Professor Anton Treuer (left) led a workshop to collect the stories of native Ojibwe speakers, including elder Brenda Moose (right).

Professor Anton Treuer (left) led a workshop to collect the stories of native Ojibwe speakers, including elder Brenda Moose (right).

The language warrior
In Minnesota, the country’s last stronghold of native Ojibwe speakers,
a professor is racing to preserve their knowledge.
Language warrior
In Minnesota, the country’s last stronghold of native Ojibwe speakers, a professor is racing to preserve their knowledge.

Meet the Bemidji professor on a quest to keep the Ojibwe language alive

In Minnesota, the country's last stronghold of native Ojibwe speakers, this professor is racing to preserve their knowledge.

Ojibwemowin, the language of the Ojibwe people, is dominated by verbs. Many Ojibwe animal names express how the creature moves or behaves. A monkey, for example, is a lice hunter. The word for deer depicts the white flash of its upturned tail.

Anton Treuer’s Indian name is waagosh, the Ojibwe word for fox, an animal known for its spry bounding. Treuer (pronounced Troy-er), a professor of Ojibwe language, often moves in this very manner: light on his feet, perpetually in motion, zigzagging between the ancient world and the modern one. He’s a man with one foot in the wigwam, and the other in the ivory tower, as he’s been known to put it.

In late February, Treuer was bounding between meeting spaces at the Mille Lacs Grand Casino’s convention center near Onamia, Minn., overseeing a story development workshop for a new series of Ojibwe language children’s books. He’d already put in a 4-mile run that morning. But the sprightly 50-year old — trim build, perfect teeth, hair slicked into a man-bun — seemed destined to triple that distance before the day’s end.

He greeted elders, shepherded the group through transcribing and editing sessions, procured batteries and computer cables, and gave an exceedingly articulate television interview. Through it all, he fluidly switched between Ojibwe and English.

Native speakers of Ojibwe who attended the Mille Lacs workshop

Treuer teaches at Bemidji State University, which created the country’s first collegiate Ojibwe language program in 1969, and has served as director of the school’s American Indian Resource Center. He’s written more than a dozen books, including “Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask,” which cemented his reputation as a cultural spokesperson who could go on NPR and discuss such things as why Indian sports mascots are problematic.

Much of Treuer’s work centers around Ojibwe language revitalization, the subject of his new book, “The Language Warrior’s Manifesto.” Language, Treuer says, defines nations, connects generations and allows a culture to express its perspective on the world. The Ojibwe language is its people’s sole medium for conducting ceremonies. It is fundamental to their identity.

Language loss, Treuer explains, is more than a pretty bird’s song disappearing from the forest. He refers to languages as “unique bodies of knowledge that may contain some of the most critical solutions to the problems we face as humans.” And he likens the diversity of languages to a game of Jenga.

“Every time we pull out a new language for extinction, we’ve destabilized the tower of human knowledge and problem-solving,” he said.

Ojibwe and Dakota are the indigenous languages of Minnesota. (Treuer likes to joke with the Bemidji State deans that callers asking for the foreign language department should be transferred to the English professors.) But as with many indigenous languages, both are at risk of extinction.

Treuer estimates that only about 1,000 first speakers of Ojibwe (those who learned it as their mother tongue) remain in the United States. UNESCO describes the language as “severely endangered” in Minnesota.

And yet the state is at the forefront of Ojibwe revitalization efforts: Treuer estimates that roughly half of the country’s fluent speakers live on Minnesota’s Mille Lacs and Red Lake reservations.

An upswell of initiatives are bolstering Ojibwe language use. The new children’s book series, led by Treuer and sponsored by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, is being used in language classes and immersion schools. Treuer is working with the band on several other projects to revitalize Ojibwe, including developing digital language-learning tools and turning his book about an Ojibwe chief, “The Assassination of Hole in the Day,” into a major motion picture.

“We have an emerging ground game,” Treuer said, describing how these efforts collectively help ensure the language will remain in use.

While there are countless people involved in the region’s Ojibwe language projects, Treuer is among the few who seem to have a hand in nearly all of them.

An unlikely role

Treuer admits that his role as an Ojibwe language warrior is an unexpected one.

His father, Robert Treuer, was an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis and grew up speaking German. After moving to the United States, Robert met Treuer’s future mother, Margaret, when both were working on the Leech Lake Reservation, near Bemidji.

Margaret was Ojibwe — she went on to become the first Native female lawyer in Minnesota — though she didn’t speak enough of the language to teach it to her four children. (Treuer has collaborated with his brother David, a noted novelist, on several language projects.)

While the Ojibwe (also known by the Anglicized pronunciation, Chippewa) make up only a small fraction of America’s Native population, concentrated around the Great Lakes region, their large population in Canada makes the tribe among the largest in North America. The Ojibwe are the largest tribe in Minnesota, with seven of the state’s 11 reservations (the four in the southern part of the state are Dakota).

Treuer spent much of his childhood on the Leech Lake Reservation, learning ancestral skills, such as harvesting wild rice and snaring rabbits, from his mother. Growing up, Treuer says he didn’t fully appreciate those traditions. Like many youths, he couldn’t wait to leave town.

But after earning an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, he returned to Leech Lake and dedicated himself to learning more about his indigenous heritage.

“Once I stepped away from it for just a little bit, then I realized what a blessing and gift it was, and that I was very hungry to learn and do more,” he said.

