Bruce Duthu's Words of Wisdom

Shared in the March 30, 2020 NAP Weekly Newsletter

Contributed by Professor Bruce Duthu, Native American Studies

Greetings from the northeast!  I hope this finds you and your loved ones well, in good spirits and in good health – all things considered.

These are strange times indeed!  Many of you are about to make history as the first Dartmouth students to take their entire term of undergraduate courses online and away from Hanover.  You'll have lots of company, at least in cyberspace, as the vast majority of your college counterparts at other institutions are doing the same thing.  I'm sure that the artists among you could conjure a powerful image of the immense intellectual traffic that will soon jam the lanes in cyberspace!

While I'm sure you'll be busy enough with the academic work that will soon arrive, I wanted to recommend some outside reading that I'm confident you'll find inspiring, enlightening and entertaining.  It's Louise Erdrich's latest novel, The Night Watchman, set in the 1950s.  While the bulk of the action takes place on or near the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota, the storyline shifts to other locales from time to time, including the twin cities in Minnesota and to Washington DC.  As many of you will recall, federal Indian policy in the 1950s shifted towards termination of the federal-tribal relationship and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians was among the 100+ tribes targeted for termination.

Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman and also a tribal political leader.  Modeled after Louise's own grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, Thomas takes a lead role in challenging the federal government's termination scheme directed at his people.

"SO IT comes down to this, thought Thomas, staring at the neutral strings of sentences in the termination bill.  We have survived smallpox, the Winchester repeating rifle, the Hotchkiss gun, and tuberculosis.  We have survived the flu epidemic of 1918, and fought in four or five deadly United States wars.  But at last we will be destroyed by a collection of tedious words." (p. 93)

The other major character in the novel is Patrice Paranteau, a 19-year old tribal member who works at the plant but who strikes out on her own to discover the fate of her missing older sister, Vera.  Trust me when I tell you that you will find a lot to treasure in this character!

If you want to laugh again, and feel hopeful again, this novel is for you.  Here are Louise's words to you, from the afterword and acknowledgments: "Lastly, if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt.  Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart."