Reactions to Louise Erdrich’s Novel, “The Night Watchman”

After a rave review of Louise Erdrich’s new novel “The Night Watchman,” from Luis Alberto Urrea,[1] I was interested in learning more about federal efforts in the 1950s to terminate the legal status of Indians and, therefore, bought and started reading the book.[2]

Immediately, however, I had difficulty. The Table of Contents has a list of  over 100 unnumbered separate sections or scenes, not called chapters, with cursory titles whose significance or meaning becomes clear only after you had read the “chapters.” Moreover, these sections or “chapters” were not  placed into separate titled groups to help the reader. Over the entire list is a heading “September 1953” although it becomes apparent that not everything in all of those sections happens that month. In addition, the Reading Guide by the publisher was not very helpful, in my opinion.

Another difficulty was the large number of characters, many of whom are referred to by their Indian names sometimes and by other names on other occasions. And there is no separate listing of the characters with their different names and relationships with one another that would have helped the reader.

Reading some of the first “chapters” revealed that they are mostly about different facets of life on the reservation of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota. This prompted the thought that Erdrich should have broken this book into two books; the first containing these stories and the second the battle over the legislation in Congress in 1953-54. As these reflections suggest, I was interested in the latter, not the former although the previously mentioned Urrea review emphasized the former.

Rather than giving up on the book, however, I re-read Erdrich’s explanations of the book in the “Author’s Note” at the beginning and the “Afterword and Acknowledgements” at the end. I then did some basic research about the federal efforts in 1953-54 to change the legal status of Indian tribes. Next I returned  to the chapter about the congressional hearing about the Concurrent Resolution (# 83 “Termination of Federal Contracts & Promises with Indian Tribes”) and working backwards scanned the previous “chapters” to see whether and how, if at all, this congressional effort had been discussed. I was amazed to discover that there were many such references, often cryptic, usually involving the Night Watchman (Thomas), all the way back to the fourth “chapter”  (“The Watcher”).

This analysis made me remember that in 1953-54 there were no internet and 24-7 television news programs and think that one of the stories the novel apparently was telling was that even though Congress adopted the Resolution on August 1, 1953, it was not until  the next month (September 1953) that limited information about the Resolution was only gradually discovered by the Night Watchman and eventually prompting him and a committee of the Turtle Mountain Band to organize and mount a (successful) campaign against the applicability of the Resolution to their Band. In the meantime, other members of that Band were engaging in normal events in their lives and implicitly demonstrating the Band was not ready for such termination. However, I confess that I was not interested in these tales.

Here then is my examination of Erdrich’s explanations of the novel, my basic research about the termination issue and the references to that issue in the earlier “chapters” of the book, all causing my re-evaluation of the book.

Erdrich’s Explanation of the Novel

Erdrich’s beginning “Author’s Note” tells us that on August 1,1953, the U.S. Congress “announced ” [adopted] House Concurrent Resolution 108, which would “abrogate nation-to-nation treaties, which had been made with American Indian Nations for ‘as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow,’” for “the eventual termination of all tribes, and the immediate termination of five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.” That Band  then was chaired by Erdrich’s grandfather Patrick Gourneau (the night watchman, Thomas Wazhashk, in the novel), who led the Band’s opposition to such termination. The only other parts of the novel that are factual, Erdrich says, are the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant and U.S. Senator Arthur V. Watkins, who was a “relentless pursuer of Native dispossession and the man who interrogated my grandfather.”

Erdrich’s “Afterword and Acknowledgments” says that the mid-1950s were “a time when Jim Crow reigned and American Indians were at the nadir of power—our traditional religions outlawed, our land base continually and illegally seized (even as now) by resource extraction companies, our languages weakened by government boarding schools.[3] Our officials were also answerable to assimilationist government officials: as an example, just look at the ‘advisory committee ‘ in my grandfather’s designation. He and his fellow tribal members had almost no authority. Their purpose was to advise the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], but they seized any opportunity to represent their people. The 1950s were a time when the scraps of land and the rights guaranteed by treaty were easy pickings. With the postwar housing boom, the fabulous Klamath and Menominee forests were especially coveted. It is no coincidence that those tribes were among the first five slated for termination.”

Erdrich also informs the reader that she now possesses her grandfather’s letters from 1953-54 that are “packed with remarkable, funny, stereotype-breaking episodes of reservation life” and reveal a man “of deeply humane intelligence as well as a profoundly religious patriot and family man.” The letters also reveal his “anxieties” as chairman of the advisory committee and his understanding that the Concurrent Resolution was “a new front in the Indian Wars” and “about the worst thing for Indians to come down the pike.” Yet the Turtle Mountain Band “was the first to mount a fierce defense and prevail. They altered the trajectory of termination and challenged the juggernaut of the federal push to sever legal, sacred, and immutable promises made in nation-to-nation treaties.” (Emphasis added.)

