Respect: Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman

While holding congressional hearings aimed at terminating treaty rights of various Native American tribes, Senator Arthur K. Watkins, Utah, wrote to leaders of the LDS church (13 April 1954): 

The more I go into this Indian problem the more I am convinced that we have made some terrible mistakes in the past. It seems to me that the time has come for us to correct some of these mistakes and help the Indians stand on their own two feet and become a white and delightsome people as the Book of Mormon prophesied they would become. Of course, I realize that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be the motivating factor, but it is difficult to teach the Gospel when they don’t understand the English language and have had no training in caring for themselves. The Gospel should be a great stimulus and I am longing and praying for the time when the Indians will accept it in overwhelming numbers.

“Senator Arthur V. Watkins was indeed a pompous racist,” writes Louise Erdrich in the afterword of her new novel The Night Watchman.

Near the end of the novel, members of the Chippewa tribe (their nightwatchman leader based on Erdrich’s grandfather Patrick Gourneau) travel to Washington to testify at a hearing chaired by Senator Watkins and H. Rex Lee, Associate Commissioner of Indian Affairs (born and raised in Rigby, Idaho). The hearing is to support measures written by the two Mormons that would strip people living on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota of all federal government support and result in their removal to cities where they supposedly would fare better economically.

The novel intersperses actual statements by Watkins during the hearing with thoughts of the characters (including a ghost):

Senator Watkins: In my area, whites got the poor land on the reservation. Within a year, however, the Indians leased their allotments. They just didn’t want to farm. That is true today. I think most of the Indian allotments are under lease to white people. That is why I seriously doubt that Indians like to farm.

Thomas Wazhashk (the tribal leader): . . . We want to point out that the relocation program has limitations. It doesn’t cover our problems.

Senator Watkins: I wouldn’t say it covered them all. No. Because, after all, the government can’t solve your problems for you. Most of them have to be solved by yourselves. . . . There would be nothing permanently cured that you don’t cure yourself. No government, no matter how benevolent, can put ambition into people. That has to be developed by themselves. You can’t legislate morality, character, or any of those fine virtues into people. You learn to walk by walking.

Thomas Wazhashk has prepared for the hearing, in part, by reading a copy of The Book of Mormon given to him by a pair of clueless Mormon missionaries, figuring he’ll do well to understand his adversary:

In Thomas’s experience, anyone who took on and tried to sweepingly solve what was always called the “plight” of the Indian “problem” had a personal reason. He wondered what that could be for Arthur V. Watkins.

. . . There was a lot about the filthiness of other people and the cleanliness of Nephi’s people. When he got to the downfall of the daughters of Zion, Thomas felt a pang for the women. Apperently the dauthters were proud and haughty. But their punishment was excessive, Thomas thought. He liked the idea that they made tinkling sounds as they walked, like jingle dances. But on a certain day the Lord took [it all away]. . . . Instead of a sweet smell, they got a stink.

Thomas, who searched out nice clothes and loved it when Rose let her hair flow long, wore her flame-colored dress and the strapped black shoes with curved heels, closed the book, depressed.

The first thing he wrote down about Arthur V. Watkins was he probably likeed plain dress in a woman and probably dressed himself simply and onconspiduously. No ankle bells for him. No flashy tie or two-tone shoes or broad-brimmed fedora. He definitely was a righteous fellow. How do you fight one of those?

When one of the missionaries tells a native that the Mormon religion was the first to have originated in America, the man replies that “We got our own religion here. . . . Our own scriptures even. Only thing, they come out like stories.” . . . Whatever it was that Indians believed, [the missionary] was pretty sure it could not be called a religion. . . . And here he’d been thinking that people on this reservation were those Lamanites of yore who had been raised into civilized Nephites.

I was once a 19- and 20-year-old missionary sure that The Book of Mormon was literally true and that Native Americans were dark-skinned because of the sins of their Lamanite ancestors. That seems preposterous now. The thought Erdrich’s novel evoked in me, again and again, was that I grew up with an utter lack of respect for people whose beliefs were different from my own. There was “The Great and Abominable [Catholic] Church.” The very idea of going out as a missionary to convert people to the one true church was based on that disrespect. I believed that Native religions would fall away as Natives accepted the true gospel and became “white and delightsome.”

The phrase in The Book of Mormon was eventually changed to “pure and delightsome.” But the book still describes the curse of a dark skin. It still asserts that Native Americans are descendants of Lamanites rather than of the more righteous Nephites. Erdrich’s novel views this racist tangle from a Native perspective and the result, for me, is like putting on a good pair of prescription glasses.

Arthur V. Watkins’ condescendingly claimed that Natives are lazy and without ambition and will remain so until they are forced off their reservations and weaned from the government tit. He believed that unless Natives learn English and are motivated by the Gospel they will never become white and delightsome.

Arthur V. Watkins was (self)righteously racist. I’m angry this morning, after finishing Erdrich’s book last night, that I imbibed that twisted righteousness as a young Mormon man.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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