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Plains Folk

Winning on Points

In the middle of Louise Erdrich’s brilliant and haunting novel, The Night Watchman, her protagonist (if the book can be said to have one), Thomas Wazhashk (whose surname means “muskrat”), tries to explain things to a white guy, a math teacher and boxing coach. He puts matters in simple terms, works through misconceptions, and sums up, “I don’t want to give up our scrap of home. I love my home.”


“Not for the first time,” we are told, “he felt sorry for a white fellow.”


The fictional character of Thomas Wazhashk is based upon Patrick Gourneau, Erdrich’s grandfather, who was night watchman at a defense subcontracting plant on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation and also tribal chairman. It was on his watch that the Turtle Mountain people faced the existential threat of termination, that is, the attempt by the United States Congress to terminate the Turtle Mountain Chippewa as a tribe. The struggle against termination is one historic theme in the book.


Erdrich explains, “My grandfather Patrick Gourneau fought against termination as tribal chairman while working as a night watchman. He hardly slept, like my character Thomas Wazhashk.”


The other historic theme in the book is the companion assault on tribal sovereignty and culture known as relocation, that is, the program by which federal agents sought to break up native families by luring young people away from the reservation into cities, where they were promised benefits. The plotline whereby one native woman gone to Minneapolis comes to grief, but survives it, resonates with continuing stories about the disappearance and abuse of native women.


(Let me insert here that Erdrich’s novel is so fine and provocative you may wish to read more, historically, perhaps from a native scholar, about the tragic policies of termination and relocation. In that case I recommend the book by Donald Fixico, Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960.)


I won’t summarize the novel; read it yourself; preferably, get it from your favorite independent bookstore. Let me offer a couple of observations by way of connection and comparison.


Given the regional orientation of Plains Folk, I want to observe a commonality between Erdrich’s work and that of the great literary light of the settler society, Willa Cather. Both of them are at their best when they dwell in their home country, when they say, “I love my home.” Night Watchman is inseparable from Turtle Mountain. Both writers, too, create memorable characters and pass the narrative voice around among them. Sometimes, too, an important female character is present but not speaking--I’m thinking of Erdrich’s treatment of the powerful traditionalist, Zhaanat.


It is this appreciation and portrayal of female characters that most distinguishes Erdrich from the novelist who previously addressed relocation and its impacts--N. Scott Momaday, in House Made of Dawn.


A painful set piece in Erdrich’s narrative is the boxing match organized to raise money for the Turtle Mountain delegation to go to Washington and testify against termination. The antagonists are Wood Mountain, the Chippewa boxer who surfaces from the narrative as a quiet hero, and his nemesis, Joe Wobleszynski. They go the distance, the fight gets ugly, and Wood Mountain (whose name carries historic freight, tangled with Erdrich’s ancestry, that I have not yet unpacked) wins by decision, on points--but both fighters are damaged, diminished, and scarred. 


-Tom Isern

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