“In all, 113 tribal nations suffered the disaster of termination; 1.4 million areas of tribal land was lost. Wealth flowed to private corporations, while many people in terminated tribes died early, in poverty. Not one tribe profited. By the end, 78 tribal nations, including the Menominee. . . regained federal recognition; 10 gained state but not federal recognition; 31 tribes are landless; 24 are considered extinct.” Senator Arthur V. Watkins was indeed a pompous racist.” Erdrich also refers to Ada Deer’s Making a Difference: My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice (Univocal. Press 2019) as “great reading on this subject.”[4]

Although the Afterword says “the Turtle Mountain Band was the first to mount a fierce defense and prevail,” neither that Afterword nor the novel  itself says when and how the Band prevailed. After the last words of the novel’s last chapter, separated only by three dots, however, Erdrich as the author states, “The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa was not terminated.” But there were no specifics as to how or when it happened or the title or text of the bill or other measure that made it happen. This important fact, in my opinion, should have been included in the Afterword with more details. Even better, in my opinion, would have been a concluding chapter of the novel that discussed the victory and some kind of celebration by the Band.

“In 1970, Richard Nixon addressed Congress and called for an end to this policy. Five years later, a new era of self-determination for Native people began.”

Research About the Federal Effort To End Status of Indian Tribes[5]

I had not previously known about this congressional action and wanted to know more. Therefore, before reading the novel, I did some basic Internet research and came up with the following.

According to Wikipedia, “On 1 August 1953, the US Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 108 which called for the immediate termination of the FlatheadKlamathMenomineePotawatomi, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa, as well as all tribes in the states of CaliforniaNew YorkFlorida, and Texas. Termination of a tribe meant the immediate withdrawal of all federal aid, services, and protection, as well as the end of reservations. Though termination legislation was introduced (Legislation 4. S. 2748, H.R. 7316. 83rd Congress), termination of Federal Supervision over Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians), was not implemented. In 1954, at the Congressional hearings for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, tribal Chairman Patrick Gourneau and a delegation testified at a hearing that the tribe was not financially prepared, had high unemployment and poverty, suffered from low education levels, and termination would be devastating to the tribe. Based on their testimony, the Chippewa were dropped from the tribes to be terminated.” (Emphasis added.)

Wikipedia further states, This Resolution “declared it to be the sense of Congress that it should be policy of the United States to abolish federal supervision over American Indian tribes as soon as possible and to subject the Indians to the same laws, privileges, and responsibilities as other U.S. citizens. This includes an end to reservations and tribal sovereignty, integrating Native Americans into mainstream American society.”

Wikipedia also says, “The consequence of HCR-108 was the beginning of an era of termination policy, in which the federally recognized status of many Native American tribes was revoked, ending the government responsibility to tribe members and withdrawing legal protection to territory, culture, and religion.”

Finally, Wikipedia states, “HCR-108 was passed concurrently with Public Law 280, which granted state jurisdiction over civil and criminal offenses committed by or upon Native Americans in Indian Territory in the states of CaliforniaMinnesotaWisconsinOregon, and Nebraska, all of which have large Indigenous populations.” [6]

The New York Times, which is online searchable for 1953-54 (and earlier), revealed the following additional tidbits of information relevant to the novel: [7]

  • The “Bulova Watch Company and the Simpson Electric Company had jointly established a modern industrial plant at Rolla, N.D,.near the Turtle Mountain Reservation that successfully used the Indians’ “manual dexterity and adaptability” developed through beadwork to produce jewels for watches. However, Peru Farver, Superintendent of the Reservation, believes “every effort [should be] made to move as many Indians as possible toward the industrial centers, rather than attempt to bring industry to them.” Farver also “thinks too much money has been channeled into guardianship of these Indians who have a high percentage of white blood and . . . are well able to look out for themselves.” More help, he thought, should be provided to the estimated 250 older “full-blooded” Indians of the 4,500 members of the Turtle Mountain tribe. (Emphasis added.) (These statements by Farver, perhaps in a written report to the Congress, is not mentioned in the novel, but the reference to Indians with white blood suggests the basis for the questioning at the March 1, 1954 congressional hearing of the Turtle Mountain people about how much white blood they had, which is mentioned in the novel.)
  • In September 1953, at the direction of President Eisenhower, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Glenn L. Emmons, spent the following two months visiting 10 Indian tribes to obtain their views on the proposed termination and discovered that some bitterly opposed the proposal, some favored it and yet others were divided. (Presumably this included a visit to the Turtle Mountain Band, but there was no mention of this in the novel.)
  • On January 30, 1954, it was announced that joint sessions of the Senate and House Indian Affairs Subcommittees would  hold joint sessions during the last of February and the first half of March to consider 10 Administration bills to end federal administration  of roughly 66,000 Indians. The hearing about the bill concerning the Turtle Mountain Chippewas of North Dakota would be held on March 1. According to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Glenn L. Emmons, these bills “resulted from ‘a rising tide of sentiment that the Indians of the United States are entitled to exactly the same rights and privileges as the rest of us’ in general public opinion as well as in Congress.” Yet the Commissioner also said that it was “impossible to apply the same yardstick “ to all the tribes.
  • On March 25, 1954, the Association of American Indian Affairs warned that “ homeless poverty” was in store for thousands of American Indians if these bills were enacted. The bills “would destroy tribal governments and nullify rights assured by treaties” and are “ill-advised, untimely and off-target.” They are “no answer . . . to the poverty of the Turtle Mountain Chippewas of North Dakota.” (No mention of this was made in the novel.)
  • These charges were repeated at the Association’s annual meeting on May 5, 1954. Its president, Oliver LaFarge, said the tribes picked for “termination” included some of the most advanced and some of the most backward. “Even if the tribes concerned were ready for such deprivations, as most of them are not, the bills as drawn up are ill-conceived and objectionable. Commissioner Emmons, who was present, said that education, health and economic opportunity were his primary goals and was trying to persuade legislators “to set termination daters far enough in advance so the tribes would be ready to go on their own.” (No mention of this was made in the novel.)

