One Alum’s Mission to Preserve His People’s Culture

Jon Heller

Jon Valk

ON A DREARY SEPTEMBER MORNING, eight students file into a class on elementary Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in northwestern Minnesota. Hunched over their phones, hoodies pulled low over their heads, coffee not yet kicked in, there is little energy for a 10 a.m. class. Outside, clouds descend over the football practice field and the dark lake beyond it.

In strides Anton Treuer ’91 to jolt everyone awake. Lean and casually dressed, his long black hair tied in a braid, Treuer starts peppering the students in Ojibwe about their day.

“Aaniish ezhi-ayaayan?” (How are you doing this morning?) he asks a young woman sitting by the window.

“What’s the word for ‘tired’?” she answers in English.

Treuer smiles. “Indayekoz,” he tells her, and she repeats it.

“Hay’,” he says. Yeah.

Two days later, Treuer sits on the linoleum floor in a crowded community center on the White Earth Indian Reservation, about an hour southwest of Bemidji. By his side is a ceremonial drum painted red, yellow, and blue; four eagle feathers mounted around it on oak poles mark the cardinal directions. A bowl filled with ceremonial tobacco sits at his feet. Everyone who enters adds a pinch and whispers a blessing.

While other tribal members talk and gossip, Treuer suddenly begins to sing in a high, keening voice and beat the drum. Soon four or five other men join him, including his younger brother, David ’92, a novelist and creative writing professor at the University of Southern California. Other men strap bells on their legs and begin to dance. Anton Treuer attends drum ceremonies most weekends, often bringing the youngest of his nine children with him.

Although visitors may attend these ceremonies, it is hard to get Treuer to explain them in detail. “In Ojibwe culture,” he wrote in Warrior Nation, his 2015 history of the Red Lake Ojibwe, “most spiritual matters are not shared for anthropological purposes, for the curiosity of outsiders, or for intellectual enrichment. They are shared as part of a spiritual experience, ... [which] involves someone who knows the teachings taking the songs out of his or her soul and directly transferring them to another, where they become a permanent part of who that someone is. ... Ceremonial knowledge must be paid for — and not with money, but with tobacco, food, culturally appropriate gifts, and time.”

And, he might have added, by understanding the language in which they are conducted.

Treuer with daughter Luella at the Leech Lake Powwow in 2013.
Courtesy Anton Treuer ’91

THE OJIBWE, COMMONLY KNOWN AS CHIPPEWA (“Chippewa” is a Europeanized pronunciation of “Ojibwe”) are the most populous tribe in North America, scattered from eastern Ontario to Montana; U.S. bands are centered in the upper Midwest. Like most Indian reservations, White Earth is plagued by poverty, poor health, addiction, and crime. Truancy rates are high; graduation rates, low. Traditional folkways, which help bind this community together, remain strong, though their future is uncertain. Those who can conduct ceremonies fluently are dying out or drifting away.

A professor at Bemidji State and director of its American Indian Resource Center, Treuer is working to keep his people’s language and culture alive. He is the author of three tribal histories, several vocabulary books, a collection of oral histories, an atlas of Indian nations, and a forthcoming history of American Indian wars. He also edits the world’s only Ojibwe academic journal. In addition to attending drum and other tribal ceremonies, he lectures around the country and heads his county’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which seeks to improve relations between the tribe and white residents.

Treuer estimates that about 60,000 people speak at least rudimentary Ojibwe, but only about 1,000 fluent speakers remain in the United States. More than half of them live on two Minnesota reservations — Red Lake and Mille Lacs — and hardly any still speak it as their primary language. Fluency rates are higher in Canada, where many Ojibwe live in remote areas.

Somewhere in the world a language is lost every 14 days, according to a 2010 UNESCO report, which predicted that half of the world’s 6,000 spoken languages will disappear by the end of this century. There were nearly 300 spoken languages in North America when the Europeans arrived. About half survive, but only three — Ojibwe, Dakota, and Dene (Navajo) — still are spoken regularly.

The death of a language depletes us intellectually, but languages and the cultures that used them have always been ephemeral things. Who still speaks Etruscan? Samarian? Saxon? Is it important — or even possible — to keep them all alive? Nevertheless, efforts to revive indigenous languages have been attempted around the world, sometimes with success.

