The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich’s seventeenth novel, centres around the challenge made in 1953 by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa to a bill brought before the United States Congress to ‘emancipate’ Native Americans from federal supervision in the states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. ‘Emancipation’ meant terminating the contracts between government and Native Americans, which, it had been promised, would endure ‘as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow’. Thomas Wazhashk, the night watchman of the title and chair of the Turtle Mountain Advisory Committee, sees early on what such ‘termination’ would mean for the Chippewa: the word is ‘missing only the prefix. The ex.’
Wazhashk guards both his community and the local factory in which women workers glue slivers of ruby, sapphire and garnet onto spindles to be used in drilling. A visionary, he also watches the stars at night: ‘Buganogiizhik, the hole in the sky through which the Creator had hurtled, glowed and winked. He longed for Ikwe Anang, the woman star.’ The stars and their stories are just one aspect of a vast spiritual ecology that also involves the trees, the lakes and the mountains. When Thomas’s father sits outside in his little chair, he feels the roots of trees ‘humming below the earth’, having ‘a last bedtime drink of the great waters that flowed along down there’. Erdrich’s great gift is for making this spiritually teeming universe feel as real as the descriptions of everyday Native American life.
The Chippewa are a strong community: spiritually advanced, grounded in their environment, sophisticated healers and makers, speakers of a compactly expressive language, mutually supportive. But to most of their neighbours, writes Erdrich, ‘Indians were people who suffered and hid away in shabby dwellings or roamed the streets in flagrant drunkenness