of love from someone who “treated everything around her with great care.” Scarce yet ever-present, we’re introduced to bannock bread and pemmican, made from “dried meat, sweet juneberries, musky Pemba berries, sugared tallow.”
Some Chippewa words are translated, others you can always look up in the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary. Besides Chippewa, other French dialects are mixed in as the tribe also descended from Canada.
Vera’s potent storyline is like an ominous, brooding cloud that looms heavy. An extreme example of what could go terribly wrong if you and your husband are fooled into believing the government’s relocation plan to move to Minnesota offers an “Exciting Community Life and Beautiful Homes.”
The two men dazzled by Patrice are Barnes, a white math teacher at the Mission school who doubles as the boxing coach, and one of his Chippewa students Wood Mountain, an up-and-coming boxer. They reflect the significance of sports on Indian reservations. We’re likely more familiar with the role of basketball not boxing, learning about a feature of reservation life going on for decades.
Boxing is not just a game and entertainment, but a vital source of pride, self-esteem, and development. Tension too, as winning means so much. What touches our hearts is seeing the poorest of poor hitching rides to travel distances to root for their sons and community playing against other tribes as if their lives depended on it.
The Night Watchman opens in September 1953, one month after Congress introduced legislation to eliminate all Native American reservations, specifically citing the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa for “immediate termination.” A legal battle that unites the community.
Patrice and two of her friends – Valentine, her best friend, and Doris, a white girl whose family bought dirt cheap reservation land that could be farmed and owns the car that drives the three to the plant where they work – same workplace Thomas watches overnight. (Rare jobs close to a reservation that Thomas had a hand in.) The factory made jewel bearings, which are “micro-thin-slices of ruby, sapphire, or the lesser jewel, garnet,” used in precision watches critical to the novel’s Cold War timeframe. Chippewa women excelled in the kind of “hypnotic concentration” required due to their craftsmanship in beading. Intense, backbreaking, eye-soring work that soothed Patrice, taking her mind off of her fears about Vera. Interestingly, the Turtle Mountain plant still exists.
Patrice’s mother miraculously turned a “lean to” shelter with dirt floors and tar papered roofs, no electricity or running water, into a home, having been denied government housing. Thomas lives more modernly on the reservation, though more remotely, alternating between two houses: an older, timber one where he tried to sleep, while his wife of thirty-plus years, three children, and mother-in-law lived in a “cottage” built by the government. A messenger of enduring love who rises up against the ghosts of his past, reminding us “you can never get enough of the ones you love.”
At 450+ pages, chapters move briskly as they’re brief, some just a page or two, shifting storylines and characters. Their voices resound, so we easily keep them straight. Two other characters stand out: Juggie Blue, Wood Mountain’s mother, on the Council with Thomas; and Millie Cloud, daughter of another Chippewa, away on a scholarship at the University of Minnesota. Summoned to assist the Council’s Washington, DC legal fight, she’s “warmed” her community needs her. Eccentric in her mix-matched geometric clothes, but her Chippewa determination is clear-cut.
Thomas too never gave up. Galvanizing his community, writing letter after letter to the Utah Senator sponsoring the “termination” bill, and other officials, in perfectionist handwriting drilled into him, bringing out his rigid, horrid, haunting boarding school days. Another Federal effort to erase Native culture.
Even with a legacy of brutal betrayals and broken promises, Erdrich’s prose – sorrowful and reverential, tender and harsh, shameful and proud – achieves a remarkable sense of peace. A message for the next generation of Chippewa Indians.
A message for all of us yearning for a way to move forward.