Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, was tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa when the US Congress imposed House Concurrent Resolution 108 in 1953. This revoked the federally recognised status of many Native American tribes and withdrew legal protection of their territory, culture and religion. Gourneau was also a night watchman. While Erdrich’s latest book is fiction, it clearly draws deeply on what she describes in a prefatory note as ‘my grandfather’s extraordinary life’.
Thomas Wazhashk — the surname means muskrat in Chippewa — is the night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant, a place where the women of the tribe ‘spent their days leaning into the hard light of their task lamps’. He lives in a state of perpetual exhaustion, trying to balance his menial job with the demands of his position as the head of a tribe under threat from a bill whose ‘innocuous dry language’ masked its malign intent: ‘To unmake, to unrecognise. To erase as Indians him, Biboon, Rose, his children, his people, all of us invisible and as if we never were here, from the beginning, here.’
One of the women working at the plant is spiky 19-year-old Patrice Paranteau, known, to her chagrin, as Pixie. The daughter of a cringing drunk (‘no way to pretend away the relentless shame of him’), she knows that she is ‘the only barrier between her family and disaster’, being the first person in the family to have ‘a white-people job’. Her sister Vera has recently joined the exodus away from the reservation, having left for Minneapolis with her soon-to-be-husband. The ‘Placement and Relocation Office’ that engineers these departures is part of the apparently benign machine by which the US government seeks to ‘absorb’ the tribes.
Now Vera has disappeared, and Patrice takes a week’s leave to go in search of her sister, who has, it seems, had a baby in the Twin Cities.