Accomplished anthropologist and author David Treuer argues that “to claim that Indian cultures can continue without Indian languages only hastens our end.”
I am not supposed to be alive. Native Americans were supposed to die off, as endangered species do, a century ago. Our reservations aren’t supposed to exist either; they were supposed to be temporary in many ways, and, under assault by the Dawes Act in the 19th century and by termination policy during the Eisenhower era in the 20th century, they were supposed to disappear, too.
But I am not dead after all, and neither is rez life despite the coldest wishes of a republic since two centuries before I was born. We stubbornly continue to exist. There were just over 200,000 Native Americans alive at the dawn of the 20th century; as of the 2000 census, we number more than 2 million. If you discount population growth by immigration, we are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. But even as our populations are growing, something else, I fear, is dying: our cultures.
Among my fellow Indians, this is not a popular thing to say. Most of us immediately sneer at warnings of cultural death, calling the very idea further proof that “the man” is still trying to kill us, but now with attitudes and arguments rather than discrimination and guns. Any Indian caught worrying that we might indeed vanish can expect to be grouped with the self-haters.
Linguists estimate that when Europeans first came to North America, more than 300 Native American languages were spoken here. Today, there are only about 150. Of those languages, only 20 are spoken by children. Only three languages—Dakota, Dene, and Ojibwe—have a vibrant community of speakers. Within a century, if nothing is done, hardly any Native languages will remain, though the surviving ones will include my language, Ojibwe.
To claim that Indian cultures can continue without Indian languages only hastens our end, even if it makes us feel better about ourselves. Our cultures and our languages—as unique, identifiable, and particular entities—are linked to our sovereignty. If we allow our own wishful thinking and complacency to finish what George Armstrong Custer began, we will lose what we’ve managed to retain: our languages, land, laws, institutions, ceremonies, and, finally, ourselves. Cultural death matters because if the culture dies, we will have lost the chance not only to live on our own terms (something for which our ancestors fought long and hard) but also to live in our own terms.
If my language dies, our word for bear, makwa, will disappear, and with it the understanding that makwa is derived from the word for box, makak, because black bears box themselves up, sleeping, for the winter. So too will the word for namesake, niiyawen’enh. Every child who gets an Ojibwe name has namesakes, sometimes as many as six or eight. Throughout a child’s life, his or her namesakes function somewhat like godparents, giving advice and help, good for a dollar to buy an Indian taco at a powwow. But they offer something more too. The term for “my body,” niiyaw (a possessive noun: ni- = “I/mine”; -iiyaw = “body/soul”), is incorporated into the word for a namesake because the idea (contained by the word and vice versa) is that when you take part in a naming, you are giving a part of your soul, your body, to the person being named. So, to say “my namesake,” niiyawen’enh, is to say “my fellow body, myself.” If these words are lost, much will happen, but also very little will happen. We will be able to go to Starbucks, GameStop, Walmart, and Home Depot. We will still use Crest Whitestrips. Some of us will still do our taxes. Some of us still won’t. The mechanics of life as it is lived by modern Ojibwes will remain, for the most part, unchanged. The languages we lose, when we lose them, are always replaced by other languages. And all languages can get the job of life done. But something else might be lost and there might be more to the job of life than simply living it.
At Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School at Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Reservation in Wisconsin, people are doing something about this. You drive past a lot of natural beauty between Hayward and the school—a lot of maple and pine; deep, clear lakes—most of it owned by whites. At the school, in two yellow modular buildings built with tribal funds in what used to be the corner of the school parking lot, a cultural revival is occurring. On the hot day in May when I visited the school I saw silhouettes of students drawn in chalk on the wooden decking that connects the buildings. The third and fourth grades were studying solar movement as part of their science curriculum, all done in Ojibwe, and done only here. Inside, the classroom walls are covered with signs in the Ojibwe language. A smart-board, linked to the teacher’s laptop, provides state-of-the-art learning opportunities.
One of the teachers who helped start the immersion program is a lanky, tall, excitable man named Keller Paap. When these teachers started the school in 2000 they had only a few students in kindergarten. Now, there are about 20 students in the program between kindergarten and fourth grade. After greeting the fourth-grade students in the classroom, Keller brings them to the music room in the main school building, where they all sing along with Keller’s guitar-playing to welcome the new day. They speak, sing, argue, and flirt with each other in Ojibwe at a level that eludes most adults at LCO and every other Ojibwe reservation across the United States. After the morning singing they head back to the classroom and begin working on their science unit. “Ahaw,” asks Keller. “Awegonesh ge-ayaayambam da-agawaateyaag?” [So. What do all you need to make a shadow?]
One girl says, shyly, “Andaatewin.” “Mii gwayak,” says Keller. “Awegonesh gaye? Giizis ina?” “Ahaw,” says a playful boy, without a hint of shame or bashfulness. “Mii go gaye apiichaawin,” says another kid, in a spurt of intuition. This classroom is light-years ahead of most tribal language programs, which are still stuck on “bezhig, niizh, niswi,” and “makwa, waabooz, waagosh” (“one, two, three” and “bear, rabbit, fox”). They aren’t listing things in Ojibwe at Waadookodaading; they are thinking in Ojibwe.
