“The Night Watchman” is a snapshot of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa during a very eventful time in 1953-1954. As best explained by the author, “On August 1, 1953, the United States Congress announced House Concurrent Resolution 108, a bill to abrogate nation-to-nation treaties, which had been made with American Indian Nations ‘for as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow'”. This effort attempted to terminate five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
The author’s grandfather was the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa during this time and worked as a night watchman. The novel is in part a fictionalized story of his experiences, but also the story of the native American experience as described through the lives of a variety of other characters.
The story: Thomas Wazhashk is the Chippewa tribal chairman and works as a night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant, which manufactures jewel bearings. Thomas, a father of five, is working hard to respond to the US Congress effort to terminate the Chippewa tribe and has little time to sleep.
Patrice Paranteau lives in abject poverty with her mother, Zhaanat and her brother, Pokey. Patrice, who is known as Pixie and is desperately trying to shake that nickname, works at the jewel bearing plant, along with her friends Valentine and Doris. Patrice’s father is a violent, abusive drunk who moves in and out of their lives. Patrice’s sister, Vera, has left the reservation and moved to Minneapolis with her boyfriend. “Vera had applied to the Placement and Relocation Office and gone to Minneapolis…They got some money to set up a place to live, and training for a job. Many people came back within a year. Some, you never heard from again.” The family has not heard from Vera for five months and they are desperately seeking to make contact with her. Zhaanat’s family performs a ceremony where they scan Minneapolis and are able to determine that Vera is in trouble and has a child.
Lloyd Barnes is a white mathematics teacher and coaches boxing. Wood Mountain is the Chippewa’s best boxer. There are a couple of bouts throughout the book. Barnes is infatuated with Patrice. Wood Mountain is infatuated with Patrice. She seems to have no interest in either.
Patrice decides to take time off of work and go to Minneapolis to find her sister. She takes the train and finds herself traveling with Wood Mountain, who is on his way to Fargo for a fight. He asks Patrice about her plans and it becomes clear she has absolutely no plan for what to do when she arrives in Minneapolis. He gives her some tips. When she arrives in Minneapolis she is immediately swept up by some shady characters and learns more than she would like to know about the use of native American women in the sex and drug trades. Wood Mountain’s fight is cancelled and he decides to go to Minneapolis to ensure Patrice’s safety. They leave Minneapolis together, unable to locate Vera, but they return to Turtle Mountain with Vera’s baby.
In the meantime, Thomas is writing letters, reading the Congressional resolution and mobilizing support to fight the effort to terminate the tribe. Thomas is exhausted and frequently, while at his job as a night watchman, he is visited by the ghost of his old friend Roderick. Thomas is unsure what these visits are supposed to mean.
A hearing on the Resolution is upcoming and Thomas and other members of the Advisory Committee are scheduled to testify in Washington DC. They raise the money for the trip, in part, through a boxing match between Wood Mountain and a well-known Caucasian fighter. It turns out to be the last fight for both of them.
Patrice, Thomas and others travel to Washington DC to testify. On their first day in Washington DC, they go to visit the halls of Congress, where Patrice witnesses a shooting. “She realized that here in Washington she’d seen people shot, a thing she’d never seen before, even on the reservation, a place considered savage by the rest of the country.” Ultimately the Resolution is not passed and the trip is successful. The effort and exhaustion is almost the end for Thomas.
There are a lot of other characters and a number of other story lines in the novel. For instance, two Mormon missionaries spend time with the tribe and give Thomas a copy of the Book of Mormon, which he attempts to read. Patrice’s friend Betty, who also works at the plant, has her tonsils removed and brings them to work in a jar for all to see. The story is told with humor and passion, is extremely well written and compelling. Although many of the families live in extreme poverty, many without electricity or plumbing, the novel makes it clear that community and family come first, and everything else is second, a lesson we could all appreciate. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.