Fighting and winning with Louise Erdrich

The author opens up to Tommy Orange about family, her new novel and the third wave of Indigenous writing.

 

In February, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Louise Erdrich — one of my very favorite writers — about her newest novel, The Night Watchman, a beautifully rendered historic fiction based on her grandfather’s life.

During the termination era of the 1950s and ’60s, states and the U.S. federal government worked to end recognition of Native American tribes as sovereign entities and to force tribal citizens to assimilate, in part by taking their land. In 1953, the U.S. House passed a concurrent resolution that would immediately terminate five tribes, including Erdrich’s grandfather’s tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. In The Night Watchman, Erdrich fictionalizes her grandfather’s fight against federal termination, which he waged as the tribe’s chairman, even as he worked as the night watchman of a jewel bearing plant. There, Indigenous workers, mostly women, attached tiny slices of precious stones to drill bits for use “in Defense Department ordnance and in Bulova watches,” Erdrich writes.

Erdrich is an enrolled member of the tribe. Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, to a German father and Chippewa mother, Erdrich is the award-winning author of 16 novels, in addition to poetry, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction. She also owns Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis that emphasizes Indigenous writing and art. For her book tour, Erdrich said, she’s focusing on visiting places where she could “be assured of talking to people who have been directly affected by a history of termination,” such as New Mexico and Minnesota.

Our conversation ranged from Erdrich’s creative process to the past and future of Native literature. I was particularly surprised to find out how Erdrich uses a kind of writerly instinct more than anything else to guide her work. Mostly, we talked about the many fascinating topics her newest book contains.

Erdrich was as warm and generous and thoughtful as I hoped she’d be, and I tried my very best to not sound like an overly excited, nervous fan.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tommy Orange: I love this book so much. Everything you approached, from the mundane, to the ghostly, to the underlying political meaning, was so seamlessly connected. What inspired you to write it?

Louise Erdrich: This book involves close communication with my grandfather. His name was Patrick Gourneau, and he was the tribal chair at the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa all through the 1950s, into the ’60s. I spent a long time in the National Archives looking up what I could find of his.

I had also been given his letters written during 1954, the year I was born, and those letters coincided with the period of time in which termination was announced. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa was on the list of the first five tribes to be terminated, so his letters also coincided with the period of time in which (the tribe) had to mount some sort of defense and go to Washington if they wanted to remain a tribe, to try to persuade Congress not to terminate them.

TO: The book also focuses on a young woman, Patrice. How did she come into the story?

LE: There are two main characters. The book is about a decent man, and a decent — and ambitious — young woman. I started writing Thomas Wazhashk (the main character, based on her grandfather) as a very decent person. I thought, “This is going to be a problem; he doesn’t really have some kind of gigantic conflict.” What do I do with a character like this, you know?

But then, as if to say, “You’re not seeing the whole picture here,” the next chapter started with Patrice — Pixie — Paranteau, and how she did things “perfectly when enraged.” I realized: I’m really writing about two people. But my grandfather started it all into motion.

When the U.S. government was trying to sneak around and do all these awful things to tribes, he was there, watching out while Congress tried to lull people to sleep with those boring phrases that were actually deeply damaging and harmful.

TO: It’s just so brilliant, this idea of the night watchman as a deep metaphor for your grandfather’s life work, how he paid attention.  When the U.S. government was trying to sneak around and do all these awful things to tribes, he was there, watching out while Congress tried to lull people to sleep with those boring phrases that were actually deeply damaging and harmful. And he was also literally working as a night watchman.

LE: That’s what just really kind of shattered me, when I realized what he was really doing. He was writing these letters to my parents at night as he worked as a night watchman (at a jewel bearing plant). And then during the day, he fought termination and supported his family with this garden that he kept — an amazing garden that’s in all of the agricultural reports from the reservation at the time.

He really farmed his allotment, deeply farmed it, and this was a huge transition for our family. My great-grandfather had been on the last buffalo hunt, so for my grandfather to settle down to farm, then teach his sons farming as well, was a huge transition.

The metaphor just really broke me: that he was awake, and he was watching out. Nobody was seeing what was happening, because the language that termination was couched in was brilliant in its Orwellian, nightmarish obfuscations. There were words like emancipate: “We will emancipate you.” Well, wait a minute — nobody’s enslaved or restrained, really, by keeping the (tribal) treaties. Or opportunities. Well, these weren’t opportunities, they were diminishments of rights. That was the gist of everything — relocation and termination.