Another source, “The History and Culture of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa,” says the 1953 congressional decision to terminate the Turtle Mountain Band was based upon reports by  the BIA Superintendent [Peru Farver] that the Tribe members “have always been resourceful.” In 1954, however, “the Turtle Mountain Band raised funds locally to send a delegation to Washington. Tribal Chairperson Patrick Gourneau testified that the Turtle Mountain people were unprepared economically, still living in poverty, and that such a move [termination] would be devastating. Following the testimony of the Turtle Mountain group, the subcommittee decided that the Turtle Mountain Band was not economically self-sufficient, and was dropped from the list.” This decision recognized “that the Chippewa were still poverty-stricken, occupied an extremely limited land base, suffered from low education levels and high unemployment.”[8] (No mention of these reports by the Superintendent was made in the novel.)

The major congressional proponent of the termination of special status for the Indians was U.S. Senator (Rep., UT) Arthur Vivian Watkins (1888-1973). “He equated such action with the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves during the Civil War and asserted that it was backed by the following tenets: (1)To eliminate laws that treated Native Americans as different from other Americans; (2) To dismantle the BIA giving responsibility for their affairs to the tribes themselves, or if necessary transferring some of its duties to other federal and state agencies; (3) To end federal supervision of individual Indians; and (4) To cease federal guardianship responsibilities for Indian tribes and their resources.”

By the time Watkins lost his bid for re-election in 1958, these Indian policies he had pursued “ were proving to have disastrous effects on Native peoples. Tribes were cut off from services for education, health care, housing, sanitation and utility sources, and related resources. Termination directly caused decay within the tribe including poverty, alcoholism, high suicide rates, low educational achievement, disintegration of the family, poor housing, high dropout rates from school, disproportionate numbers in penal institutions, increased infant mortality, decreased life expectancy, and loss of identity. In addition, the era of conformity was moving into the Sixties and its calls for social change and a growing sensitivity to minority rights.”[9]

In 1960 President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Watkins to the Indians Claims Commission, becoming its chairman and subsequently its chief commissioner.

All of this research made me want to search for, and examine, the actual congressional materials from 1953-54 about the “termination” campaign, but such an effort is impossible now due to the “shelter in place” pandemic policies in the U.S.

The Novel’s Early References to the Termination Issue

My previously mentioned analysis of the novel started with the “chapter” that clearly focuses on the Concurrent Resolution (# 83 “Termination of Federal Contracts and Promises Made with Certain Tribes of Indians”) and then skimming prior chapters to see if they mentioned the Resolution in any way. I was surprised to discover that there were many such references, often cryptic, usually involving the Night Watchman (Thomas) all the way back to the fourth “chapter”   (“The Watcher”). Here are those references:

“Chapter”

Number

“Chapter”

Title

Reference
      4 The Watcher !. Thomas wrote to North Dakota Republican Senator Milton R. Young and to newspaper columnist Bob Cory requesting meetings. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_Young

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_Young

2. At the Jewel Bearing Plant, Thomas read newsletters and other tribes’ newsletters about the passage of “a bill that indicated Congress was fed up with Indians. Again. No hint of strategy. Or panic, but that would come.”