Treuer’s activities inside and outside the classroom are connected, because what is at stake, he insists, is much more than just an academic discipline. Language is the means through which a culture expresses its understanding of the world. To pick just a few examples, the Ojibwe word for drum — dewe’igan — means “heartbeat,” and the drum at tribal ceremonies sits at the center of the communal circle, its syncopated sound signifying a heartbeat. The word for old man — gichi-aya’aa — means “great being,” while the word for old woman — mindimooye — means “one who holds things together.”

“In Ojibwe, you don’t have to say, ‘respect your elders,’ ” Anton Treuer observes. “It’s built into the language.”

As David Treuer wrote in his 2012 book about the Minnesota Ojibwe, Rez Life, “To claim that Indian cultures can continue without Indian languages only hastens our end, even if it makes us feel better about ourselves. ... Cultural death matters because if the culture dies, we will have lost the chance not only to live on our own terms ... but also to live in our own terms.”

ALTHOUGH THE GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS lists Ojibwe as the most complex language in the world, with more than 4,000 verb forms, Anton Treuer rolls his eyes at this. Ojibwe is not an especially difficult language to learn, he says; there are indeed a large number of grammatical structures, but they are more consistent than those in English or Romance languages and thus easier to keep straight.

Linguistically, Ojibwe is part of the Algonquian family, which encompasses 29 native languages, including Delaware, Powhatan, and Lenape. There are 23 letters in its alphabet — long and short vowels are represented separately — and one letter that does not appear in English — a glottal stop approximating the sound in the middle of the expression “uh oh.” The sounds represented by the English letters f, l, r, u, v, and x do not occur in Ojibwe. At least 20 Ojibwe words have made their way into English, including moose, totem, chipmunk, toboggan, and moccasin. Several American place names, including Mississippi, Michigan, and Wisconsin, also come from Ojibwe words.

Ojibwe nouns are not gendered in the Western sense but are divided between animate and inanimate objects. It is a verb-based language; Treuer estimates that nearly two-thirds of Ojibwe words are verbs, including things like days of the week. The Ojibwe sentence Giziibiigisaginige-giizhigad noongom (“Today is Saturday”) literally means, “It is Saturdaying.” Rather than separating tenses, adjectives, and adverbs into distinct words, Ojibwe builds them into noun and verb roots in what are called “prenouns” and “preverbs.” There are indeed hundreds of Ojibwe verb conjunctions, including several that do not have direct cognates in English. One, called the dubitative, expresses a sense of uncertainty or self-effacement, as in: “I saw someone who must have been sick.”

Although the Ojibwe had developed a system of pictographs to convey ideas, the first efforts to reduce the language to writing began with 17th-century French missionaries eager to teach the Bible. There are two Ojibwe orthographies, which date to the mid-19th century: a syllabic one favored in many remote Canadian villages, and a more widely used Roman version that includes English conventions for punctuation and capitalization. There still is no concise Ojibwe grammar book: Anton Treuer and Professor John Nichols, at the University of Minnesota, have been working on one.

“Our grammar books,” Treuer acknowledges, “are people.”

One problem in adapting Ojibwe to modern usage has been developing vocabulary for new concepts, products, and technologies; there is no tribal equivalent to the Académie Française, which famously tried to develop French cognates for English words like “floppy disk.” Ojibwe writers and speakers develop such words haphazardly; some catch on, others do not. The commonly accepted word for television, for example, mazinaatesijigan, means “box that reflects pictures as light.” As Treuer points out, however, since most languages were developed for pre-industrial people, all have had to go through a similar process. The English word “television” is simply a mishmash of a Greek word, tele (distant), and a Latin word, videre (to see).

Bemidji State offers a six-course Ojibwe language program designed to be taken over three years, along with classes in Ojibwe culture and oral literature. Treuer teaches them all, though there are three Native faculty members in the Department of Indigenous Studies and a dozen at the university overall. In a typical year, there may be as many as 50 students learning the Ojibwe language. Most, though not all, are Native; many, too, are older students who have transferred from a nearby tribal college or gone back to school to finish their degrees.

