121 pages 4 hours read

Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Symbols & Motifs

Emancipation Versus Termination

“Emancipation” is the term used in House Concurrent Resolution 108, but as Thomas notes:

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. So as usual, by getting rid of us, the Indian problem would be solved (80).

The denotation of the word lines up with an ideal of freedom, but its application in the bill would result in devastation. It would separate the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa from their land and violates every treaty that the US government signed.

Thomas recognizes this: “In the newspapers, the author of the proposal had constructed a cloud of lofty words around this bill—emancipation, freedom, equality, success—that disguised its truth: termination. Termination. Missing only the prefix. The ex” (90). Erdrich’s book challenges its readers to think in this critical way and to recognize the importance of words. Watkins thinks that he can use his office and the law to complete the violent attempts at extermination taken up by figures such as Joseph Smith, yet it appears sanitized and associated with the American notion of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps to achieve independence.

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