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Book Review

A Story of Tenacious Resilience

Louise Erdrich’s book ‘The Nighwatchman’ is a powerful story set in the Termination era of 1950s, when the Congress adopted policies whereby federal obligations to more than 100 Native Indian tribes were terminated. Against this larger backdrop, Erdrich weaves the stories of some of the most memorable Native Indian characters. Pari Deshmukh reviews the book, making out a strong case for the native Indians.

As a child I remember devouring comics about the Wild West. These comics narrated stories about brave cowboys, Rangers, outlaws and new settlers. These comics often showed attacks on new settlers by native Indians, wearing paint on their faces, warbonnets on their heads and riding down with a war cry on their lips. The image painted was that of Native Indians terrorizing and killing new settlers. It stayed with me for a very long time. As an adult, I happened to read a book called The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong by Stephen Jones which was all about colonial myth making surrounding the native American. The book intrigued me and set me examining the image of the native Indian, popularized by Western comics. I soon realized that these images were far from the truth. The truth was that the native Indians were dispossessed of their lands and lived mostly impoverished lives in reservations without running water or electricity. The 1950s was called the 'termination era' because Congress adopted policies aimed at terminating federal obligations to tribes. More than 100 tribes were terminated under this policy, and over a million acres of land were removed from trust status. All this was done ostensibly to assimilate native Indians with ‘Americans.’ 

Louise Erdrich’s book ‘The Nightwatchman’ set in 1953, is dedicated to ‘American Indian Leaders who fought against termination.’ The Nightwatchman of the title is Thomas Wazhashk, a fictional character based on the real-life Patrick Gourneau, Erdrich’s Grandfather, who as Tribal Chairman for Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians fought the Termination Bill that would dispossess the Indians of their land. But the story of the struggle of the community is woven together with the personal stories of other characters on the Reservation. They are all well contoured memorable characters fighting their own personal battles even while participating in the community’s fight against the Federal policy of termination. There is Pixie, who works in the only factory near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Upper Dakota and barely manages to put food on the table for her mother and brother. Then there is a young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain who lives with his mother Juggie Blue. Then there is the white High School Maths teacher and boxing coach who loves Pixie and wants to become a part of the tribe. Pixie’s journey into the urban jungle of Minneapolis in search of her dear sister Vera, is another thread that unravels slowly. Pixie’s encounter with unsavoury characters in the big bad city and her experience as a ‘waterjack’ in a bar, a misnomer for ‘sex trade’ is described at length. All the characters are sketched with warmth and love and come across as men and women who are not afraid to call a spade a spade. Their straightforward speech is truthful and highlights the duplicity of the double speak of policy makers. This is clear when we compare the speech of the Indian characters with the speech of the local Senator Arthur Watkins. Erdrich, a master hand at drawing characters and seamlessly blending the past and the present, raises issues of dispossession, sex trafficking and how modern education attempts to wipe out the culture and tradition of the Indians. A thought-provoking book indeed.

You close this book with mixed feelings. There is a sombre realization that the Native Americans have been shabbily treated by the government and most policies have been aimed at taking over their ancestral land without rehabilitating them. With this realization comes a feeling of sorrow at the unfairness of it all. After all it was the land of the indigenous people that was usurped by unscrupulous settlers. Even in this day and age, they are not being given their due. In the Afterword, the author talks about the problems faced by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. The Government aimed to revoke federal reservation designation for the tribe’s land in Massachusetts.  However, this book also offers a sense of affirmation, a conviction that Indians have the power to overcome odds. This is reinforced by the February 2021 legal victory scored by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe when the U.S. Interior Department withdrew a Trump administration appeal that aimed to revoke federal reservation designation for the tribe’s land in Massachusetts. As the author says, ‘If you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change…let this book give you heart”. It does. The last page ends on an upbeat note, with the reader believing in the strength and tenacious resilience of the native Indians who withstand the fall out of unfair policies and still stand tall.

~Pari Deshmukh

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