Books | USA

Statutory eradication

Louise Erdrich talks about resistance by indigenous peoples in 1950s America

A black and white portrait of an elderly indigenous man with a Native American headdress and necklace.

Patrick Gourneau, grandfather of the author and inspiration for the novel's character Thomas

In her books, the author Louise Erdrich, daughter of a member of the First Nation Ojibwe people, dives ever deeper into the reality of life on North American reservations. But her latest book, “Der Nachtwächter” (“The Nightwatchman”), is definitely more personal than her previous novels.

The watchman of the title is Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau. Like the character Thomas Wazhashk in the book, he was a member of the tribal council of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa in North Dakota, and campaigned tirelessly against discriminatory laws proposed in the 1950s. 

In his job as a nightwatchman at a factory, Erdrich’s protagonist Thomas tries every trick in his nightly struggle against fatigue. He works his way, for example, through a legislative bill that was adopted by the US Congress in 1953, the “House Concurrent Resolution 108”.

This law stipulated that “Indians” living on reservations should have their constitutionally protected rights to their land taken away and that they should be completely assimilated. “We survived smallpox, the Winchester repeating rifle, tuberculosis. […] And now this gathering of bone-dry words is annihilating us,” he concludes.

“Hardly a soul on the reservation is undamaged – whether by abuse at residential schools, or by addiction, discrimination or violence”

Erdrich thrillingly portrays how Thomas makes sense of the complex legal text that deprives his community of its right to exist and how he quickly learns the ways of resistance. Petitions are written on a battered reservation typewriter, delivered by horse to house and hut, signatures collected.

In the dirt-poor Turtle Mountain community, many Chippewas can only put a blackened fingerprint to the petition. The book ostensibly deals with this battle against the looming “termination”.

But it’s also a many-voiced portrait of a community with a rich culture, spirituality and close-knit cohesion, without glossing over its darker aspects. Hardly a soul on the reservation is undamaged – whether by abuse at residential schools that indigenous children were forced into, or by addiction, discrimination or violence.

They fight on behalf of their own identity with every weapon: Thomas and his fellow campaigners organise boxing matches to get the money together for a delegation to go to Washington. They write heartfelt letters to Chippewas across the country, to politicians, interest groups and anyone else who comes to mind.

Senator Arthur V. Watkins (cited by historians as the man behind the idea of the “termination” policy) is a devout Mormon whose dismissal of indigenous peoples is grounded in his religion. So Thomas studies the Book of Mormon in his nightwatchman’s cabin, because “You have to know your enemy.”

“The story’s other strand shows, in all its brutality, what it meant in the 1950s for a woman to be indigenous and poor”

Alongside Thomas is the voice of the fictional factory worker Patrice Paranteau, from whose perspective a large part of the nearly 500-page novel is written. This self-possessed young woman, whose pay packet puts food on the table for her whole family, is at the same time on the trail of her sister who has fallen into the hands of people traffickers. 

This strand of the story shows, in all its brutality, what it meant in the 1950s for a woman to be indigenous and poor. Patrice is also part of the delegation put together to protest against the legislation in Washington. Passages from the hearing’s original proceedings make their way into the book – and under the skin.

“No amount of generous administration can instil ambition in these people,” Senator Watkins apparently said in 1953. Historically attested quotes like these show precisely the racist hostility that was still characterising US policy towards First Nation peoples well into the 1970s. Just as remarkable is the narrative of the Chippewa people’s struggle for emancipation.

The authors performs a great service in summoning up so eloquently and colourfully this relatively unknown chapter in North American history. Louise Erdrich’s 2021 Pulitzer Prize for “The Nightwatchman” is fully deserved. 

Translated by Scott Martingell