After taking a few Ojibwe language classes, he decamped to Wisconsin, seeking the counsel of a spiritual leader in his 90s, Archie Mosay. On and off for the next five years, Treuer lived with Mosay, immersing himself in the Ojibwe language and customs. Soon Treuer was fluent enough to dream in Ojibwe.

After earning a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, Treuer landed at Bemidji State in 2000. From there, his résumé reads like a Who’s Who of prestigious fellowships, Guggenheim and MacArthur among them. He edits the only academic journal of the Ojibwe language and is on the board of the Minnesota Historical Society.

He’s also been active in helping non-Native communities learn more about Ojibwe language and culture. He helped with translations for bilingual signage throughout Bemidji (the police department’s squad cars are emblazoned with the Ojibwe translation of “To Protect and Serve”). He also launched a grassroots Truth and Reconciliation group in the area to have candid conversations about race and how to improve relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents.

Treuer is also an Ojibwe spiritual leader, officiating traditional ceremonies that can last for many days. If that weren’t enough to keep him busy, Treuer and his wife, Blair, have a big blended family of nine children, ages 8 to 27 — and they’re hockey parents, to boot.

Many of Treuer’s academic, spiritual and family spheres overlap. His professional collaborators share his drum circles. His eldest biological child, Madeline, whom he raised as an Ojibwe speaker, was a transcriber at the book workshop.

Language workshop participants reviewed Ojibwe text and suggested edits.
Language workshop participants reviewed Ojibwe text and suggested edits.

Stories for future generations

About a dozen of the Mille Lacs Band’s first speakers, tribal elders in their 70s to 90s, attended the children’s book workshop, sharing stories in Ojibwe with a team of younger transcribers, most of whom learned Ojibwe as a second language.

Just a few generations ago, fluent speakers of Ojibwe were far more common, as many children learned the language from their parents. (One of the workshop’s first speakers said her parents had conducted their whole lives in Ojibwe and only ever learned a handful of English words.)

For many Ojibwe families, Treuer’s included, passing the language from generation to generation was interrupted by the federal government’s American Indian residential schools. Treuer’s maternal grandmother attended one of the schools, where teachers forbade Native children from speaking their tribal languages, cut their long hair, and prevented them from expressing their Indigenous culture.

Ojibwe is known for its complexity (an attribute recognized by Guinness World Records), but it’s also an incredibly descriptive language, with great capacity for conveying nuance. There are different words for the sound made from the rustle of the wind in the leaves, and the sound made from the whoosh of the wind in the pines, Treuer said.

“Ojibwe speakers take pride in their ability to create verbal illustrations,” explained Michael Sullivan, a linguist who serves as the children’s books’ text editor.

The language is also a powerful way to transmit values and communicate the Ojibwe people’s worldview, Treuer noted. For example, the Ojibwe word for elder, gichi-aya’aa, means “great being.” The idea of respecting your elders goes without saying; the word itself already says it.

Ojibwe conversations often include gentle teasing, self-abasement exaggerated to the point of hilarity, and a lot of laughter.

That’s one of the reasons that transcriber Persia Erdrich, a kindergarten teacher at Waadookodaading immersion school near Hayward, Wis., wanted to expand on the Ojibwe she’d learned as a child. “I wanted to be in on the jokes,” she said.

Erdrich grew up loving stories (her mother is novelist Louise Erdrich, owner of Birchbark Books) so was eager to transcribe her first-speaker partner’s tales from childhood.

First-speaker Bill Premo explained how he had revitalized his own Ojibwe language skills, which lay dormant for most of his adulthood. He’d learned Ojibwe from his parents, but through his military service during the Vietnam War and subsequent career in the Twin Cities, he mostly spoke English. Moving back to an Ojibwe community and getting involved in drum ceremonies in his 60s put the language back into active use.

Premo said he wanted to participate in the book project to help pass an essential part of Ojibwe identity on to future generations. “If the language disappears, there is no tribe,” he said.

Anton Treuer’s daughter Madeline (right) transcribed the stories of native Ojibwe speaker Carol Nickaboine (left).
Anton Treuer’s daughter Madeline (right) transcribed the stories of native Ojibwe speaker Carol Nickaboine (left).

Early adopter and advocate

Thirty years ago, Treuer’s success with learning Ojibwe allowed him to become among the first of his generation to speak the language to his children. As an early advocate for language preservation, he spent years trekking around with his tape recorder, capturing elders’ Ojibwe-speaking, then transcribing, editing and publishing their words in books and journals.

Over time, he’s helped establish ranks of transcribers to do the same work. “My goal is to be replaceable many times over,” he said.

But Treuer’s combination of hard and soft skills aren’t so easy to replicate. As a font of knowledge with a strong network of personal relationships, he often acts as a bridge between people doing language work, helping to catalyze their efforts.

Sullivan describes how Treuer paved the way for so many others. “He was working on this while most of us were still in high school,” Sullivan said. “Many of us engaged in this effort stand on the shoulders of his early, trailblazing work.”

By the end of the children’s book workshop, the group had collected more than 50 stories. Instead of “goodbye” Treuer and the others said “giga-waabamin miinawaa,” or “I shall see you again,” reflecting the Ojibwe people’s belief that parting is never final. If we don’t meet again in this world, it suggests, we will do so in the next.

Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569