Holy Simplicity: On Louise Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman”

By Thomas J. MillayMay 5, 2020

Holy Simplicity: On Louise Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman”

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

THERE IS A DELIGHTFUL PASSAGE in William J. Barber II’s book The Third Reconstruction in which he talks about how the reality of Jim Crow in America has transformed over the years. According to Barber, Jim Crow has not in fact disappeared; rather, he has simply rebranded himself. Jim Crow has become “James Crow, Esq.” Rather than passing away, Jim has hung around and even taken on airs of sophistication. Thus, discrimination, segregation, and widespread suppression of voting rights remain prevalent, just like in the Jim Crow era; only now these are accomplished in a subtle manner, through incentivized gentrification, voter role purges, ID requirements, poll closures, and gerrymandering, rather than the explicit black codes of yesteryear (codes detailed in Pauli Murray’s classic text States’ Laws on Race and Color).

The more sophisticated yet similarly maleficent tactics of the James Crow, Esq. era bear many similarities to the “Termination” era (1953–1968) in the history of US relations to the native nations of North America. This period does not possess the visceral dynamics of the Trail of Tears marches (1830–1838) or Sitting Bull versus Custer (1876), events of violence, open enmity, and plainly physical destruction. In comparison, the Termination era is characterized by documents: the stuffy, dry legalese of House Concurrent Resolutions. Stultifying and dreadfully boring as they may be, the intended effects of such documents were just as devastating, if not more so, than the spectacular bloody wars and forced relocations of earlier eras.

House Concurrent Resolution 108, passed in 1953, did not declare that indigenous peoples would be subject to state-sponsored violence nor that they would be forcibly relocated. In terms of pure presentation, the bill intends no harm whatsoever for native nations. What the bill does is effectively declare that Indians are not to be considered Indians anymore. According to HCR 108, Indians will be “freed” from their marginal status and made “full” citizens, “entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States,” so as “to grant them all of the rights and prerogatives pertaining to American citizenship.”

The results of such supposed liberation were devastating. As Erdrich writes in her afterword to the novel: “In all, 113 tribal nations suffered the disaster of termination; 1.4 million acres of tribal land was lost. Wealth flowed to private corporations, while many people in terminated tribes died early, in poverty. Not one tribe profited.” Such efforts are not confined to 1953, as becomes painfully evident if you read the letter Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney sent on September 7, 2018, to the Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, Cedric Cromwell, kindly informing him that the people of Mashpee Wampanoag don’t actually qualify as “Indians” in the eyes of the federal government. Still, it is 1953–1968 that is known as the Termination era and features the most outlandishly egregious consequences of these types of policies, which do remain in operation today.

The reader can be to some extent excused if much of this is new information. As David Treuer notes in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, the Termination era is “treated as something of a blank spot on the map of Indian experience.” The quiet rustling of papers amid hushed halls of power naturally does not command the imagination in the same way as a battle filled with the gore of horses, the bullets of Springfield carbines, and the blood-stained flesh of fierce warriors. And so other, more obviously exciting histories have been told, and Termination has been neglected.

Happily, we now have The Night Watchman: a full-fledged work of historical fiction, set in the Termination era, by one of North America’s greatest novelists. Louise Erdrich is the author of some 17 novels, many of them set in the same fictional location where she weaves a set of intertwining stories, all densely imagined and rich with memorable characters. Here Erdrich lends these considerable novelistic gifts to a different task: telling a historically based account of a heroic group of ordinary individuals who rise up in opposition to the federal program of Termination. The individuals who populate the story are from Erdrich’s own tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, and in fact one of the central characters — Thomas Wazhushk — is based on Erdrich’s grandfather.

To tell its story, The Night Watchman employs several conventions typical of historical fiction. It lays out a timeline; we see the months and years in which these events take place and are invited to imagine daily life as it unfolds in all its ordinariness. The Night Watchman is capacious in its inclusion of various details specific to its period in history: the Termination legislation, certainly, but also particular brands of soda (Nehi), the convoluted gymnastics required to edit with a typewriter, and something called a “spirit duplicator” that was apparently used to copy documents and generated a rich ink smell while it was operational. The novel also develops believable characters who have jobs and varied responsibilities appropriate to their period.

The lives we see represented in The Night Watchman are characterized by a kind of holy simplicity. You have, for instance, the aforementioned Thomas Wazhushk. Thomas is tribal chairman, a leader of his community. He fights for his people, and at the same time provides for his family, working the night shift at a nearby jewel bearing plant. Thomas loves his wife, his father, his children, and his friends, and all aspects of his life are consonant with these affections. He has anxieties, but they are chiefly about how to preserve that good that he has known within his life. You also have Patrice (or Pixie) Paranteau. Patrice loves her mother and her sister, and her story unfolds within these coordinates. She goes to Minneapolis to save her sister, having a near-death experience in the process. She goes to Washington, DC, to help save her mother’s claim on a small scrap of land — essentially all the family has. The stories of Thomas and Patrice are engrossing, and one enjoys following them to their conclusion.

