Growing up on the Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation in Minnesota, Anton Treuer ’91 hunted, harvested wild rice, and participated in traditional religious and healing ceremonies with his mother. Yet he didn’t fully appreciate his Ojibwe culture when it was time to go off to college: “My goal was to get out of town,” says Treuer. Four years at college, however, left him “aching to get back home.”
He returned to the reservation, put his career aspirations on hold, and delved into his tribal culture — apprenticing with an elder at ceremonies and learning the language that he never mastered as a child. Eventually he realized that the richness of his tribal history and culture might be lost forever because relatively few Ojibwes in Minnesota speak their language. That newfound passion led to a career focused on saving the Ojibwe language, and through it, tribal culture.
Language and culture, says Treuer, are “inextricably linked.” There are fewer than 1,000 speakers of Ojibwe in the United States, he says, and most of those are elders concentrated in a few communities in Minnesota. “We’re getting very thin, and we’re very worried” about the language’s survival, says Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minn., and editor of the only academic journal of the Ojibwe language, Oshkaabewis Native Journal.
The challenge of increasing the number of fluent speakers is great. Since Ojibwe is traditionally primarily an oral language, the people lack books written in it despite a growing literacy tradition in the last 30 years.
Treuer has attacked the problem on several fronts: publishing an anthology of Ojibwe oral histories shared by elders; getting involved with immersion schools — three public schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin where some 100 students learn in Objiwe; developing curriculum materials for those schools, including a series for young readers; and creating a teacher-training program at Bemidji State University to teach future teachers the language.
Students at the immersion schools study math, science, and other state-required subjects in Objiwe, the
only language spoken in classrooms. Yet Ojibwe does not have words for certain concepts in math, science, and social studies — like “evaporation,” “Constitution,” and “Bill of Rights.” To remedy that, Treuer convened elders for several days in July 2009 to come up with new terminology. At first, he says, “they just stared at me. ...They were even a little resistant.” So, for example, he showed them a picture of the water cycle, a lake with squiggly lines to illustrate “evaporation” on a screen, and asked them to describe it. The results of those sessions, in which elders created and agreed upon terms for new concepts, is Aaniin Ekidong: Ojibwe Vocabulary Project, a vocabulary book used by teachers in the immersion schools. Treuer has begun working on a grammar book; the only one that exists is a guide prepared by missionaries that is incomplete, out of print, and out of date. “Our grammar books are people,” he says.
The schools not only are passing on a language that would be in danger of dying out, but also are conveying tribal history and Western history. That model has had positive effects on student achievement, says Treuer.
At the immersion school in Wisconsin, 100 percent of the students have passed the state English-proficiency exam — compared to just 50 percent of Native American children in traditional Wisconsin public schools, notes Treuer. “It is very counterintuitive,” he says. “But it just goes to show that when kids learn their language and their culture, they learn who they are. It builds self-esteem, and that translates into success at everything across the academic spectrum.” Building self-esteem and knowledge
of tribal culture and language is critical for children who through “ugly chapters of history have been told
that everything about them is stupid, second-rate,” he says.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” says Treuer, whose eight children are learning Ojibwe at home.
He envisions extending the immersion schools — which begin with pre-kindergarten and add a new grade every year (two of them go through seventh grade) — through doctoral programs to train a new generation of fluent teachers, administrators, and politicians.