Keller; his wife, Lisa LaRonge; Alex Decoteau; and the other teachers at Waadookodaading are, together, saving Ojibwe culture.
Keller Paap is an unlikely hero. He was raised in a comfortable suburb: White Bear Lake, on the north side of St. Paul. His mother is from Red Cliff Reservation in Wisconsin; his father is of German ancestry. After graduating from high school in White Bear Lake he started college, stopped, and devoted himself to becoming a rock and roller. Keller looks like a rock star. He’s tallish (six feet and change), thin, and bony, with long black hair, wide cheekbones and lips, and long tapered fingers that were made to hold a guitar and to play it well. During the day the kids sometimes start spacing out during their lessons and Keller jumps up, thumbs his iPod while gushing at the kids in Ojibwe, finds Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” and gets his kids to kick off their shoes and try to do the “robot,” the “scarecrow,” and “the moon walk.” During the early 1980s Keller spent a lot of time practicing his break-dancing moves. Later, he and his friends followed the Grateful Dead.
I first met Paap in 1994 at the University of Minnesota, where he was finishing his undergraduate degree. He was a student in the Ojibwe-language class offered through the department of American Indian Studies. “Back then I thought it was sort of cool,” he says. “I was Ojibwe, my people were from Red Cliff, and this was our language, and it felt good to study it.”
That good feeling quickly became a passion. “It all started with hanging out with Dennis Jones, the Ojibwe-language instructor at the U. I traveled around with him and recorded his mom and worked on translating her stories. And, man! The intricacy! The crazy complexity of the language totally got me. Even more than music, even more than the guitar, the
Complexity and music of the language and the feeling of belonging to something totally caught me.”
Soon after graduating he worked as a teaching assistant for the language program. He met his wife there. Lisa LaRonge is from Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, due south of Red Cliff. Like Keller she is tall, with long brown hair. Like Keller, she has gone through many incarnations before devoting herself to the language.
They moved to Lisa’s reservation in 1998 and, with a few others, opened an Ojibwe-language immersion school—Waadookodaading (“we help each other”). Waadookodaading has been in operation for 10 years now, as one of only a few schools generating fluent speakers of the Ojibwe language.
The goal of these activists seems odd to many: in communities rife with drugs, violence, gangs, domestic abuse, suicide, and high dropout rates, Ojibwe-language immersion seems like a perverse luxury, but as my brother, Anton Treuer, has put it on a number of occasions, “The U.S. government has spent millions of dollars trying to take our language away from us. Why would we expect the government to give it back? It’s up to us to give it back to ourselves.”
Language-immersion activists feel that if they are able to bring language back to the center of our sense of ourselves, all the other complicated politics of self, all the other markers of authenticity, will fall away. They feel that the government’s attempt at assimilation created the destructive, diseased social fabric in which we are wrapped today. Paap and the others working for language preservation believe in anti-assimilation.
David Bisonette has been a part of Waadookodaading since the beginning. “We’re headed down a dark road,” he tells me. “People are unwilling to talk about the most important stuff that affects us. No one talks about acculturation. No one, I mean no one, wants to talk about that. Of course, if we do talk about it and write about it, then the dominant society can use that against us. But it’s like the emperor’s new clothes. I think that like 98 percent of Indian people think powwow and having an enrollment card make them Indian.”
He added, “Even at Navajo and Hopi. They think they’re safe. They think they’re not becoming acculturated. But they’re close. It’s a dangerous time.”
“Boarding schools,” muses David, “changed us into Americans. But schools and blood quantum and all that stuff turned us into the worst kind of Americans. The worst thing that happened to us was that we became Americans. They trained us to become the worst kind of Americans and then blamed us for it. That’s why language and culture are so important. By stressing those things we can stop being what they want us to be, bad Americans. But it took 100 years to get to this point. It will take 100 years to get us back.”
For language activists, the language is the key to everything else—identity, life and lifestyle, home and homeland. Most language activists are also traditional Indians, but very modern traditional Indians, as likely to attend a ceremony as they are to have smartphones on which they record language material and Indian ceremonial music they are trying to learn. This new traditionalism is not a turning back of the clock, but a response to it; modernism (and modern, global capitalism) is a great obliterator of cultural difference and a great infuser of a new kind of class difference, and language activism is one way Indians are not only protecting themselves and their rights but also creating meaning in their lives. For Keller Paap and his family, this means tapping maple trees, ricing, hunting, collecting wild leeks, blasting Hendrix and Chris Whitley from the tinny speakers of their VW Westy van, and competing every year in the Birkebeiner cross-country ski race held in Hayward, Wisconsin. It means choosing to live their modern lives, with all those modern contradictions, in the Ojibwe language—to choose Ojibwe over English, whether for ceremony or for karaoke.