     5 Three Men Moses Montrose (tribal judge) gives Thomas a copy of the bill “that was supposed to emancipate Indians,” but Moses said, “I read it all. They mean to drop us.” (Thomas had not yet seen the bill.).Eddy Mink asked Thomas if he knew about the emancipation. Thomas said yes, but it wasn’t emancipation. Eddy thought it was good idea because then he could sell his 20 acres. He did not care that he would not have a school, clinic, farm agent or government commodities. Thomas:, what about old people who want to keep their land?
     9 Juggie’s Boy Thomas told a Tribesman, “I’m fighting something out of Washington. I don’t know what. But it’s bad.”
    11    Pukkons Thomas tells Biboon (Thomas’ father) government has new plan to take away treaties for all Indians. Dad: Get together with other tribes to oppose.
    13    The Iron Thomas had been trying to understand the papers Moses gave him, to define the unbelievable intent couched in innocuous dry language. The intent was to unmake, unrecognize, erase Indians –all of us invisible and as if we never were here. When the government remembered the Indians, they always tried to solve Indians by getting rid of us. He had no word from the government. He read about it in Minot Daily News. He finally had confirmation that the Turtle Mountain Band was targeted by the U.S. Congress for emancipation. Freed from being Indians, from their land, the treaties that were promised to last forever. The tribal chairman job had turned into a struggle to remain a problem.
    16        A  Bill The Bill: “To provide for the termination of Federal supervision over the property of the Turtle Mountain Band . . in the states of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, and the individual members thereof; for assistance in the orderly relocation of such Indians in areas of greater economic opportunity.” Its author said it was about emancipation, freedom, equality, success. Real purpose was extermination. Another tribal chairman said the author of bill was Arthur V. Watkins, “the most powerful man in Congress” and a Mormon, who wants to change Indians to white.
     17    Who? Thomas thought Indians will be destroyed by “a collection of tedious words.”
     19   2d Who? Thomas: The termination bill. Watkins believed it was for the best. Open the gates of heaven. How could Indians hold themselves apart?
    23 The Old                    Muskrat Biboon (father) tells Thomas: Band got land by forming a delegation and submitting petition. Thomas to take idea to council. Others need to understand contributions of Indians. We are just getting started on our own feet. Have no money for hospitals. Advisory committee met. Thomas suggested petition with signatures and call it The Termination bill.
    26 Louis Pipestone Louis getting signatures on petition.
    30 The Average Woman & Empty Tank Louis getting signatures on petition. Thomas has Juggie preparing tribal newsletter.
    31 The Missionaries Two young Mormons ask Thomas & Noko if they wonder why Indians as ancient people are on this land. Do you want to read Book of Mormon? Thomas asks about Watkins and is told he wrote book about shepherd who learns he is part of secret society. “It was revealed to Joseph Smith that Indians are people of the house of Jacob & children of Lehi.” They gave him a book.
     32 The Beginning Thomas says we need Biboon for Washington fight.
     34 Wild Rooster Driving to Fargo for meeting with BIA to register opposition to Termination Bill.
     35 Arthur V. Watkins Born in 1886 when UT was still territory. Baptized by father (same name), who wrote to Joseph Smith, “We have filed on land on the reservation for us a home” when Ute people & reservation were relieved of 13.8 million acres of land guaranteed by executive orders of Presidents Lincoln & Arthur. Smith & early Mormons tried to murder all Indians in the way. The son was elected to state office & later U.S. Senate. In termination hearing,  he was said to “convey an air of rectitude that was almost terrifying” and “howled in his reedy voice.” He “decided to use the power of his office to finish what the prophet started. He didn’t have to get his hands bloody.”
      38 Metal Blinds 10/19/53 Fargo meeting with BIA officials . Thomas, 45 tribe members & their attorney, John Hail. Thomas: “We are here to discuss the purpose of Concurrent Resolution, which will terminate all federal recognition and support of the [BIA] Turtle Mountain Agency.” The BIA attorney John Cooper read each section of the law. “Disposition of federally owned property to such Indians may be discontinued as no longer necessary—cause such lands to be sold and deposit the proceeds of sale—trust relationship to the affairs of the Band and its members has terminated.” Indians attempting to understand white man reading from sheaf of papers. Thomas asked for comments from other Indians. BIA: it means no “more Indian service for the Turtle Mountains. You will now be equal with whites as far as the government is concerned.” Joyce: This is not equal. Our rights go down. Government is backing out of its agreement. You left us on land too small in size and most cannot be farmed. Government should give more land back, not kick us off the leftovers.” BIA: “you will be relocated to areas of equal opportunity.” Juggie Blue: “We don’t want to leave our homes. We are poor, but even poor people can love their land.. You do not need money to love your home.” Cooper re-read the bill. All 47 Indians voted against the bill. Thomas is told that Millie did research about the Band, maybe that would be useful.
      39    X =? Barnes, the white math teacher & boxing coach talks to Thomas about the Fargo meeting. Barnes thought the bill was good idea; to be regular Americans. Thomas: we cannot be regular Americans. Got right to vote in 1924. We pay taxes, but not on our land.
     41 The Star Powwow Thomas writes to Senator Milton Young & 2 congressmen. Setting up meeting with American Legion to be against bill.
     45 Hay Stack Thomas asks Barnes to set up boxing card to raise money for delegation to go to Washington. We will have a tribal scholar.
     48 Letter to U MN Thomas writes to Millie Cloud at UM for assistance against bill.
     49 The Chippewa Scholar Millie Cloud (the tribal scholar) reads Thomas’ letter at UM.
     53 Battler Royale Thomas worries about testifying in Congress. Reads Mormon books.
     56 The Promotion Thomas explains Bill to Patrice’s Mother.
     59 Good News, Bad News Good news: poor enough to keep & improve status quo; county & state do not want us; sheltered by roofs; we have schools, cure found for TB; we have this report.

Bad news: we are poor; they don’t like us; 97% of roofs by tar paper; many illiterate; many parents died & kids grew up in boarding schools; we have this report.

