The Night Watchman
by Louise Erdich


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Aloha and mahalo for visiting our site!
Any page numbers refer to iPad edition.


Characters: Thomas Wazhashk, Zhaanat, Pixie (Patrice) Paranteau, brother Pokey, sister Vera, friend Doris Lauder & best friend Valentine Blue, Juggie Blue, Wood Mountain, Thomas’s dead father Biboon, Louis Pipestone, dead Roderick, LaBatte, Millie Cloud, missionaries Elnath and Vernon, and many others.

1. Going into this story, what was your understanding of the plight of the Chippewa Indians? Or, of any tribe?

2. How does Thomas Wazhashk most resemble his spirit animal, the muskrat? (pg 10) Wikipedia--One of many references to the muskrat: In several Native American creation myths, the muskrat dives to the bottom of the primordial sea to bring up the mud from which the earth is created, after other animals have failed in the task.(pg 27)

3. Discuss Patrice’s spiritual connection with her missing sister, Vera. Have you ever experienced anything similar?

4. Discuss the following commented with regard to “that nameless greatness.” (pg 42) “Patrice had come to think that humans treated the concept of God, or Gizhe Manidoo, or the Holy Ghost, in a childish way.” She felt they did so to escape “punishment, or harm, like children.” She also felt the movement of something “vaster, impersonal yet personal…that maybe people in contact with that nameless greatness had a way of catching at the edges, a way of being pulled along or even entering this thing beyond experience.” (Ojibwe People’s Dictionary: Gizhe Manidoo, meaning Great Spirit)

5. This next quote is an example of the time’s prejudices. Discuss its impact. (pg 51) “To most of their neighbors, Indians were people who suffered and hid away in shabby dwellings or roamed the streets in flagrant drunkenness and shame. Except the good ones. There was always a ‘good Indian’ that someone knew.” (“But they were not a people who had champion fighters.” aka Wood Mountain)

6. Is this next commentary systematic racism? (pg 53) “They were swept up in one of the hundreds of Depression-era raids in which over a million Mexican workers, many of them citizens, were rounded up and shipped across the border. Texas didn’t like Indians any better than Mexicans, so their papers didn’t help.”

7. Discuss what the Congress’s 1953 House Concurrent Resolution 108 bill truly represented to the Indians, according to these excerpts: (pgs 7 & 72) “But they were not enslaved. Freed from being Indians was the idea. Emancipated from their land. Freed from the treaties that Thomas’s father and grandfather had signed and that were promised to last forever.” (pgs 81-82)Termination of Federal supervision over the trust and restricted property of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. For the disposition of Federally owned property acquired or withdrawn for the administration of the affairs of such Indians. For the intensification of an orderly program of facilitating the relocation and placement of such Indians in a self-supporting economy to the end that federal services and supervision with respect to such Indians may be discontinued as no longer necessary. For the termination of Federal services furnished to such Indians because of their status as Indians.”

8. In the Afterword, Erdich gives us the numbers: 113 tribal nations suffered the disaster of termination; 1.4 million acres 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, led by Ada Deer, regained federal recognition; 10 gained state but not federal recognition; 32 tribes are landless; 24 are considered extinct. The Trump era sought to terminate the Wampanoag, the tribe who first welcomed Pilgrims to these shores and invented Thanksgiving.

9. Discuss the owl’s meaning…”if you saw one, it meant a death. Soon.” (pg 87)

10. “Because everything was alive, Zhaanat treated everything around her with great care.” (pg 164) Give as many instances as you can remember. Here’s one: Think of them drinking the sap of the tree and how it entered their bodies.

11. EDDIE MINK (pg 174):“The services that the government provides to Indians might be likened to rent. The rent for use of the entire country of the United States”. Discuss via the “treaty” how they felt it was due them. And isn’t a Federal contract in perpetuity (aka “as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow-pg 7) a contract or is everything up for re-evaluation by the government?

12. How was Thomas changed after the visitation in the frosty field when he had that spiritual visit? (pgs 190-197)

13. Words of wisdom: (pg 237) “The only way to fight the righteous was to present an argument that would make giving him what he wanted seem the only righteous thing to do.”

14. Two Mormons come to town: Elnath and Vernon. Why do you think there’s only two represented in this story when it was so many historically when Joseph Smith and his Mormons “tried their best to murder all Indians in their path across the country, but in the end did not succeed”? (pg 160) What successes did Elnath and Vernon have, if any?

15. In the end, what did you learn about the Chippewa Indians? How they lived, believed, treated one another and were treated? Take for instance: “It was a hazard of travel for Indians to be lynched from streetlamps as a drunken joke. Ghosts with rope necklaces.” Did you know this?

16. How did/does that treatment compare to the African slaves and their offspring? To the Hawaiians? Can you think of others races and/or classes of people where lands, rights, and opportunities were or are blocked or lost?

