Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman

I’m not halfway through Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman—and I’m uncomfortable. Erdrich is Turtle Mountains Chippewa. The Turtle Mountain Reservation is about 200 miles due west of Fosston, Minnesota, where I was born and started growing up. Her book is set in the 1950s, with the story of her grandfather fighting Termination at the heart of it. I was born in 1942, and remember northern Minnesota—the summer heat and bugs and winter cold; ice skates too big with paper stuffed in the toes; Lutheran churches and church potlucks; summer baseball, and on and on. But I don’t remember The Night Watchman’s world.

The town names—Fargo and Grand Forks, Minneapolis—I recognize, but not the people. I don’t remember knowing the word Chippewa, or Ojibwa, and certainly not Assiniboine, all names for the Indian people who lived and live across northern Minnesota and North Dakota and into Canada. We just knew “Indian,” but then only the word and some mostly bad stories. On the plus side was the Indian girl on the Land O’Lakes butter package; and Tonto, who helped the Lone Ranger on the radio. Tonto’s accent was outlandish and led to mistaken stereotyping, but at least he was on the right side of the law. The negatives were all the stories we heard from elders and older boys—drunken Indians, lazy Indians, Indians with big cars bought with “government money” living in shacks on the gravel back road we took to Fargo.

Reading Erdrich, I’m thinking that my family hunted, so we knew duck, partridge, and venison, and we picked wild berries—but we didn’t know wild turnips or pemmican, or dipping bannock in duck grease. We didn’t know hunger.

Although the White Earth Reservation was just minutes from Fosston, there were no Indians in our school. We didn’t know about reservation schools and especially about boarding schools. We didn’t know that the government had spent almost 200 years taking Indian lands and trying to make it all right by making them white. Assimilation is a word I didn’t know into my 30s or 40s, and I’m still piecing together the steps along that road: treaties, missionaries, allotment, boarding schools, Code of Indian Conduct, termination, relocation, incarceration…

Mankato is not in The Night Watchman, at least not yet, but there was certainly nothing in our histories about the Dakota Uprising of 1862, and the public hanging of 38 Dakota men in the midst of the Civil War in Mankato, Minnesota.

In Erdrich’s beautifully crafted historical novel, I’m reading the other side—people and events omitted in the textbooks and the stories from Norwegian and German American elders—of my own story. Her people have tarpaper shacks with dirt floors, cardboard walls, and outhouses, and they carry water from somewhere else. My grandparents had an outhouse, and a pump on the front porch in nearby Lengby. But the water was clean, and after their house burned in 1947, the new house had a chemical toilet. Our house in Fosston, and all the friends’ houses I knew, were fully-plumbed.

In the book, Patrice, a strong young woman with a saintly mom and a dad lost to alcohol, goes to Minneapolis to find her sister, who’s “relocated” to the city and fallen into its scummy backwaters. I didn’t make it to Minneapolis in those years. It was a far-off foreign place. There was the Sunday Star Tribune, with its brown sports pages—where I really learned to read, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers I rooted for. My dad had worked in a meatpacking plant there before the War; it hadn’t been a clean place. But none of this was like the Minneapolis where Erdrich’s—and many other—relocated Indians ended up, prey to petty thieves and pimps, staying in fleabag hotels, wondering where they were—and who they had become. Relocation, Termination’s stepsister, had its successes, but it destroyed many, and I ache knowing I’ll learn how it ate up Patrice’s sister.

I try to remember any positive images of Indian in those Minnesota days. Two come to mind. First, my favorite Uncle Al, a southern Minnesota farm-boy who’d come back from WW II with some gumption and an ache to hunt and fish, bought a small resort on Island Lake. The “Hideout” was about a dozen miles from Fosston, a mile or so off that gravel back road to Fargo as I recall. The last mile was two-track with turnouts in case you met someone coming the other way.  There were a few rustic cabins, and a few boats tied to a dock with a minnow tank at its end. There was a small café with coffee pot and jukebox at a counter and maybe a booth or two.

Uncle Al invited me to come stay with him for a week when I was maybe 8. This was before he married my Dad’s youngest sister, so maybe I was his way of cozying up to the family, although I know from later years that Al loved all kids—and I was the first nephew/grandchild in the family. We slept in one of the cabins; “Pete” the dog jumped through the window to wake us, and Al went to put the coffee on and make us pancakes. He had work to do around the place, so gave me a rod with line and hook and told me to go fish off the dock.

I sat on the end of that dock, struggling to catch a minnow out of the tank—or maybe I got one from the tank with that small net and was struggling to put it on the hook—when a brown boy about my size and age asked if he could help me. The hook goes through the mouth and out the gill on the side and then through the body of the minnow so that it is in a swim-line with plenty of tale left to wiggle.

Itasca State Park 1948?

He did that and I learned it and I don’t remember whether I caught a fish that day or whether I asked where he lived or whether we talked more or not. He just disappeared from my life as silently and quickly as he’d come into it. Island Lake was right next to the White Earth Reservation—maybe on it in one of the Rez’s earlier configurations, so I guessed he lived in one of those tarpaper shacks we drove by.

One day when I was younger than that Uncle Al and some other uncles, girlfriends and aunts took me to Itasca State Park. One or two of them went ahead and when we got to our spot Uncle Al asked if I knew about money trees. “Well,” he said, “you might shake that one over there and see what happens.” I did, and pennies and nickels tumbled from the branches, and I scooped them up and planned on telling my folks about the magic tree and my fine adventure.

That same day there was an Indian Chief sitting in front of his teepee at Itasca, and for a quarter you could sit on his lap and have your picture taken. I don’t know now whether I remember that event or just remember it from the photo of it. Early events are enigmatic like that. I might have been scared, although I don’t look it in the photo. I’m more impressed now at the teepee with the hand drum. I wouldn’t have known it was a hand drum at the time.

I didn’t know much. It’s my good fortune to have a writer as talented as Louise Erdrich come along with this book at this time in my life to show me what I’d missed.

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