More than a storyteller, Louise Erdrich gives voice to Native communities

This novelist explores faith and identity by drawing on her Catholic and Ojibwe roots.
Arts & Culture

After writing 15 novels, Louise Erdrich decided it was time to tell the story of her maternal grandfather, Patrick Gourneau. An Ojibwe tribal chairman raised on the Turtle Mountains reservation in North Dakota, Erdrich’s grandfather learned of a proposed bill to terminate Native tribes and take their land in 1953. Gourneau gathered a group of local people to fight the bill: The story of their fight forms the plot of Erdrich’s latest novel, The Night Watchman (Harper).

Like much of Erdrich’s work, which includes poetry, short stories, children’s books, and a memoir about motherhood, The Night Watchman features a small, isolated Native American community whose values and way of life intermingle Native traditions with Catholicism—sometimes smoothly, often with conflict.

Many of Erdrich’s stories are populated with marginalized or outcast characters who may or may not find redemption or acceptance, from the nun who becomes a priest in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (HarperCollins) to the vengeful grifter Romeo in LaRose (Harper).

Erdrich grew up Catholic in a small town in North Dakota with a German American father and an Ojibwe mother. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Today she owns a bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books, which, she says, specializes in books by “authentic Native voices . . . who can talk about their own experiences in a deeply knowing and loving way.”

Advertisement

What inspired The Night Watchman?

My grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, was the tribal chairman in the mid-1950s. He was a storyteller. He lived for a time as a hobo following the harvest cycles in the United States all the way down to Mexico. There’s a place in the novel where Thomas Wazhashk, the character inspired by him, is rounded up in a deportation and is sent to Mexico. My grandfather did in fact end up in Mexico at one point when he was following the harvests.

Then he came back, married my grandmother, and started farming his allotment land in the Turtle Mountains in North Dakota. He saved enough money to purchase equipment and seed, and he made an amazing truck garden. Then, in 1953, both houses of Congress passed a resolution that would later become known as the Termination Bill. What this meant was that both houses decided to abrogate all treaties made with American Indian nations since the founding of the United States. It also meant that all American Indian tribes lost their status as nations in relation to the U.S. government. People may think that couldn’t happen, but it did happen.

The original treaties all contained the words, “As long as the grass grows and the rivers flow,” because the tribal people who drafted those treaties wanted that wording. They wanted the treaties to last for their descendants. So the Termination Bill was a direct violation of what would be considered international law. It meant the destruction of every Indian nation slated for termination.

My grandfather had an eighth-grade education in government boarding schools, and he decided to fight the Termination Bill. That’s what inspired me. That out of all of this experience of life, he came to a point where everything he’d done and learned had this purpose: to save his people.

Advertisement

Why did the government introduce the Termination Bill?

It’s not as though it happened suddenly. It had been in the works for many years. The government had been trying to fix “the Indian problem” by basically getting rid of Native Americans. They thought everyone would die off.

Within living memory of many Native American people are diseases that were pandemic in Native communities. My mother told me that she can remember when people on the reservation still got smallpox. This and tuberculosis ravaged Native American communities: Smallpox and other diseases killed 9 out of every 10 Native people.

Then, in the ’50s, there was a post-war housing boom and an incredible need for housing resources. The government saw that the Klamath in Oregon, the Menominee in Wisconsin, and other tribes had huge swaths of forest land. The lands of the Klamath and the Menominee were the richest prizes for the government and for private corporations, including lumber companies.

My beliefs are always in the background of my writing. I don’t think a writer can help writing out of some belief system or lack of one.

If Native tribes were terminated, there would be no choice but for the people to immediately sell their land, because they were in such desperate poverty. This was exactly what happened: They sold their land to the lumber industries. And that was the reason the bill was signed. It was an attempt by the U.S. government to take control of some of the land that had been deemed excess and left in the treaties.

How is termination still relevant today?

The Night Watchman is about a small and really impoverished group of people living in an unfathomably remote place who unify themselves. They make friends. They gather anyone who could be an ally. This small band of people group together, maintain focus, go to Washington, and win their case against the U.S. government. They were the first tribe to do that, and for a long time they were the only tribe to do that. What they did is a myth.

This was the work of many people, but it was also, I think, due to my grandfather’s talent. I felt I needed to write about what he did at this moment in time.

There’s currently an attempt by the Trump administration to terminate the Wampanoag in Massachusetts, the people who greeted the pilgrims and who are responsible for the first Thanksgiving. So there are still these attempts to get rid of Native tribes. And once I was writing the book, I realized it was about current events such as the Wampanoag as well.

What were your grandfather’s religious and spiritual beliefs?

The Turtle Mountains is an intensely Catholic area of the world, and my grandfather was a very devout man. He was a devout Catholic and attended Mass back when they had to walk miles or take wagons to go to Mass. But he also was intensely traditional in his spirituality. He belonged to the traditional Ojibwe religion. He prayed to a multitude of mysteries.

He also was great friends with the Benedictine fathers. He had long discussions with them about Native religion, particularly Ojibwe religion. They would talk about Catholicism and about the gichi-manidoo, or the Great Spirit. They would talk about the Ojibwe God in the same way they talked about the Holy Spirit or the Trinity. The Benedictines there were open to Ojibwe religion in a way that sometimes Western religions are not.

