Volume No. 18 Issue No. 1 January 2021  

  “The Night Watchman”
  By Robin Widmar

     Imagine if someone tried to break an agreement that allowed you to continue living on land that was rightfully yours to begin with. Oh, and they also want to relocate you and your extended family to a place not of your choosing, and force you into a lifestyle for which you are not accustomed. That is the premise behind “The Night Watchman” by Louise Erdich, a novel rooted in a real-world 1953 “termination” policy that sought to end Indian tribes’ status as sovereign nations and remove them from reservation lands.
   The title character, Thomas Wazhashk, is based on author Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, who fought House Concurrent Resolution 108. Thomas is a Tribal Committee Member and Committee Chair for the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. He is also a night watchman at a plant that manufactures jewel bearings for watches and Department of Defense military ordnance. Wazhashk in Chippewa means muskrat, and Thomas embodies the determination and work ethic of his namesake — a “lowly, hard-working, water-loving rodent” that his ancestors credited with helping to remake the earth after the great flood. He is diligent in making his nightly rounds at the plant, but uses the quiet time in between to handwrite letters opposing Resolution 108. “This is about the worst thing for Indians that has come down the pike,” he notes. “I firmly believe that this bill means disaster for our people.” By day, he foregoes precious sleep to organize tribal efforts against the resolution.
   The other prominent character is Thomas’s niece, Patrice Paranteau, also called Pixie, a nickname she despises. Patrice works at the jewel bearing plant and is the first in her family to have a job. “Not a trapping, hunting, or berry-gathering job, but a white-people job.” After working all day, she does chores at her family’s lean-to house, and regularly guards her mother and little brother from her alcoholic father. The money she earns at the plant helps support her family, but she sets aside part of every paycheck to follow her sister, Vera, to Minneapolis in hopes of creating a better life. Patrice’s story is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is an illustration of ambition, resilience and family loyalty. When Vera goes missing, it is Patrice who boards a train to a city she’s never seen with the purpose of bringing her sister home.
   In addition to Thomas and Patrice, “The Night Watchman” hosts a supporting cast of unique, complex characters that lend depth and variety to a meaningful story. Patrice’s mother, Zhaanat, is known for her vast knowledge of tribal lore. Wood Mountain is a young up-and-coming boxer who fights in a match to raise funds for a tribal delegation to testify in Washington D.C. College student Millie Cloud grew up off the reservation, but her research provides key observations to support her tribe’s fight for survival. These are just a few of the colorful personalities woven into a rich narrative tapestry.
   But the story is about more than the efforts to convince the U.S. government to abandon their misguided efforts to erase multiple Native American tribes. It is a study of what it means for indigenous people to be repeatedly forced to adapt to a culture not their own, while still maintaining their ancestral identity and traditions. It also touches on 1950s-era sexism, trafficking of indigenous women and cultural discrimination.
   Erdrich maintains a steady pace and provides shrewd insights into the aftermath of the collision between Manifest Destiny and indigenous rights. This is not a book meant for quick reading, but it is well worth the time invested to digest her eloquent, evocative prose and understand what was (and still remains) at stake for Native Americans.
   There are some unexpected twists in “The Night Watchman,” but one of the most interesting occurred after the book’s release in early 2020. Erdrich noted in her afterword that the Trump administration and assistant secretary of the Interior Tara Sweeney were, at that time, seeking to terminate the Wampanoag tribe “who first welcomed Pilgrims to these shores and invented Thanksgiving.”
   As this issue goes to press, Rep. Deb Haaland (D – N.M.) has been chosen to head the Department of the Interior under the Biden administration. If confirmed, she will be the first Native American to lead the agency. Quoted by Indian Country Today, Haaland said, “This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former secretary of the Interior once proclaimed his goal to ‘civilize or exterminate’ us. I’m a living testament to the failure of that horrific ideology.”
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