As in any introductory language class, Treuer blends vocab quizzes, audiotapes, and unceasing conversation. On this day, students are preparing a two-minute speech in Ojibwe and practicing prepositional phrases. Fliers in the lobby advertise Ojibwe language tables and tribal games that enable students to hone their fluency.

Since Bemidji State created the first academic Ojibwe language course in the country in 1969, similar programs have sprung up at more than 20 universities and tribal colleges around the United States. Because of the broad geographic dispersement of its people, Ojibwe is one of the most widely taught Indian languages, though Treuer says that few programs are extensive enough to build true proficiency. Bemidji offers a master’s degree in Ojibwe but has no doctoral program. He hopes to add one someday, but says that a more pressing need is for an accredited teacher-training program, to produce a new cadre of fluent speakers who can spread the language further.

David Treuer ’92 at his home on Leech Lake in 2011, shortly after his book Rez Life was published.
Dan Koeck

THE TREUER BROTHERS GREW UP by the Leech Lake reservation, about 20 miles from Bemidji, but it took time for Anton to fully embrace his culture and language.

Their father, Robert, was an Austrian Jew who spoke only German as a child. Robert’s family had fled the Nazis and moved to the United States in 1939, where he learned English by listening to the radio. In the 1950s, while working as a labor organizer, he discovered a 250-acre piece of tax-forfeited property on Leech Lake during a weekend trip to Minnesota. He bought it because the area reminded him of rural Austria, and replanted the land in pine trees, which have grown into a dense forest where both Treuer brothers still live, David part time.

Robert Treuer took a job running Leech Lake’s community-outreach program and there met Treuer’s mother, Margaret Seelye Treuer, an Ojibwe woman who ran the reservation’s health office. She later earned a law degree, becoming the first female American Indian attorney in Minnesota, and still serves as a judge in tribal courts.

Growing up, the Treuer children (including younger brother, Micah ’01, a doctor; and sister Megan, a lawyer) did not speak Ojibwe at home, as Anton now does with his own children, because neither parent was fluent in it. Instead, Margaret Treuer introduced her children to their heritage through cultural practices such as hunting, harvesting wild rice, tapping maple trees, and attending tribal ceremonies.

“It was a regular part of our lives always,” David recalls. “That was how our family socialized.” He once tried to rebel by telling his mother he wanted to go to church. “You can worship in any way you want to,” she told him, “but you had better plan on walking.”

Both Treuers have faced challenges assimilating, but in physical appearance and coloring Anton is more obviously Indian: David affectionately describes his brother as “a handsomer version of Tonto.” When the family lived briefly in Washington, D.C., Anton says his first-grade teacher thought it would be funny to place him in front of the class and dress him like a girl, putting his long hair in barrettes and applying lipstick. Even back in Minnesota, he heard casual slurs from white students, while some Ojibwe classmates castigated him as an “apple”: red on the outside, white on the inside.

By the time he finished high school, Anton was anxious to leave Minnesota, but his attitude changed shortly after he arrived at Princeton. “As soon as I left, I started to see the value in a lot of the things my mother had been trying to show me about Ojibwe culture, language, and ceremonial life,” he says. He was one of about 20 American Indian students on campus (only five of whom were enrolled members of a reservation) and majored in the Woodrow Wilson School, where he wrote his thesis on an Ojibwe spearfishing-rights dispute in Wisconsin.

Having in a sense run away from home, he chose to run back after graduation. Declining an opportunity to work in Washington, Treuer instead sought out 91-year-old Archie Mosay, an Ojibwe spiritual leader who had been born in a wigwam and was one of the last living links to traditional tribal customs. Treuer simply drove to Mosay’s village in Wisconsin, found his address in the phone book, and knocked on his door. Although they did not know each other, Mosay greeted him with the words, “I’ve been waiting for you,” telling Treuer of a dream in which a young man sought him out to learn tribal customs.

Over the next four years, Treuer lived with Mosay, partaking in what Treuer calls a “holistic” immersion in language and culture. He became so deeply engaged that he regularly returned to Mosay’s house while getting his Ph.D. in history at the University of Minnesota and during his first teaching job at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He joined the Bemidji State faculty in 2000.