     64 Two Months Hearing in 2 months (March). Advisory Comm. had to prepare to save tribe. Thomas is scared.
     70 Runner Thomas about to get a county commissioner to write letter of objection. Not sufficient tax base on reservation to care for roads and schools.
    72 The Spirit Duplicator Millie’s report about conditions of tribe printed. To be sent to local & state officials, newspapers, radio announcers. Juggie says erroneous past count of Indians caused reduction of townships form 20 to 2. Mistaken census survey had convinced Congress that Turtle Mountain was prosperous.
     73 Prayer for 1954 Thomas writes to ND’s US Senators Milton R. Young and William “Wild Bill” Langer, the latter favoring termination.
     77 The Lamanites Thomas reads Book of Mormon. Studies text of bill. Writes to Joe Garry, president of National Congress of American Indians for more info on Watkins, who had refused to appropriate funds to relieve Navajo. Book of Mormon explained why he wanted Indians to disappear. Mormons believed they had been divinely gifted of all the land they wanted; Indians were not white and thus had no right to live on the land. Treaties meant nothing.
     79 The Committee Committee was Thomas, Juggie & Millie. Millie worried she could not testify. Moses and Louis don’t want to go. Louis got county & State officials to sign letter of support.
    81 The Journey Train to Mpls/Washington. Thomas read his testimony.
    83 Termination of Federal Contracts & Promises with Indian Tribes March 2-3, 1954 Joint Hearing, Subcommittees of US Congress. Senator Young: ND could not take over; government should fund job-training program on reservation. Thomas: Reservation could not sustain itself without support. Watkins: Indians did not want to farm & leased land to whites. Thomas, I farm. Relocation is ill timed with many difficulties. Watkins: You have to solve most of your problems. Government can’t legislate morality, character or fine virtues. Thomas: I farm & is guard at Plant. Thomas: women at Plant are paid 75 to 90 cents/hr; I take home $38.25/week.  Millie describes her report. Thomas went to Watkins office and thanked him.
     84 The Way Home Thomas recalls every Indian who testified was asked about their degree of Indian blood, and no one knew.[10] (For this reader, these questions were prompted by the previously mentioned prior year’s reports by the Reservation Superintendent that mentioned many of the Turtle Mountain Band had white blood and thus were ready for independence, but this was not mentioned by the novel.) Patrice: Watkins was supercilious with coin-purse mouth, full of sanctimony.
Untitled P.S. by Erdrich Turtle Mountain Band was not terminated.  (However, there was no citation to the name of the bill or other measure that did this or the date on which it happened or the debate (if any) and vote on the measure.)

Conclusion

I am glad that my initial frustrations with this novel did not cause me to abandon the book. The additional efforts at understanding the book and more importantly the congressional efforts to breach U.S. treaties with tribes were rewarded. I also must confess that the stories about the lives of the Indians should make the reader appreciate the courage and imitative of Thomas and the others who went to Washington, D.C. to testify before a congressional committee. I hope this post will encourage others to read the novel and learn about this lamentable facet of U.S. history.[11]

This post has focused on my learning about important aspects of U.S. Native American history after I had retired from practicing law in 2001. I also had learned about another aspect of Native American culture in 1978-79 when as the attorney for the Minneapolis School Board, I sought (unsuccessfully) to persuade the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to modify its school desegregation order to allow the School Board to continue to allow Native American children to attend a new school close to their homes in the Southeast part of the city. That effort also involved the only appeal (also unsuccessful) by the School Board in the many years of that desegregation case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.[12]

====================================

[1] Urrea, a Mexican-American, is a distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a writer of fiction and nonfiction. I have enjoyed his novels, Into the Beautiful North and The House of Broken Angels. He also is an entertaining speaker as evidenced by his lecture—”Universal Border: From Tijuana to the World”—at the 2013 San Miguel Writers’ Conference, which I attended. Another positive review of “The Night Watchman” appeared in the Wall Street Journal: Winkler, Louise Erdrich Retells the Story of Her Grandfather and the Chippewa, W.S.J. (Feb. 28, 2020).

[2] The Night Watchman, HarperCollins Publishers (2020); Reading Guide, The Night Watchman; Urrea, Fighting to Save Their Tribe From Termination, N.Y. Times Book Review (Mar. 29, 2020).

[3] Another Erdrich novel, LaRose, involves adults who were “traumatized from their compulsory time spent as students at Indian boarding schools, where students were stripped of their cultural history and forced to assimilate into Western traditions.”   (HaperColllins Publishers, La Rose (2016); LaRose (novel), Wikipedia;.Broida, ‘LaRose’ by Louise Erdrich: brilliant, subtle exploration of tragic histories, Philadelphia Inquirer (May 20, 2016). It also should be mentioned that there is a moving permanent exhibit, “Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories” at Phoenix’s Heard Museum, which I have visited and highly recommend.

[4] Because of Erdrich’s reference to this book, I bought it and discovered that it said nothing about the Turtle Mountain Band’s struggle in 1953-54 against termination. Ada Deer, who was a member of the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin, instead has a long discussion of that tribe’s struggle over termination. Subsequently in 1993-97 she was head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

[5] Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Wikipedia; Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa IndiansTurtle Mountain Chippewa Heritage CenterHouse concurrent resolutions 108, Wikipedia; Arthur Vivian Watkins, Wikipedia. In order to flesh out this research would require at least examining the Congressional Record for the 83rd Congress ((1/3/53—1/3/55), which is impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic. I would appreciate suggestions on other potential sources on this specific topic.

[6] The resulting complex legal problem of determining jurisdiction (federal or Native American courts) was the subject of another Erdrich novel, The Round House, which was awarded the 2012 National Book Prize for fiction. It concerns the violent rape of a Native woman by a white man on the border of an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1988. (See The Round House (novel), Wikipedia; ; Personal reflections on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, dwkcommentariese.com Dec. 10, 2012);  Jurisdictional Black Hole for Certain Violent Crimes by Non-Indian Men Against Indian Women on Indian Reservations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 13, 2013).

[7] Forest to Factory Easy for Indians, N.Y. Times (Aug. 5, 1953); Congress To Get Ten Indian Bills, N.Y. Times (Jan. 31, 1954); Indian Bills Opposed, N.Y. Times (Mar. 26, 1954); Indian Trust Bill Put Under Attack, N.Y. Times (May 6, 1954).

[8] N.D. Dep’t Public Instruction, The History and Culture of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa at 20-21 (1997).

