By Chet Yarbrough
The Night Watchman
By: Louise Erdrich
Narrated by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich (Author, National Book Award winner plus other honorifics.)
(Louise Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Erdrich’s parents, a Chippewa mother and German father, taught at the “Bureau of Indian Affairs” in Wahpeton. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and her husband was the director of “Native American Studies” at Dartmouth.)
The headline in the 1/4/21 “New York Times” National page is “Indian Country Loses a Hospital at a Crucial Moment–Tribe Members Feel Abandoned as the U.S. Turns a New Mexico Facility Into a Clinic”–today’s example of Indian invisibility.
“The Night Watchman” is not Erdrich’s first attempt at explaining Indian’ invisibility. She also wrote the best seller “The Round House”. Both reveal the ignorance and unfairness of Indian reservation life and American government attempts to subsume Indian culture.
Erdrich notes “The Night Watchman” is a true story with names changed to hide American political shamefulness and abhorrent treatment of a young Indian woman.
Erdrich offers a distinctive picture of Indian reservation life and reminds one of American power’s ill treatment of Indian people.
America’s history of violating contractual agreements with Indian tribes is well documented. A part of Erdrich’s story shows how those contractual agreements are broken.
(This is a photo copy of a Senate Agreement with Crow Indians for Sale of Their Reservation in Montana-1891)
An elected official submits a bill to a state legislature suggesting native Indians have achieved equality before the law and that they have become Americans who should not be restricted to reservations (a euphemism for break-up of Indian culture and land confiscation). The submitted bill gives no value to the tradition and history of Indian culture. The bill might offer compensation to a tribe for the taking of the land, but at an unspecified price.
The people of the reservation are legally notified of the prospective legislative bill. People on the reservation are offered a public hearing to discuss the bill.
There is no offer of financial help for traveling to the hearing or for legal defense of Indian contractual rights to the reservation land.
In Erdrich’s story, effort to organize and pay for travel and legal expense is left to reservation people who have no money to spare. What money they have is to survive, to have a roof over their head, and food on the table.
“The Night Watchman” is a story of big government against “invisible” Indians.
The bill is created by a Mormon legislator in the state whose family settled in the area in the 19th century. He argues reservation land was a temporary holding until Indians were integrated into American culture. The legislator reasons the day for full integration into American culture had come. He reasoned job availability, education, and welfare of tribal populations had reached the same level available to all Americans. It is the same lie offered to women and minorities in the history of the world.
Erdrich’s story begins with vignettes of Indian life on the reservation. This is somewhat confusing but gains momentum as her characters are fully developed. The night watchman is an Indian named Thomas Wahhashk. He works off the reservation at an industrial plant.
Patrice Paranteau is an Indian who works at the same plant as Thomas. She has a sister named Vera who has left the reservation to live in the city. Vera disappears. The disappearance of Vera is one of the drivers of Erdrich’s story. What happens to Vera is unconscionable. She is kidnapped and held in a ship’s hold to be abused by its sailors. Patrice goes to the city to find Vera but only finds Vera’s baby who appears abandoned.
There is a burgeoning love story threaded into Erdrich’s story that reflects the striving of Patrice to become an equal partner in life. Patrice chooses her own path to become an independent woman in a world defined by government and men.
Erdrich’s story reminds one of Ellison’s invisible Black who identifies with a personal culture while wanting to be treated as an equal in American culture.
Minorities do not wish to lose their identity but to be equal participants in a wider culture. It should not be difficult to be a Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, or other American and enjoy the benefits of democracy’s freedom.
Erdrich combines the theme of cultural identity with a story of human relationship, hardship, success, and failure. Erdrich offers a glimpse of how hard it is to be an Indian in a culture dominated by a largely white culture.
Erdrich, like Ellison, shows how multiculturalism is denied by a country that purports to believe in equality of opportunity for all.
Like Ralph Ellison pictures what it is like to be Black in America, Louise Erdrich tries to write what it is like to be Indian in America.