Set against the backdrop of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation in 1953, Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Night Watchman,” brings to life the story of Thomas Wazhashk and his community’s struggle against the Termination Bill, formally known as House Concurrent Resolution 108.
This legislation threatens to strip the Chippewa of their sovereignty by terminating federal support – an act that forms the crux of the book.
Thomas, the night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant and the tribal chairman, is also based on Erdrich’s own grandfather. Haunted by his boarding school past and the ghost of his classmate Roderick, who succumbed to tuberculosis after enduring severe punishment, Thomas embarks on a mission to halt the bill championed by Senator Arthur V. Watkins.
Parallel to Thomas’s political fight, Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau, a key breadwinner for her family through her work at the plant, embarks on a personal quest. Her sister Vera has vanished in the Twin Cities, leading Patrice into a dangerous search that results in her own kidnapping and forced participation in a waterjack show at Log Jam 26, a bar with a Paul Bunyan theme.
In Minneapolis, Patrice’s ordeal intertwines with that of Wood Mountain, a boxer and friend, who aids her escape and search for Vera’s baby, though Vera remains missing. Back at the reservation, the community unites at a hearing to unanimously oppose the Termination Bill.
The narrative oscillates through personal and communal struggles, culminating in a delegation’s journey to Washington, D.C., to present their case against the bill. Amidst these pivotal events, personal relationships evolve—Patrice and Wood Mountain grow closer, yet Patrice steps aside for Vera, who returns, allowing for new beginnings and hopes.
Thomas’s leadership and the community’s collective action underscore the resilience of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
Despite personal sacrifices and hardships, they confront the forces seeking to erase their sovereignty, illustrating the power of unity and the enduring spirit of a people fighting for their rights.
Based on Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, Thomas Wazhashk serves as the heart of “The Night Watchman.”
As the night watchman and tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Thomas’s deep connection to his people’s history and struggles against injustices shapes the narrative. His efforts to combat the “Termination Bill” highlight a life dedicated to preserving tribal sovereignty.
Haunted by the ghost of his classmate Roderick and the traumatic legacy of Native American boarding schools, Thomas embodies resilience.
His evolution throughout the novel, culminating in a stroke that underscores the personal cost of his fight, mirrors the muskrat’s sacrifice in his ancestral stories, making him a symbol of perseverance and sacrifice for the greater good.
Patrice “Pixie” Paranteau
Patrice’s journey encapsulates a profound coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of her community’s fight for survival.
As the main provider for her family, Patrice’s resilience is tested through her search for her missing sister, Vera, leading her to face the dangers of the city and the dark realities of human trafficking.
Her growth is marked by her experiences outside the reservation, her encounters with violence, and her ultimate decision to pursue higher education. Patrice’s deep connection to the earth and her cultural roots, symbolized by her moments of unity with nature, highlight her strength and the indomitable spirit of her people.
Vera represents the perils facing Indigenous women, symbolizing the broader theme of vulnerability and neglect by society. Her harrowing experiences, from being kidnapped and subjected to abuse, to the indifference shown by authorities towards Indigenous women’s plight, reflect the novel’s critique of systemic failures.
Vera’s story, intersected with Patrice’s search and eventual return, underscores the resilience of Indigenous women and the community’s struggle for justice and recognition.
Arthur V. Watkins
Representing the political and ideological opposition, Watkins embodies the systemic challenges faced by Indigenous communities.
His advocacy for the Termination Bill and his background in a religion that sought to assimilate Indigenous peoples into white society represent the historical and ongoing struggles for sovereignty and recognition faced by Native Americans.
Wood Mountain/Everett Blue
Wood Mountain, a boxer with deep ties to his community’s land and history, embodies the competitive spirit and the personal connections that bind the community together.
His rivalry with Joe “Wobble” Wobleszynski, set against a backdrop of family and territorial disputes, and his evolving relationship with Patrice and Vera, illustrate the complex interplay of personal and communal identities.
His care for Vera’s son and his role in the community underscore themes of responsibility, love, and the enduring bonds of family and tradition.
Zhaanat stands as a guardian of tradition, her deep knowledge of ceremonies and stories embodying the cultural heritage of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Her role in the community, coupled with her resilience and wisdom, provides a vital link to the past and a guiding light for future generations.
Her belief in Vera’s return and her efforts to maintain cultural practices amidst external pressures highlight the importance of cultural preservation and the strength of maternal figures in Indigenous communities.
Millie’s role bridges the academic and the personal, her study on the economic conditions of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa serving as a crucial element in the fight against the Termination Bill.
Her personal journey of connection to her heritage and the community’s struggles highlights themes of identity, belonging, and the power of knowledge in enacting change.
Lloyd “Hay Stack” Barnes
As one of the few white characters, Barnes’s journey from ignorance to a deeper understanding of the Indigenous community’s struggles reflects a broader narrative of reconciliation and awareness.
His initial stereotypical views evolve as he becomes more involved in the community’s life, illustrating the potential for change and the importance of allyship in the fight for Indigenous rights.
1. The Struggle for Sovereignty and Identity
Central to the novel is the fight against House Concurrent Resolution 108, a legislative effort aimed at “emancipating” Native American tribes from federal support and recognition. Through the lens of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Erdrich delves into the broader implications of such policies on tribal sovereignty and identity.
This theme is not only a reflection of political and legal battles but also an intimate portrayal of how these external forces threaten the very fabric of cultural and personal identity.
The characters’ efforts to counteract these measures, led by Thomas Wazhashk, underscore a collective resilience and an unwavering commitment to preserving their heritage, rights, and autonomy.
2. The Legacy of Historical Trauma
Erdrich poignantly addresses the lasting effects of historical injustices, particularly those inflicted by the boarding school system designed to assimilate Native American children into white society.
The haunting presence of Roderick, a ghost from Thomas’s past, serves as a stark reminder of the brutal realities faced by those who passed through such institutions.
This theme extends beyond individual sorrow, reflecting on the community’s collective memory and trauma.
Erdrich does not merely recount these injustices but also illustrates their enduring impact on the characters’ lives and the community’s psyche, highlighting the strength found in remembering and confronting past atrocities.
3. Community and Interconnectedness
Throughout the novel, the sense of community within the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa is palpable.
Erdrich celebrates the intricate web of relationships that sustain and enrich the characters’ lives, from familial bonds to friendships and communal solidarity.
This theme is vividly portrayed through the characters’ collective actions against the Termination Bill, the support network that rallies around Patrice in her quest to find her sister, and the communal rituals and traditions that provide spiritual and emotional sustenance.
The novel underscores the importance of community as a source of strength, resilience, and identity, suggesting that interconnectedness is essential to both survival and flourishing.
“The Night Watchman” is a powerful blend of historical fiction and personal drama, offering a profound look at the struggles and resilience of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
Louise Erdrich masterfully creates a story that is both a tribute to her grandfather’s legacy and a universal tale of community, identity, and resistance. The novel not only educates about a pivotal moment in Native American history but also resonates with current issues of sovereignty, rights, and the power of collective action.