With an eighth-grade boarding-school education, my grandfather read these words, and he saw through them to the word “termination.” And he immediately grasped that he had to persuade people around him to fight termination with him. They could have so easily been terminated, and it’s such a tiny land base — Turtle Mountain as a reservation is only two townships — that there would have been nothing after people sold their lands and dispersed.

I was chilled just reading what happened and understanding the magnitude of what he accomplished from his desk as a night watchman.

Courtesy of Louise Erdrich

TO: In your use of the Chippewa language in this book, there’s an intimacy and knowledge that the characters have about the language. The language towers over English in a way. Even Thomas reverts back to Chippewa. Can you talk about working with Chippewa in the book, and the role that it plays?

LE: This is one of the things about the book, since it’s set in the ’50s. People didn’t use to say, “I’m speaking Ojibwemowin” or “Anishinaabemowin,” you know, the way the language is spoken of more correctly (today). People said, “Oh, she’s talking Indian again.”

And so you don’t see “Native American” in the book, because that’s not what people called themselves or anybody else, or the language. But I went over this with people at the Turtle Mountain Community College, and they’re still trying to get people to stop saying, “She’s talking Indian,” so I didn’t want to put that in the book, either. So a lot of times it’s, “talking Chippewa.” It’s kind of a compromise.

My grandfather spoke the Red Lake dialect of Chippewa. I didn’t understand what he was saying; my mother barely learned the language. By the end, he didn’t have a lot of people to speak with up in the Turtle Mountains; it’s a real mixture of cultures up there. He spoke with family, mostly, and deeply missed his father, because his father spoke almost only Chippewa.

My daughter, Persia, is a teacher at a Chippewa immersion school. She decided to devote herself to the language, and part of me just has to believe that my grandfather somehow knows he would have been able to speak to his great-granddaughter.

TO: It seems like this book has been with you for a long time. People are so unaware of how much damage this government has done to Native people, and how that legacy continues. Was there anything that made you feel like this book needed to come now?

LE: As are many other people in the country, I’m tuned into what is happening in Washington, and how it’s affecting us, in a very different way than I was to what happened in the past. We have a possible destruction of our Constitution, and with that, we have to think even of the foundational treaties, which have made possible our government-to-government relationship in our country. I think that’s why these letters suddenly became so vital to me. My realization was that this story is really speaking to these times.

I’m not sure how to parse that out exactly, but I also dread looking at everything that’s happening in Washington, and I have to make myself keep my eyes open, and I don’t want people to become helpless. I feel like we’re already drained by this chaotic autocrat, and every day there’s something else that slashes at all we love in our country, in our home, and in the way that life is conducted.

TO: With the story of Vera (Pixie’s sister, who disappears in Minneapolis), I can’t help but think of all the awareness that has come up around missing and murdered Indigenous women. Can you talk about why writing about that was important to you?

LE: Yes, it’s a huge issue for me. I mean, I take it very personally, because I know that the statistics, even as appalling as they are, underrepresent the violence that Native women face, because so much is not reported. So I wanted to talk about the historical underpinnings.

People are becoming more vocal, more conscious. There’s a huge march here every Valentine’s Day for missing and murdered Indigenous women. But we know all the statistics, and if we’re relying on this administration’s Department of Justice? Nobody’s going to be prosecuted.

I wanted to talk about the fact that this has historically been happening, in part because of that relocation bringing many women into the city.

TO: Do you have any thoughts on the future of Native literature? You’ve been through a lot of the different generations of Native writers. Is the world treating Native writers differently over time?

LE: Well, yes, I feel like this is a time that I am rejoicing in a lot of ways. I mean, as a bookstore owner — and our bookstore, of course, is focused on Native literature and history and every kind of Native writing — I really am thrilled this is what people are calling a “third wave.” So many people are out there writing, and so many Native people of all different backgrounds, all different sensibilities, different languages coming into consciousness. It’s a very powerful time, and it makes me very grateful.   

Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. His first book, There There, was a 2019 winner of the American Book Awards, 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist and a 2018 National Book Awards finalist. He lives in California. 
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