[9] On August 5, 1954, Vice President Ricard Nixon appointed Senator Watkins to chair a bi-partisan committee to review and determine whether censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy was warranted. Its work led to the Senate’s voting, 67 to 22, to condemn McCarthy for (a) his refusal to appear before a Senate subcommittee to answer questions about his personal character and obstruction of its work and (b) his charging three members of a committee of “deliberate deception” and “fraud” and stating to the press that a Senate special session was a “lynch-party.” This blog has published many posts about the preceding Army-McCarty Hearings of 1954 and the role played by Joseph Welch, the attorney for the Army in those hearings. (See posts listed in the “U.S. History, 1918-2017” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: United States( HISTORY).

[10] These questions about each Indian’s white-blood were undoubtedly prompted by the previously mentioned comments by Peru Farver, Superintendent of the Turtle Mountain Reservation, about “too much money having been channeled into guardianship of these Indians who have a high percentage of white blood and . . . are well able to look out for themselves.”

[11] Yet another horrible part of the history of U.S. treatment of Native Americans was the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey’s contemporaneous public demand that “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State;“ and the December 26, 1862, execution by hanging of 38 Dakota men in the town square of Mankato, Minnesota, which is still the largest mass execution on U.S. soil in U.S. history. (Emphasis added.)  (See posts listed in the “U.S. History, 1776-1917” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: United States (HISTORY).

[12] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Minneapolis Public School Desegregation/Integration Litigation, 1978-1983 (Sept. 9, 2012); The Impact of the Minneapolis Public Schools Desegregation/Integration Litigation on Native American Children (Sept. 11. 2012); Comment, Larry Leventhal’s Participation in Minneapolis Public Schools’ Desegregation Case (Jan. 19, 2017).

 

 

Pandemic Journal (# 14): Reading and Writing  

This Pandemic Journal is a means of recording how this blogger is living through the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Its entries cover a wide range of  topics: reflections on the pandemic’s development; reflections on politicians’’ policies and statements about the pandemic; reactions to analyses of the pandemic by journalists; personal things to do.

I spend a lot of time keeping up on the news by reading the hard-copy of the local newspaper (StarTribune) and other news sources online (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Diario de Cuba, Granma (from Cuba), New York Review of Books, HuffPost, Politico, Atlantic, CNN, State Department, and others from time to time.

So far at least, I have not had time to read books. An exception is Louise Erdrich’s new novel “The Night Watchman.” Surprisingly I had difficulties with the book that has resulted in a lengthy essay about the book that soon will be added as a regular post.

 

Congress Passes Violence Against Women Act of 2013

U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. House of Representatives

On February 28th the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The vote was 286 to 138. The majority was comprised of 199 Democrats and 87 Republicans. All of the 138 negative votes were Republicans while 7 other Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner, did not vote.

This House action came immediately after the House had rejected a weaker version offered by Minority Leader Eric Cantor, 166-257. The prevailing negative votes came from 197 Democrats and 60 Republicans.

This action is significant in several respects.

First, the Act includes for the first time protection of gay, bisexual or transgender female victims of domestic abuse and of Native American women who are victims of certain kinds of violence by non-Indian men.

As discussed in a prior post, I have been most concerned about the jurisdictional “black hole” that has prevented investigation and prosecution of abuse of Native women by non-Indian men, and the bill now passed by Congress remedies that defect.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

Novelist and Native-American Louise Erdrich highlighted this jurisdictional problem in her novel The Round House, and she recently penned an op-ed article in the New York Times that countered criticisms of the tribal courts jurisdictional provision in this bill.

Erdrich said the “Justice Department reports that one in three Native women is raped over her lifetime, while other sources report that many Native women are too demoralized to report rape.  Perhaps this is because federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases, according to the Government Accountability Office. [In addition’] . . . a Native woman battered by her non-Native husband has no recourse for justice in tribal courts, even if both live on reservation ground. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.”

Moreover, according to Erdrich, the “Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center says this gap in the law has attracted non-Indian habitual sexual predators to tribal areas . . . [and another source] has found that rapes on upstate reservations increase during hunting season.”

Erdrich also defends the abilities and fairness of tribal courts against the charge that they would be unfair to non-Indian defendants. She says,“Most reservations have substantial non-Indian populations, and Native families are often mixed. The Senate version guarantees non-Indians the right to effective counsel and trial by an impartial jury.” In addition, “[t]ribal judges know they must make impeccable decisions . . . that they are being watched closely and must defend their hard-won jurisdiction. Our courts and lawyers cherish every tool given by Congress. Nobody wants to blow it by convicting a non-Indian without overwhelming, unshakable evidence.”

Erdrich’s comments are echoed in a New York Times editorial that stated, “Violence and crime rage unchecked in Indian country, yet the federal government, the primary law enforcer on reservations, is investigating and prosecuting fewer violent felonies, and reducing financing for tribal courts and public-safety programs. That is a scandal . . . . [and]  a moral atrocity.”

Second, the House Republican leadership permitted the Senate version to come to the floor even though it did not have the support of a majority of the Republican members. This was a “violation” of the so-called unofficial Hastert Rule established by a previous Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, whereby the Republican majority would only bring to the floor for a vote measures that were supported by a “majority of the majority.” Moreover, this was the third time this year that the Hastert Rule has not been followed. The other occasions were a bill to avert automatic tax increases and a bill providing relief for states hit by Hurricane Sandy.

