There is a long literary history of aggrieved authors, fiction writers who paint searing portraits of the special struggles faced by marginalized ethnic groups.
Black authors from the 1950s and ’60s, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin are now joined by Colson Whitehead and James McBride in chronicling the massive obstacles generations of Black Americans have faced in attempt to gain equity.
The Asian struggles and successes have been boldly presented by myriad Asian writers such as Min Jin Lee and Amy Tan.
Native Americans, by default, have the longest arc of discrimination and manipulation against them. “From sea to shining sea” was once their own provenance.
While less known than other works, Native American literature is fairly extensive.
Louise Erdrich, author of the 2020 novel, “The Night Watchman,” is a prominent figure in this genre. “The Night Watchman” is her 16th novel, most of them concerning the Chippewa tribe of North Dakota of which she is a member. The springboard for this historical fiction is the August 1953 proposal of the U.S. Congressional Resolution 108, which declared, “It should be the policy of the United States to abolish Federal supervision over American Indian tribes.” While this sounds benign, or even charitable, it cloaked a darker purpose. Native Americans called it “The Termination.”
Modeled after Erdrich’s grandfather, the main character Thomas Wazhask is a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe whose life as a farmer on the reservation and a night watchman at a jewelry manufacturing plant is upended by the pending Congressional resolution. As tribal chairman Thomas knows the politicians in Washington, D.C., care little about the future of his tribesmen and women. The task of averting the taking of their lands and forced relocation rest on his shoulders.
“The Night Watchman” has multiple plots with a generous portion of the 461- page work devoted to the coming of age of Thomas’ young, strong-willed niece Patrice (Pixie) Parentau. This includes her efforts to save a sister from sex trafficking in Minneapolis while also protecting her family from her drunken, abusive father. Although this, and other story threads, weaken the urgency of the Resolution 108 dilemma Erdrich’s marvelously detailed descriptions of reservation life and character eccentricities makes for fascinating reading.
Spirits, food, nature, traditions and superstitions have always been part of the American Indian culture. The blending of all these elements provides their religious base. Many of these beliefs run counter to the wishes of outsiders that Native Americans assimilate to the white man’s ways. A pair of young Mormon missionaries meet with little success with their proselytizing to tribe members. Reviewing the “Book of Mormon” Thomas laments, “Who would ever believe that cockeyed story about the peep stone, the vision in the bottom of the hat, the golden tablets? This whole book was an excuse to get rid of Indians.”
Erdrich’s first novel, “Love Medicine,” was published in 1984. She has been telling stories of Native American tragedies and triumphs for almost four decades. She knows the importance to the Chippewa tribe of the battle her grandfather fought against Resolution 108. Nationally, the Resolution eventually removed 2.5 million acres of trust lands from protective status and 12,000 Native Americans lost their tribal designations.
In March of 2021 Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo Tribe of Laguna, was confirmed as United States Secretary of the Interior. She became the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet Secretary.
Louise Erdrich is perhaps smiling in the Birchback bookstore she owns in Grand Marais, Minnesota.