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After the buffalo, who are we now?

By Sally Bland - Sep 05,2021 - Last updated at Sep 05,2021

The Night Watchman
Louise Erdrich
New York: Harper Perennial, 2021
Pp. 451


In “The Night Watchman”, Louise Erdrich delves into the real history of her people to create the setting, overarching theme, and presumably many of the characters for a spell-binding novel. It is 1953 and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, based mainly in North Dakota in the northcentral United States, is facing a serious attempt to deprive them of what is left of their lands. Newly proposed legislation, called the Termination Act, will nullify all treaties between them and the US government, which means that their land will be up for sale and services from the federal government terminated.

Ironically, the law is ostensibly motivated by a false assumption that the Chippewa are now well-off and should have their situation normalised, though nothing could be further from the truth. The real intent is to “solve” the Indian question by getting rid of them.

Native Americans have been both demonised and romanticised in literature; Erdrich does neither. While covering many of the historical injustices done to them, “The Night Watchman” also portrays their resistance, their spiritual and nature-based culture, and their daily life. What one sees is an embattled community with a foot in two worlds — the world of the reservation, farming and rural life, and the world of perpetually modernising, capitalist America.

The night watchman named in the book title is Thomas, an intelligent, compassionate, middle-aged man, and the driving force of the Chippewas’ opposition to the Termination Act. To this end, he employs both his native skills as a community organiser and what he learned at boarding school, where many young Indians went sent — many forcibly — to eradicate their native culture. Thomas, however, was largely self-educated. He cultivated what might be useful to him and his people, such as penmanship which he used to write to US officials arguing the Indians’ case. It was he who successfully advocated for the establishment of the jewel-bearing factory in their vicinity, which gave salaried, manufacturing jobs to women of the reservation for the first time, and where he works as night watchman. By retaining his original language and culture, Thomas has stayed in touch with his community and the wisdom of the elders. He is of the “after-the-buffalo-who-are-we-now generation”, weathering many transitions and serving as a bridge between the past and present, white society and Indian. (p. 98)

In the next generation, there is another sort of watchperson. Patrice isn’t labelled as such, but she has a role to play in watching over her family, specifically her sister, Vera. She also serves as a bridge to mainstream America for her mother, Zhaanat, “an old-time Indian raised by her grandparents only speaking Chippewa, schooled from childhood in ceremonies and the teaching stories. Zhaanat’s knowledge was considered so important that she had been fiercely hidden away, guarded from going to boarding school… [her] real job was passing on what she knew. People came from distances, often camped around their house, in order to learn.” (p. 21)

Patrice’s role is particularly important since her father is a hopeless drunk, which is one reason Vera had applied to the Placement and Relocation Office and gone to the big city with her husband where they received some money for housing and job training — and then disappeared. Vera’s fate has implications for the community as a whole. If the new law is passed, the next generation can be expected to try their luck in the city with all its attractions and dangers. Afraid that her sister is in trouble, Patrice saves her money and takes time off from her work in the jewel-bearing factory and goes to Minneapolis in search of her. 

The plot is structured around these two parallel quests: saving the Chippewa from termination and finding Vera, prototype of what termination can lead to. In between these main themes are multiple subplots which are by turn enlightening, disturbing and entertaining. Erdrich introduces characters which represent a broad spectrum of Native American responses to their situation, and different modes of adaptation and/or resistance. There are many incidents in the novel which reveal the characters’ deeply held spiritual beliefs, such as the very thin veil between the living and the dead, which allows for communication between them. Perhaps most central to these beliefs is the unity between humans and nature, between all things. Again, Zhaanat is a prime example: “Zhanaat had a different sort of intelligence. In her thinking there were no divisions, or maybe the divisions were not the same, or maybe they were invisible… Zhaanat’s intelligence was of frightening dimensions. Sometimes she knew things she should not have known”. (p. 189-190)

Erdrich’s evocative style speaks to the heart and mind. Many passages in the novel attest to the significance of one’s mother tongue and culture: “Soon Thomas began to speak with his father in Chippewa — which signalled that their conversation was heading in a more complex direction, a matter of mind and heart. [His father] thought more fluently in Chippewa. Although his English was very good, he also was more expressive and comical in his original language”. 

(p. 67)

This is one of many passages that stress the importance of humour, and indeed Erdrich intersperses very serious topics with funny incidents. The ability to laugh, including at one’s self, is obviously a key to survival in an often unkind and illogical world. The many parallels to the Palestinian situation will strike readers.

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