Yet these narratological elements of emplotment, perfectly realized as they are, are not what give The Night Watchman its particular flavor. The essential substance of the novel has relatively little to do with the actual stories being told. Rather, the novel’s specific effect has to do with a juxtaposition of two types of language. There is the language of government, and then there is the language of the people of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa or Ojibwe (or Anishinaabe) Indians.

The language of the US federal government is duplicitous. It uses words like “freed,” “grant,” “rights,” and “citizenship.” In reality, what’s being proposed in HCR 108 is destruction: the proposal is to “free” indigenous peoples from their very identities as indigenous peoples, from what makes them who they are. Government officials believe they are “improving” indigenous persons by shifting their categorization over to that of “ordinary” citizenship. Of course, the secret of this rhetoric of “improvement” is that it is actualized via a process of negation. Full realization of HCR 108 would entail complete destruction of Indian identities, along with any special rights to the land that in part composes those identities.

The duplicity of the federal government and its language is located right here, in its positive description of an action universally perceived as negative by the people it actually affects. For the representatives behind HCR 108, the good will be what they declare to be good, rather than something mutually agreed upon. This is not the good, then, in a classical sense of something able to be shared by all (described, for example, in Book XIX of Augustine’s City of God); it is rather a Thrasymachean exercise of power. It is tyranny. Federal language twists and turns, appearing good on its surface but in fact initiating great evil. It is one thing to declare open war and hatred of Indians; it is another thing entirely to “improve” Indians by making them Indians no longer; and it is the latter use of language that is more insidious, more pernicious.

To such duplicity, Erdrich juxtaposes the speech of her subjects, a group from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa or Ojibwe Indians. Throughout the novel, the speech of these characters is simple and straightforward. They mean what they say and say what they mean. The characters in The Night Watchman are not practitioners of the “strategic ambiguity” so well described by Ralina L. Joseph as a way to challenge the powerful without crossing lines that generate harm for oneself. Instead, these are people who speak directly, who label the colonizers for what they are.

For example, when reading HCR 108 for the first time, Thomas Wazhushk makes the following observation: “[T]he author of the proposal had constructed a cloud of lofty words around this bill — emancipation, freedom, equality, success — that disguised its truth: termination.” Further, Thomas introduces this private conclusion into a public setting, proposing in a tribal council meeting that the anodyne “House Concurrent Resolution 108” be relabeled with a truer name: The Termination Bill. That is not all. In a later meeting with the Bureau of Indian Administration (BIA) in Fargo, North Dakota, in response to the notion that the federal government wants to cease making any special monetary provisions for indigenous nations, a minor member of the group named Eddy Mink says: “The services that the government provides to Indians might be likened to rent. The rent for use of the entire country of the United States.” The bureaucratic audience is left speechless in response, rendered mute by the forthrightness of Mink’s claim. Yet Mink is by no means unique. Throughout the story, tribal members perform this purifying function, applying the solvent of simplicity to the distortions of a complex language which seeks to harm while it pretends to do otherwise.

This plainness of language also filters down to Erdrich’s own narrative style, which does not mean it is merely ordinary or inelegant. Take the following description of Thomas’s wife Rose as she is told distressing news: “All the stoppered emotions of the day came up under Rose’s skin. A prickling, burning pressure.” It is a plain image that is being used here, that of a plugged bottle full of some roiling liquid; but it is also just the right image, with its vivid evocation of how heat rises flush to the skin in these moments of intense emotion. Erdrich’s style in The Night Watchman is neither ornate nor hallucinatory, like in Love Medicine and The Plague of Doves. The words of this novel, words such as “stoppered,” are compelling in their precise simplicity.

It is a fully satisfying experience to read Erdrich’s novel. I put The Night Watchman down with a heavy heart. Not out of disappointment — far from it. It is a sad thing to finish the book because when you are reading it you are in the hands of a master storyteller, and you know you are in such hands. There is no question and thus no anxiety about the matter. You never wonder, “Will she pull this off?” You know she will. Rather than inducing boredom as foreknowledge might in other contexts (we know that Serena Williams is going to win this opening match, and thus need not watch it), this means you can relax and indulge in the pleasures of reading. The story is unfolding before you, and as it is unfolding, you know that you are going to enjoy it. As Auden might put it: here is an author that completely warrants your trust. It is this feeling of reassurance that I will miss, as I move on to other books — books that are possibly great, but who knows? Maybe they will disappoint me; maybe I will be not uplifted but cast down; there is no way to be certain. With The Night Watchman, you are sure from the start, and that little bit of certainty is a great comfort in our inconstant world.


Thomas J. Millay, PhD, is a lecturer at Baylor University and the author of You Must Change Your Life: Søren Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Reading, forthcoming from Cascade Press.

LARB Contributor

Thomas J. Millay, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hong Kierkegaard Library, St. Olaf College, and the author of You Must Change Your Life: Søren Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Reading (Cascade Press, 2020) and Kierkegaard and the New Nationalism (Lexington Press, 2021). His fiction has been published in The Blotter and his poetry in Earth & Altar.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.