Dr. Anton Treuer is Talking The Talk, in Ojibwe

The first time I heard Dr. Anton Treuer talk, I was amazed. The next time I heard him speak, I was even more impressed.

Treuer (“troy-er”) is the professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, and may be the only professor of Ojibwe in the world. I first heard him in 2008, when the university invited me to give a talk about my book Modern American Indian Leaders. He was also a speaker that day, and he gave the prayer and part of his presentation in Ojibwe. It was amazing to hear such a young person completely fluent in a Native language. Most young Indian people cannot speak their languages.

The next time I heard him speak was in January of this year, at the Ojibwe education conference sponsored by three Ojibwe tribes. The visionary Red Lake Chairman Floyd Jourdain was an instigator of the meeting; three Ojibwe tribes—Red Lake, White Earth, and Leech Lake—are determined to improve their schools, and Treuer and I spent two days with a group of more than 300 people working on ways to do that. Treuer has been working for more than two decades to document, preserve and pass on the Ojibwe language.

Like all Native languages, Ojibwe is disappearing, but young people such as Treuer, Dr. Darrell Kipp at the Piegan Institute on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, and Tom Porter at the Mohawk’s Akwesasne Freedom School in New York are preserving Native languages, and even bringing them back. One of the winners of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” award this past year was Jessie Little Doe Baird, who is bringing the Wampanoag language back to life. She has been working for 15 years to document, learn and teach the language. Treuer has been working even longer to preserve and teach Ojibwe.

At a time when some of my best friends and Native–language advocates speak only English with their own sons and daughters, Treuer has established a huge beachhead in the fight to preserve Native languages, using Native speakers as his guides and spending hundreds of hours with them. He has written seven books on Ojibwe language and history as well. His latest is The Assassination of Hole in the Day, a political and social history of the Ojibwe people.

His book Ojibwe in Minnesota won the award as “Minnesota’s Best Read for 2010” from the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, a huge honor. It is a history of the Ojibwe people, culture, stereotypes, economics and legal issues. He talks about current conditions, such as the 38 percent unemployment rate on the Red Lake Reservation. In an interview with Native Sun News, he said, “In America, the only places Indians pop up in curriculum in schools are Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving, and usually a sugar-coated version of these stories is told.”

He is also addressing the problem of Native student dropouts: “Part of the disconnect is [that] in spite of any progress we have made, school is still a place where Native kids go to learn about others. There’s nothing here that testifies to the accomplishments of their race, people and heroes. No wonder it doesn’t resonate.”

Treuer earned his bachelor’s from Princeton (the first Ojibwe person enrolled there), and his master’s and Ph.D. in history from the University of Minnesota. He carried a 4.0 GPA for his master’s, and is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. He taught Ojibwe and history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for five years before coming to Bemidji State in 2000, where he is a tenured professor in the Department of Modern Languages, one of only a handful of Indians in the U.S. who are tenured professors. The fight to earn tenure for Indians, which a group of us started 40 years ago, is still going on, with little success. Most of the Indian professors are still assistant or associate professors, without tenure.

Treuer has won fellowships from the most prestigious outfits in the United States, including the American Philosophical Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, Minnesota Historical Society, Minnesota Humanities Commission, the MacArthur Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and several others.

He has worked with Larry Stillday, an elder at Red Lake, and Eugene Stillday, another elder who is Larry’s cousin, for years preserving and restoring the Ojibwe language. They have developed curriculum books, readers, and workbooks in the Ojibwe language that are being used in the Ojibwe schools at Red Lake, Cass Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth.

A lot of people have talked about Native language preservation, but few have done a whole lot about it. Treuer, the Stillday cousins and the other Ojibwe speakers have gone a long way toward preserving their language.

Treuer comes from a long line of high achievers. His sister, Megan, is director of Anishinaabe Regional Defense, a legal services firm at Leech Lake. One brother, Micah, is a medical student completing a residency at Sanford Clinic in Bemidji. Another, David, is a professor of English at the University of Southern California and an award-winning novelist and essayist. His mother, Margaret Treuer, was the first Indian woman in the state of Minnesota to earn a law degree. She has worked for the tribal courts at Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, White Earth, Red Lake, and Bois Forte, where she is currently chief judge. His father, Robert, is an Austrian immigrant who survived the Holocaust. He is also the author of three books and has worked for Indian communities for decades.

And Treuer has followed his family’s example of success. His program is one others can follow to preserve any language.

Dean Chavers, Ph.D., is the director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program for American Indians, located in Albuquerque. His latest book is Racism in Indian Country, published by Peter Lang, 2009. Write to him at: CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com.