Anton Treuer with Archie Mosay, an Ojibwe spiritual leader, circa 1993
Courtesy Anton Treuer ’91

“THERE IS A TREND toward the proliferation of several dominant world languages and the disintegration of many others,” Treuer observes. “It’s one of the painful impacts of globalization and colonization.” But it is not irreversible.

Hebrew is perhaps the most famous example of language revitalization. No one spoke it as a primary language from about the third century until early Zionists revived it in the mid-19th century as part of their effort to secure a Jewish homeland in Palestine, explains Philip Zhakevich, a lecturer in Near Eastern studies. It is now spoken by about 9 million people.

In New Zealand, fewer than 20 percent of Maori spoke their tribal language by the early 1980s, but new programs, which teach it to children from infancy, have been so successful that Maori is now an official national language. Maori revitalization efforts, in turn, inspired efforts to revitalize Hawaiian, which had been banned in island schools after the American annexation. At the time the first Hawaiian immersion schools opened in the late 1980s, fewer than 1,000 people spoke it fluently, half of whom lived on one isolated island. Today, there are more than 20,000 fluent Hawaiian speakers, and it is possible for children to learn it as their primary language from kindergarten through college.

“It’s pretty inspiring to see what they did and how they did it,” Treuer says. But on the American mainland, he adds, only a few other Indian tribes — most notably the Cree, Blackfeet, and Mohawk — have pursued extensive language-revitalization programs. Fluency in Navajo has been a prerequisite for holding tribal office, but the tribe is considering whether to drop the requirement after elections in 2014 had to be postponed when one of the leading presidential candidates refused to take a fluency test.

Although one can pick up basic Ojibwe vocabulary with the help of books or even a few phone apps, Treuer says that immersion is the only reliable way to gain fluency. Even the classes he teaches, which meet for 50 minutes four times a week, are not enough. Now, several Ojibwe immersion schools seek to develop a new generation of fluent speakers. The most successful of these is the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School, founded in 2000 on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in Reserve, Wis. Children in prekindergarten through seventh grade receive all their classroom instruction in Ojibwe and learn tribal customs and practices. A smaller K-3 immersion school on the Leech Lake reservation and an early-childhood immersion program in Minneapolis also have been established. Treuer has helped develop curriculum and conducted teacher assessments for all of them.

Although indigenous language loss can be blamed on globalization and assimilation, American Indian languages were also eradicated as a matter of policy. From the 1870s into the 1950s, Indian children were sent away from their families to government-run boarding schools where they were forced to cut their hair and forbidden to speak their native tongue or practice their religion, all in the name of helping them adapt to American society. Richard Henry Pratt, director of the Indian school in Carlisle, Pa., explained this ethos with harrowing clarity in 1892: “[A]ll the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

With that legacy in mind, immersion schools reject assimilation. Many tribal members, Treuer says, see the American education system as “the tip of a long spear of assault on language and culture.” Asked whether raising children with Ojibwe as their primary language might close them off from the broader American economy, he bristles.

“There is this assumption, first of all, that to be successful you have to exhibit whiteness, English language, materialism. Ultimately, there are a lot of different definitions of success,” he says. There is also evidence that immersion programs work: Although reservation schools are plagued by truancy and low test scores, students at Waadookodaading exceed state standards for reading, math, and science. Furthermore, he adds, simply by living in modern American society, it is nearly impossible for Ojibwe children not to learn English.

People from a different culture require a different way of learning, Treuer believes, and learning in their own language is central to that: “Ultimately, if you go to school for 13 years and are taught everything you need to know to be successful in the world and none of it has anything to do with you, that’s quite simply a lesson that you and yours are not important, not relevant.”

Asked about his long-term goal, Treuer begins by quoting a Hawaiian proverb. The point of maintaining a language, he says, “is not just so we can hear another pretty bird singing in the forest.” Nor, he continues, is it about restoring some sort of pre-contact idyll.

The goal, he concludes, “is about building strong human beings who are OK in their own skin as load-bearing members of the country and the world, and with a toolbox for health and happiness.” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.

AUDIO: Anton Treuer ’91 on Everything You Wanted to Know About ‘Indians’

Courtesy National Public Radio