John Boehner
John Boehner

Although this three-time refusal to follow the Hastert Rule upsets at least some of the more conservative Republican Representatives, I applaud Speaker Boehner’s acting as a Speaker of the entire House of Representatives, not just the Republican caucus. I hope that he continues to do so or that a truly bipartisan Speaker replaces him.

It must also be noted that allowing the VAWA bill to come to the floor for a vote and to be passed is a reversal of  longstanding House Republican opposition to the bill. This change is seen as a recognition by at least some of the House GOP leadership that the party needed to try to repair its standing among women, who gave the Democrats a substantial margin of victory in the 2012 election. Apparently 13 Republican Representatives who are announced or likely candidates for the Senate in 2014 disagree with this political judgment as they voted against VAWA on Thursday.

President Obama
President Obama

Immediately after the House action President Obama expressed his approval of the House action:“Today’s vote will go even further by continuing to reduce domestic violence, improving how we treat victims of rape, and extending protections to Native American women and members of the LGBT community.  I want to thank leaders from both parties . . . for everything they’ve done to make this happen.  Renewing this bill is an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk.”

Joseph Biden
Joseph Biden

 

Vice President Biden also applauded the House and thanked “the leaders from both parties . . . and the bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate” for passage of the bill.

Jurisdictional Black Hole for Certain Violent Crimes by Non-Indian Men Against Indian Women on Indian Reservations

Louis Erdrich in her prize-winning novel, The Round House, tells the story of the violent rape of a Native woman by a white man on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1988, and the resulting legal problem as to whether the federal or Native American courts had jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the crime. This was discussed in a prior post.

This jurisdictional conundrum is not just a subject for fiction. It is a real problem in the U.S. today that would be addressed by a law now being debated in the U.S. Congress.

Introduction

In recent years a Southern Ute Indian woman married a white man, and they lived on the tribe’s reservation in southern Colorado. There she was subjected to frequent beatings and threats. Because her husband was white, the Southern Ute Tribal Police could not investigate and prosecute him. Because she was a Native American on tribal land, state authorities were powerless as well. Federal law enforcement did have jurisdiction, but they declined to do anything.

Later the husband came with a gun to the Southern Ute woman’s office at the federal Bureau of Land Management and opened fire and wounded a co-worker. The state officials arrested him, but only after a tape measure was used to determine the distance between the barrel of the gun and the point of the bullet’s impact in order to establish state jurisdiction.

This jurisdictional problem is addressed in a Senate bill (S.47), the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act 2013 (VAWA 2013). This legislation would, for the first time, allow Native American police and courts to investigate and prosecute non-Indians who commit certain violent crimes against Native women on tribal land. The details are in section 904 [204(b)] of the bill.

The bill, in section 904 [204 (d)], also provides protections for the rights of those non-Indians who are accused of such crimes.

U.S. Senate Proceedings Regarding S.47

Last Thursday, February 7th, the Senate defeated, 65 to 34, an amendment to this bill offered by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. It would have placed more federal prosecutors and magistrates in Indian country for domestic violence and sexual assault cases and would have allowed tribes to petition a federal court for protective orders to exclude an abuser from Indian land. This was S.Amendt.14 to the bill.

On February 11th, the Senate rejected, 59-31, an amendment to the bill offered by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to delete the bill’s provisions granting additional powers to Indian courts. This was S.Amendt.13 to the bill.

Finally yesterday (February 12th) the Senate passed, 78-22, the bill with the support of 23 Republicans. Now it will be sent it to the House of Representatives.

President Obama
President Obama

Immediately afterwards, President Obama released a statement saying,  “This important step shows what we can do when we come together across party lines to take up a just cause.” He added, “The bill passed by the Senate will help reduce homicides that occur from domestic violence, improve the criminal justice response to rape and sexual assault, address the high rates of dating violence experienced by young women, and provide justice to the most vulnerable among us.”

Senator Leahy
Senator Leahy

I want to thank Senator Leahy and his colleagues from both sides of the aisle for the leadership they have shown on behalf of victims of abuse. It’s now time for the House to follow suit and send this bill to my desk so that I can sign it into law.”

Proceedings in the House of Representatives Regarding S.47

Many of the House Republicans are believed to be opponents of the bill’s provisions on Indian courts.

However, 17 House Republicans on February 11th sent a joint letter to Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor urging the House to “immediately” reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. The letter also said, “Now is the time to seek bipartisan compromise on the reauthorization of these programs” and such a bill “must reach all victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in every community in the country,”

In addition Republican Representatives Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Darrell Issa of California have proposed an amendment to the bill that would offer non-Indian defendants a right to remove their case to a federal court in certain circumstances.

We now await House action on the bill. Its supporters should urge their Representatives to support the bill.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the current jurisdictional “black hole” is outrageous and needs to be eliminated as soon as possible. I have not seen any indication that anyone believes otherwise.

Instead, the opposition to this proposed legislation regarding violent crimes against Indian women purportedly is based on concern for the due process rights for any non-Indian man who is accused of such crimes in a tribal court.

I share those due process concerns as I would for any defendants under any new criminal statute. However, I do not know enough about the procedures and practices of tribal courts and of the quality of their judges to come to a reasoned conclusion on whether and how the bill might be amended to address any legitimate concerns on this issue. For an outsider, this should be something that Congressmen and women of all persuasions should be able to agree upon.