My older brother Anton and I, among many others, have for the last two years been working on a grant to record, transcribe, and translate Ojibwe speech in order to compile what will be the first (and only) practical Ojibwe-language grammar. During that time, we have traveled once, sometimes twice a week to small communities where we record Ojibwe-speakers. We’ve also taken longer trips, north to Red Lake Reservation and south to Mille Lacs. Recording Ojibwe speech in Minnesota, where the average age of fluent Ojibwe-speakers is 55, means recording old people. My brother, at 38, is very good at this, much better than I am. For starters, he is much more fluent. And he looks like a handsomer version of Tonto: lean, of medium height, with clear eyes, a smooth face, very black shiny braids, and very white shiny teeth. This helps. He has made this kind of activity his life work; it is what he does.
Right after college, he apprenticed himself to Archie Mosay. When he met Archie in 1991, Archie was 91 years old. He had been born in a wigwam, apprenticed under his father to be a ceremonial chief, and earned an eagle feather when he was only 14 by saving a woman who was being attacked by her husband (Archie was stabbed six times). Archie and my brother were friends. During the time of high ceremonies my brother worked for him, sang for him, helped him into and out of his wheelchair, translated for him, and listened to him—every day for at least 14 hours a day, for weeks on end. Deep affection, respect, and tenderness ran in both directions. And it changed my brother’s life. He had direct access to and deep involvement with a man out of our time and the satisfaction of friendship and affection and the deeper satisfaction that he was helping people, that his life had meaning.
It does something to a person. Arguably, Anton’s best friend, all through the 1990s, was a man who had come of age in 1914 and who had spent most of his time with his own father (Mike Mosay, born in 1869) and grandfather (born when the Cherokee were being removed from Georgia to Oklahoma). While AIM might have made a name for itself standing in roads and occupying buildings, Anton, Keller, Lisa and scores of others are making names for themselves standing next to old people, cooking for them, driving them to the store, and joking with them. It not only does something to a person but does something to a community as well. Fifty years ago many Indians believed what they were told—that they were best off learning how to nail two-by-fours together, perfecting their penmanship, and acquiring skills like tilling or accounting. The great shift is that on reservations around the country (many of them controlled by tribal councils that still believe in penmanship, accounting, the IRA, the BIA, and school-bonding bills more than anything else), Indians like Keller, Lisa and David believe in the practical as well as the traditional. (Actually, the traditional is proving to be much more practical than anything the BIA and the U.S. government tried to shove down our throats. The students at the Waadookodaading Immersion School not only speak Ojibwe but test higher than the children their age in reservation and public schools around the state.)
Last spring, I went spearing with Keller Paap and Dave Bisonette on a lake in their treaty area. Band members fought for and won the right to continue exercising their treaty rights on ceded land, and so they do. One of those rights is to spear and net walleye pike during the spring spawning. It is cold on the water in April, and it was that night. We took the boat across Round Lake to the northeastern shore and into the shallow waters where the fish spawn. One person ran the motor; the other stood in front wearing a headlamp and speared the fish with a long pole. With a few modern modifications, this is something we have done for centuries.
The night was very foggy. Mist skated over the water and billowed up, disturbed, over the gunwales of the boat. We kept close to shore. Round Lake is a resort lake and many of its bays and inlets are packed with houses. (It is rumored that Oprah Winfrey has a house there.) Most of these places were closed up, shuttered, waiting for the tourists to come in for the summer. The docks reached down into the lake as if testing the water but, finding it too cold, drew up halfway on the banks. Yet here and there, lights shone from living room windows. And when a house was perched especially close to the lake, we could see a television glowing ghostly and blue.
It was past 10 o’clock. Dave, Keller, and I spoke Ojibwe over the puttering motor and the watery stab of the spear going down into the water and the clang as it came out with a walleye wiggling against the barbs. The pile of fish grew on the bottom of the boat, and they flapped dully, trying to fly against the unforgiving aluminum sky of the boat. A dog barked from shore. I could hear, clearly, Letterman’s “Top Ten List” coming from an open window. Fish scales, knocked loose by the tines of the spear, were plastered all over the inside of the boat, and they sparkled like jewels when swept by the lamplight.
If we lose our language and the culture that goes with it, I think, something more will be lost than simply a bouquet of discrete understandings about bears or namesakes, more than an opportunity to speak to my children and friends in public without anyone eavesdropping. If the language dies, we will lose something personal, a degree of understanding that resides, for most fluent speakers, on an unconscious level. We will lose our sense of ourselves and our culture. There are many aspects of culture that are extra-linguistic—that is, they exist outside or in spite of language: kinship, legal systems, governance, history, personal identity. But there is very little that is extra-linguistic about a story, about language itself. I think what I am trying to say is that we will lose beauty—the beauty of the particular, the beauty of the past and the intricacies of a language tailored for our space in the world. That Native American cultures are imperiled is important and not just to Indians. It is important to everyone, or should be. When we lose cultures, we lose American plurality—the productive and lovely discomfort that true difference brings.
While spearing walleye on Round Lake that April I felt this way of life and the language that goes with it felt suddenly, almost painfully, too beautiful to lose, unique and too impossibly beautiful to be drowned out by the voice of a talk-show host or by any other kind of linguistic static. And I thought then, with a growing confidence I don’t always have: we might just make it.