The year 2026 will mark the 400th anniversary of a remarkable event in American history. In 1626, a Dutchman reportedly bought the island of Manhattan from the (Native American) Indians for the equivalent of $24, or about $1,000 in today’s currency. Today, we non-Native Americans look back at the glittering jewel that Manhattan became and think, what a deal! This year The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Set in 1953, it’s based on her maternal grandfather’s struggle to save his rural North Dakota Indian reservation from termination by the federal government. It’s a significant historical event worth contemplating, particularly in light of the current debate over how much U.S. history we should teach our children.
Thomas Wazhashk, nearing fifty, never gets enough sleep. He’s the night watchman at a jewel-bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain Reservation. It’s not his only job, but the salary he earns helps him support his family, including a mother-in-law suffering from dementia and his beloved 94-year-old father. Never mind that he sometimes gives the money away to more desperate friends or family. Thomas is also the council chairman but has never drawn his paycheck because the tribe is broke. As chairman, he spends a lot of time writing letters: to congressmen, to the county commissioner, to a newspaper columnist. He thanks them or congratulates them or invites them to tour the reservation. A new “emancipation” bill being considered in the U.S. Congress is a big worry. The newspapers write about it in lofty terms: freedom, equality, success, but really, if passed, it could devastate his tribe. The federal government is seeking to “terminate” its relationship with his tribe and others. With no land to call their own, the social services that go with it (school, hospital) would disappear. Then there’s the fact that decent employment opportunities in the outside world are bleak for Native Americans.
Patrice Paranteau is Thomas’s niece, and her story is interwoven with his. She grew up with a violent, alcoholic father who frequently disappears on benders. Whenever he’s gone, she or her mother sleep with an axe by the front door in case he returns in one of his moods. Patrice is a recent high school graduate and the sole support of her mother and brother. Like Thomas, she’s employed by the plant that makes the jewel-bearings used in Defense Dept. ammunitions and Bulova watches. Making these jewel bearings is pain-staking work that pays little, but these are coveted positions filled mainly by women, who happen to score higher on tests for manual dexterity. The government attributes that to their training in Indian beadwork, but Thomas thought “it was their sharp eyes—the women of his tribe could spear you with a glance.” Patrice has no wish to rush into marriage or motherhood, like so many young women on the reservation, and her prickly personality manages to keep most suitors at bay. Her most pressing immediate concern is finding her older sister Vera, a young woman who fell in love and moved to Minneapolis. The family hasn’t heard from her in months, and an uncle who’s respected for his ability to connect with the spirit world determines that Vera is in trouble and that she’s had a baby. Patrice fenagles some time off work to go look for her in Minneapolis. What she finds is a violent world of exploitation and enforced prostitution, but she uses her wits to escape—and bring home Vera’s baby.
The intertwining stories introduce the reader to a wide range of characters living on the reservation, including a good-hearted white teacher they call Hay Stack (due to his straw-colored hair), who’s hopelessly in love with Patrice; and Wood Mountain, a talented young boxer who feels a deep connection to Vera’s baby. He’s also the main attraction for a fundraiser designed to raise money for the trip to Washington, D.C. where they will argue against passage of the termination bill. His boxing re-match against a white opponent who beat him, given questionable judging, draws a big crowd.
In July, I travelled to the Adirondacks in upstate New York for an annual family visit. As was true in Manhattan, the Native American Indians were here in the Adirondacks first. Initially you see it in names like Ft. Ticonderoga (“between two waters”), located on the shores of Lake Champlain and where American forces had their first victory against the British during the Revolutionary War; the town of Indian Lake and its sister lake Abanakee; the former mining town Tahawus (“cloud-splitter”), which is also the site of the hunting and fishing club where Teddy Roosevelt was lodging when he got word that President McKinley’s gunshot wound was about to turn fatal; Algonquin Peak and Iroquois Peak, two of forty-six high peaks in the area. Even the name Adirondacks is an Anglicized version of “ratirontaks”, a derogatory term used by the Mohawks to describe the neighboring Algonquin tribes. Translated, the word means “they eat trees” which is what they did (ate buds and bark) when food was scarce.
The Night Watchman is moving, sad, joyous, frightening, funny and ultimately wondrous. Louise Erdrich is a master storyteller who immerses the reader in a world I was reluctant to leave. In the afterword, she explains that while the Turtle Mountain tribe was successful in holding on to their reservation, “113 tribal nations suffered the disaster of termination; 1.4 million acres of land was lost. Wealth flowed to private corporations, while many people in terminated tribes died early, in poverty. Not one tribe profited.” It wasn’t until 1970 that President Richard Nixon asked Congress to overturn this policy.
In the Adirondacks, which I’ve visited all my life, the general understanding has been that Native Americans were never permanent settlers here; therefore, when the European settlers/traders showed up, that piece of New York was free for the taking. More recent research presents a different picture. Native American tribes did live there year-round, but they changed locations with the seasons, moving from a spring fishing camp to a summer fishing and farming camp by a lake, to a fall acorn-gathering camp, to a fall/winter hunting camp. Once a European explorer discovered the Hudson River in 1609, the Dutch arrived and what they wanted most was beaver pelts to make the fur hats so prized in the Netherlands. The Adirondacks was a prime trapping ground—the cold climate caused animals to grow thicker more luxuriant coats. Instead of hunting animals exclusively for food, the Native Americans turned to trapping beavers for trade, which led to a series of Indian wars as tribes competed for a dwindling supply.
What should we teach our children? Why not the good, the bad, and the ugly. No human being is perfect, which means all societies are imperfect. We grow and evolve as people and hopefully our society follows suit. If we don’t acknowledge the horrific in our nation’s past along with the sublime, how can we continue to strive for that more perfect union?