Worthy of discussion:

Consider all with spiritual connections, we had Thomas with his father and Roderick. Patrice with Vera. Zhaanat with all living things.

USIS- United States Indian Service

When speaking to Elnath and Vernon, Thomas says, “We got our own religion here,” He said. “Our own scriptures even. Only thing, they come out like stories.” (pg 292)

The Indian words learned. Here are a few…Ikwe Anang (pg 21) the woman star. “Chimookomaaang”(pg 290) – the timelessness of the earth and the short span her of mortals. “Baashkizige” (pg 283) – ejaculation and also used for shooting off a gun. “Biinda’oojigan” – condom and means a gun case.

Questions By Louise Erdich (Most Excellent!)

1. What qualities define Thomas Wazhushk? In what ways is he like the muskrat he was named for? What, in addition to the jewel-bearing plant, does he watch and guard?

2. In what ways is Rose valuable to Thomas and the rest of her family and community?

3. Watching the stars one night, Thomas is struck by the opposing natures of his first and last names. What do they represent? How is he able to integrate them into an identity or not?

4. Thomas spends much of his work time writing, both official correspondence and personal letters and cards. What is important about writing for him? What is the value of creating such documents?

5. Pixie Paranteau insists that others call her Patrice. Why is this? What’s the difference between the two names for her? In what ways are names important?

6. Patrice likens her meticulous work at the jewel plant to beading with her mother. In what ways is this similar or not? What’s the difference between work and a job?

7. Why does Patrice love to chop firewood? What does it say that she arranges it in a beautiful pattern?

8. What is Zhaanat’s “deep knowledge”? Why has it been important to protect it and her from outside influences such as boarding school?

9. What is it about Zhaanat’s “unusual hands that frightened some people”?

10. Patrice comes to believe that most people treat the concept of God “in a childish way.” What does she mean? Why might such an approach be limiting or problematic? What is her understanding of the “nameless greatness”?

11. How did Vera --- who “always wanted to stay where she could see the birches” --- fall victim to such horrible experience? Why might such brutal, misogynistic criminal activity be a lesser priority to authorities? What are the similarities and differences between such criminal sexual activity and Patrice’s job as the Waterjack?

12. What is Wood Mountain like? How is it that he is both a fighter and sensitive and kind to women and Vera’s baby? Why don’t more men combine such strength and protective calm?

13. What does Thomas’ father, Biboon, know that most others do not? What might he mean when he says, “Survival is a changing game”?

14. As Thomas reads resolution 108, meant to terminate the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, he’s struck that “the unthinkable was couched in such innocuous dry language.” What is the intent of such language? In what other contexts is plain, dry language used as a power?

15. Consider the many stereotyped images of “a lovely Indian maiden in flowing buckskin” and others in advertising. What is the power and effect of such images? What role do they play in culture?

16. What does it mean that Thomas is of the “after-the-buffalo-who-are-we-now” generation? What might it mean to “define themselves”? What are the various component parts of one’s identity?

17. What is shame? Why is it likened to “a black sediment...carried around in [the] stomach”? What are the causes of shame for Thomas and others? What is the best way to combat it?

18. How is Millie Cloud a part of or estranged from her tribe? How might she balance her valuable pursuit of higher education with a connection to her family and culture?

19. Thomas chooses to view Arthur V. Watkins, the senator behind the termination bill, as an adversary instead of an enemy. What’s the difference? What does Thomas gain by making this distinction?

20. Why is Patrice’s sexual desire “confused with shame”? In what ways are her desires healthy and responsible?

21. Out walking, Patrice falls into a ravine and decides to take a nap near a hibernating bear. What does this mean to her? How does it affect her after the fact? What does it mean that “bigger ideas were called for”?

22. Thomas explains to Barnes that “we are connected to the way-back people.” What does he mean? What is the value of such deep perspective?

23. In what ways are Patrice and Millie “in the same league”?

24. Why might Millie, as she “lovingly” turns the hand crank of the duplicating machine, grow “happier and happier”?

25. What does it mean that patterns take Millie “into the foundations of meaning”? What is the “place simple, savage, ineffable, and exquisite,” that she retreats to each night?

26. What do Roderick’s consistent appearances mean to Thomas? What effect do they have?

27. What is the role and importance of laughter throughout the burdensome struggles of the novel?

28. What explains Patrice becoming “inhabited by a vengeful, roiling, even murderous spirit”? How might this be helpful to her?

29. Consider one of the final images of the novel, Thomas dreaming of muskrats, asking them his name, placing the paper it’s written on in his mouth, and the “bones tipped and staggered, assembling into forms” across the prairies. What do all these powerful images suggest about Thomas and his people?

30. What is important and powerful about Thomas, even occasionally struggling with language, continuing to write at his desk at work?

WMBC Questions compiled by: Elaine Gallant
West Maui Book Club
Feb. 2021