Louise Erdrich delivers Kelly Lecture on International Women's Day

The author discussed the personal story behind her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Night Watchman.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, award-winning author Louise Erdrich visited The O'Shaughnessy to deliver her keynote address as the 2023 Bonnie Jean Kelly and Joan Kelly Visiting Scholar. The Twin Cities-based Ojibwe author and owner of Birchbark Books spoke about her 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Night Watchman, and shared how her own family history inspired the story.

The story of Patrick Gourneau, her grandfather, came into focus for Erdrich as she reread correspondence from his life, including letters between his parents and himself about the importance of education, and letters he wrote petitioning the superintendent to let him back to school after he was sent away. He worked hard to stay in school, and completed an eighth grade education. 

Gourneau eventually became tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and was in this role when the United States Congress passed the House concurrent resolution 108 of 1953, announcing the federal policy of termination. Termination sought to end federal recognition of tribal sovereignty, along with federal aid to tribes, which would have been financially and culturally devastating for them. Gourneau was working as a night watchman at a factory at the time, and nonetheless dedicated himself to the tribe’s fight against termination. 

“He wrote to everybody,” Erdrich told the rapt audience at The O'Shaughnessy. “Letter after letter after letter. He was sleeping maybe 12 hours a week… He was falling asleep all day, but he was meeting with people. One thing he was really good at was making friends. He made friends whatever political background, it didn’t matter. He made a friend, and he got them on his side. He’d use any argument.” 

Gourneau wrote letters, helped collect signatures for petitions, and raised money to go to Washington, D.C., with a delegation to testify against the policy. The delegation’s effort was ultimately successful, and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa was dropped from termination legislature. 

This is the story Erdrich enshrined in fiction in The Night Watchman. She usually makes up the characters in her novels instead of modeling them on real people, and found the character Thomas Wazhuskh, based on her grandfather, particularly difficult to write. “He was too good a person,” she explained. “He was just really good. His children loved him, people loved him.” Narratively, his biggest conflict was the threat of termination. 

In her keynote, as in her novels, Erdrich wove together the threads of family and history, providing an overview of the ways that treaties have been used throughout history to force tribal nations to cede their lands to the United States. While treaties promised goods such as rations, food, health, education, and farming equipment in exchange for the land, the agreements were signed under duress, and were not equal exchanges. She spoke of the ongoing fight for tribal sovereignty and return of land.

“Indigenous American people have kept their side of the treaties, so the deepest wish is for the U.S. government to keep their side of the treaties,” Erdrich said. 

After presenting, Erdrich was joined onstage by a panel of alumnae and current students, including Angela Slaughter ‘97, JD, associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court Anne McKeig ’89, JD, Sofia Vanderlan ’26, and Lauren Trowbridge ’24. Audience members were invited to submit questions, and the panel took turns asking Erdrich questions.

Erdrich ended her presentation with a quote from The Night Watchman: “If you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.”

The lecture was a part of St. Kate’s 2021-23 Integrated Learning Series on Indigenous thought leadership, a multidisciplinary program bringing an array of speakers, events, performances, activities, and more to inspire critical reflection.


Photos by Tara Sloane