How does faith feed into your writing?

My beliefs are always in the background of my writing. I don’t think a writer can help writing out of some belief system or lack of one. Some of it is not altogether visible, but it’s there.

For me, I think the highest values in any religion are the values of kindness, inclusivity, tolerance, and love. As my writing has matured, I’ve noticed that’s what I’m trying to get at always: how people live together. How can we build lives for ourselves in which we take care of one another? How do we take care of one another?

As a writer, the most important thing is to write without judgment.

In The Night Watchman I talk a lot about taking care of one another without saying it outright. Thomas is taking care of his people and his family. His wife makes a quilt out of her children’s and her parents’ old winter coats, and that quilt covers Thomas as he rests. Patrice is taking care of her entire family with her job, and so are the other women at the jewel-bearing plant. And in the end, this small band of people go to Washington to try not only to take care of their people but also to establish a precedent for other American Indian nations.

Your novels feature a strong sense of community. How do you build this as a storyteller?

I don’t do it with a tremendous amount of consciousness. It springs from my own experience with my large extended family and community in my small hometown in North Dakota and with a community of book people in Minnesota.

I love writing out of a sense of a character and what that person does. Sometimes, if I write the character carefully enough, the character comes back with a reward, which is when I unexpectedly find myself writing something on the page that doesn’t seem to come from me—it seems to come from the character. As a writer, the most important thing is to write without judgment. Once I write without judgment, I find something I never could have predicted. I find the unexpected.

That’s what happened with Romeo in LaRose. I tried to make his character the worst scumbag. He’s a vengeful thief and grifter with a long-standing grudge. As I wrote him I thought, “I am not going to relent. I am not going to let you be redeemed.” But in the end he is. There’s a moment in the story where he throws himself down cement church steps in despair: I’ve been on those church steps, metaphorically, and so has almost everybody—where you are at either the lowest or the highest point in your life.

I’ve always felt that I’m somehow marginalized or different. There’s just something in my soul that feels out of whack. I used to feel that so much when I lived in a small town. Then, after growing up and starting to write, I realized that I was just a writer and that this sense of marginality is something that is a gift, because this is a place from which you can see. It’s a perch: Sometimes you’re perched near someone’s pain, or sometimes you fall into some knowledge that you wish you didn’t have to for your writing, but you go there anyway. These marginal places are places of perspective.

Your novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse features a woman who becomes a priest. What inspired this character?

It was not a political choice. I started by writing Sister Agnes. She was modeled in some form on a wonderful piano teacher I had named Sister Cecelia, a Franciscan nun in Wahpeton, North Dakota. She was my first piano teacher, and I just adored her.

In the book this nun character walks off and leaves her convent. But I knew that she hadn’t stopped being in love with her God. I knew she wanted to express more of her devotion. She wanted to express it in the way a priest would express it. She finds herself in a position where she can change her identity. I would call it becoming her true self, and her true self was a priest. She refuses to back away from her calling, her vocation. It is not to be a nun. It is to be a priest, and she knows that to the bottom of her existence.

To me, prayer is appreciation. . . . The ability that I have to pass on my appreciation of existence is what makes me a writer.

At one point she falls in love. But when given the choice, she says she cannot relinquish this identity because she is this identity. She is a priest, and now she is a man: Father Damien. There’s nothing to be done about something that is that deeply a part of your expression. Like for me, I’m a writer and a mother and that’s my identity. And this is Agnes’ identity. But inevitably, th story strikes a political note for people. I’ve had so many people write to me and come to my bookstore to talk to me about it.

What is your current relationship to Catholicism?

I grew up going to a Catholic school, and I realized even as a child that there are as many kinds of people in the church as there are out of the church. Being in the church doesn’t change the fact that you might not be a good person. Or you might be even better. Being in the church can bring out anything in people.

As an adult, I have at times been extremely critical of the church. For one thing, I couldn’t raise my daughters as Catholics because of the way Catholicism rejects the authority of women. I know that women are great leaders. Also, I have never believed that one person or one church or one set of people has the authority to direct other people in what they should do with their lives.

But I think when you are raised Catholic, you are always pulled back by some of the extraordinary imagery— I am, anyway. Part of the reason people become pulled back to the church is the power of its imagery and the communion of saints. I have saints all over my house. It’s sort of a helpless love of iconography. I think the intention with saints is not to show perfection so much as to give a human face to where the divine springs up in each of us. I love these stories of saints and the iconography of saints and altars.

More than anything I’m beginning to resemble my grandfather, because there are churches in Minnesota where I love participating, but I also have traditional daily rituals. One of the most basic rituals I have is going out in the morning and putting out an offering of asema. Asema is like tobacco, but a different substance than the kind you smoke. I put out an offering and I think of my family, of my daughters. I have a very large family, and I feel surrounded by ancestors and family and our complications, love, and unity.

I have a poem with the last line: “It takes courage to praise it all.” I can’t always praise it all, but I’m grateful when I can. To me, prayer is appreciation. Prayer is gratitude and just being aware of the strange marvel that is existence. The ability that I have to pass on my appreciation of existence is what makes me a writer.


This article also appears in the September issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 9, pages 10-13). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Ackerman + Gruber