Interview: Louise Erdrich, Author Of 'The Night Watchman' Erdrich's new novel, set in the 1950s, follows a Native American tribe fighting for their rights as the U.S. Congress prepares to terminate their nation-to-nation treaties and land ownership rights.
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Louise Erdrich's Grandfather Inspired Her New 'Night Watchman'

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Louise Erdrich's Grandfather Inspired Her New 'Night Watchman'

Louise Erdrich's Grandfather Inspired Her New 'Night Watchman'

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Let's ask Louise Erdrich to introduce the main character of her new novel, "The Night Watchman." His name is Thomas Wazhashk.

LOUISE ERDRICH: (Reading) Thomas was named for the muskrat wazhashk, the lowly, hardworking, water-loving rodent. Muskrats were everywhere on the slough-dotted reservation. Their small, supple forms slipped busily through water at dusk, continually perfecting their burrows and eating how they loved to eat. Although the wazhashkag were numerous and ordinary, they were also crucial. In the beginning, after the Great Flood, it was a muskrat who had helped to remake the Earth. In that way, as it turned out, Thomas was perfectly named.

SIMON: And is that your grandfather Patrick?

ERDRICH: It is. Patrick Gourneau, yes.

SIMON: That's Louise Erdrich, of course - joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. She's winner of the National Book Award, the Library of Congress prize, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for a number of her 16 highly acclaimed novels. "The Night Watchman" is her most recent. Thanks so much for being with us.

ERDRICH: Thank you. Thank you for having me here.

SIMON: Like your grandfather, Thomas is the tribal leader of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. In these times when so many people refer to almost anything as an existential threat, in the fall of 1953, when this novel opens, that's exactly what the Chippewa were facing, wasn't it?

ERDRICH: Yes, it was. And the Turtle Mountain Band was on the first five tribes or nations who were slated to be terminated.

SIMON: Let's explain what termination is.

ERDRICH: So termination - what it did was basically abrogate the nation-to-nation treaties that existed from the very beginning of our country's history. Congress decided to cast them aside and to terminate the entire basis of Native American land ownership.

SIMON: Thomas Wazhashk, inspired by your grandfather, is in fact a night watchman, as well as a tribal leader. And the news about this act of Congress that's in the offing galvanizes him, doesn't it?

ERDRICH: It does. It took months for this to filter out into Indian country. And they had only a matter of months to mount some sort of defense for their very existence.

SIMON: There's so many characters in here that are fascinating and quirky and wonderful to get to know. But let me ask you to tell us about a couple - Thomas's niece Patrice, known as Pixie.

ERDRICH: She's the kind of woman who did things perfectly when enraged.

SIMON: And the story picks up - she has a separate quest when she goes off to find - locate her sister in Minneapolis. And she learns that life off the reservation has challenges, too.

ERDRICH: That's right. And she follows her sister because her sister has become part of this other program that - it hinged into termination. And that was called relocation.

SIMON: Yeah.

ERDRICH: And relocation was designed to remove native people from the reservations by giving them incentives to move to the city. So instead of putting that money into infrastructure on reservations, the government decided to move people off that valuable property.

SIMON: Yeah. I gather you were trying to get hold of this story and feeling, if I may, a little lost. And then you're - you reread your grandfather's letters.

ERDRICH: I reread his letters every so often to get a grip on why I'm doing this - this writing. I mean, he was a wonderful writer. His letters are beautiful, full of humor and storytelling. And he wrote them during this time when he was fighting termination and working as the night watchman. And what I think I absorbed was his sense of decency and his commitment to his family and his people. And it's hard to write about a decent person, you know (laughter)?

SIMON: Oh, it is?

ERDRICH: It is. It is hard. When I write characters, my instinct is really to give them a flaw, a conflict, something huge that they - they're struggling against.

SIMON: As we look back on it now, what was the effect of tribal termination in 1955?

ERDRICH: As it shook out, my - the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa was the one tribe to resist early and early on. Of those first five, what happened was complete devastation and loss. The forests were sold off. The tribes ended up with, again, you know, through the generations, a smaller and smaller land base. And now finally, it was loss of identity. It was loss of life. There was despair among people who were terminated. They had done everything possible to fit in to American society and culture. But it wasn't enough.

SIMON: We'll explain the policy ended under President Nixon in the 1970s. But September 2018, Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the Trump administration, has called for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to have their ownership ended.

ERDRICH: Yes. This is something that I worried about. It wasn't why I wrote the book. But maybe it was why my grandfather's letters were so powerfully resonant for me - because I'd been thinking about this for years and years. And why I had to write it then was it just took over. I had another book I was working on. And this suddenly became vital to me. And his voice, Patrice's voice, everything in it - it flowed so rapidly. And I had to write it.

SIMON: Louise Erdrich. Her novel, "The Night Watchman." Thank you so much for being with us.

ERDRICH: Thank you, Scott.

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