Personal Reflections on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

When I moved to Minnesota at age 30 in 1970, I had no knowledge of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 or the execution by hanging of some of the Indian leaders of that war. I had not grown up in the State and had not been exposed to its history, and although I had majored in history in college and had studied U.S. history, the War was not covered.

BannerUS-Dakotawar

By the time I went to church on October 7, 2012, I was aware that during the U.S. Civil War there had been a short war with the Indians in Minnesota and that subsequently some of the Indian leaders were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. That was the sum total of my knowledge of these events.

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

The moving worship service that day at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was devoted to remembering that War and its aftermath, especially its impact on the Dakota people. The beautiful Indian music and the sermons by Westminster’s Senior Minister, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, and by Jim Bear Jacobs made me realize that the War and the executions of the Indian leaders were important events that had lasting effects to this day at least upon the Dakota people and Native Americans more generally.

I immediately wanted to share this moving and beautiful worship service with others by writing a blog post about it. I soon realized that there was so much to say about the service itself that I would have to break it up into three posts. I also realized that I needed to know more about the War and about the commemoration this year of the 150th anniversary of the War. This lead to my researching and writing separate posts on these subjects and another about the contemporaneous reaction to the War by my second great-grandfather, Rev. Charles E. Brown.

Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey
Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey
General John Pope
General John Pope

The additional research turned up the September 1862 exhortation by Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey for “extermination” of the Dakota Indians. The same disgusting clamor also was made that year by U.S. General John Pope, who was in charge of ending the uprising. Pope said his purpose was “to utterly exterminate the Sioux [Dakota]. They are to be treated as maniacs and wild beasts.” The next year the federal government offered a bounty of $25 per scalp for every Dakota Indian found in Minnesota.

The evident anger and fear of the white settlers perhaps are akin to that experienced by the American people after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, as noted in a prior post, these public incitements, if made today, would constitute one form of the crime of genocide under international law.

The impact of the War on Native Americans is only one of the many ways in which what has become the dominant culture of the U.S. has denigrated Native Americans. The result is high incidences of public school drop-outs, alcoholism and suicide among Native Americans. All of this reminded me of the testimony in the Minneapolis school desegregation case by a Native American educator who said he was a “well-balanced schizophrenic,” i.e., he had one foot in Native culture and the other in the dominant culture.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

RoundHouseAnother insight into Native culture was provided by my recent reading of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which was awarded the 2012 National Book Prize for fiction. One of the central events in the novel is the violent rape of a Native woman by a white man on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1988, and the resulting legal problem as to whether the federal or Native American courts had jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the crime.

In an Afterword, Erdrich, who lives in Minneapolis not far from my home, cites a 2009 Amnesty International report that points out that 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime, that 86% of such rapes and sexual assaults are by non-Native men and that few are ever prosecuted.

The novel also discusses something I never learned in law school or in 35 years of practicing law. In Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823), the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice John Marshall, stated that radical title to U.S. land was obtained by European powers upon their “discovery” of the land and that the U.S. government inherited such title upon the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In this context, “tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages.”

Two other U.S. Supreme Court cases were also mentioned in the novel as bearing on the jurisdictional issue presented by the fictional rape. In Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832), Chief Justice John Marshall for the Court decided that the federal government had the sole right of dealing with the Indian nations in North America. Nearly 1.5 centuries later the Supreme Court in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191 (1978), determined that Indian tribal courts did not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and to punish non-Indians and hence may not assume such jurisdiction unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress.

This research, thinking and writing prompted further reflection on the subject of memory and the October 7th Scripture—Numbers 15: 37-41:

  • “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”

God understands that we humans are forgetful and that individuals and especially groups of people need reminders of important things. Indeed, constant, physical reminders like fringes on the corners of your garments are useful because of our forgetfulness and our sinfulness. Similarly many Christians wear necklaces and pins with crosses for the same reason and to proclaim that they are Christians.

Such practices and the re-telling of important stories also help educate the omnipresent newcomers to the faith or the history. They help to keep the faith or history alive. That certainly happened at the October 7th worship service and at the Minnesota History Center’s exhibit about the War and the other events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the War.

For the same reasons the various ways in which Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is remembered are important. So too the Holocaust museums in Washington, D.C. and around the world help us remember the horrors of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

At the same time, my reaction to the October 7th Westminster worship service suggests another phenomenon. Memory can be asymmetrical. Most white Anglo-Saxons like myself have or had no memory or understanding of the U.S.-Dakota War. For the Dakota people and Native Americans generally, on the other hand, the War and the executions of the Dakota 38 is an ever-present, painful memory. Thus, this worship service and the events commemorating the War are especially important ways of trying to break through the ignorance of the dominant culture.[1]

My reactions to this worship service also help me understand that the third-part of the Westminster worship service—Responding to the Word—does not end when you leave the sanctuary after the service. It should continue in how you live your life and how you continue to think about and probe the meaning of the Word that day. My contemplation of this worship service and the Word will continue beyond this posting.


[1] A recent article discussed this asymmetrical phenomenon in the context of an individual’s new love for another person. It said that human beings are prone to “hedonic adaptation, a measurable and innate capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes” and that “[h]edonic adaptation is most likely when positive experiences  are  involved . . . . We’re inclined–psychologically and physiologically–to take positive experiences for granted.”