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Treuer discusses his recently released 'Ojibwe in Minnesota'

Anton Treuer

Noted Ojibwe scholar Anton Treuer welcomed his Park Rapids Area Library audience in a "foreign" language Monday morning.

But before the clock struck noon, the rapt spectators would be reminded the native people were on this continent 12,000 years ago.

"They are not the immigrants; they're the indigenous..."

"I guess I better use English," Treuer said, grinning after his intro in Ojibwe.

His recently released narrative, "Ojibwe in Minnesota." traces the history of Ojibwe people in Minnesota, explores the cultural practices and challenges presented by settlers and holds discussions on sovereignty and identity.

"It's a snapshot of history," the Bemidji State University professor said of the book tracing thousands of years of the Ojibwe culture. "And like any history, it has a point of view. There are complicated issues, some emotionally charged," he said, citing tribal casinos and sovereignty.

"It's not polemical, not in left field," he told his audience. "It provides perspective."

Languages and cultures change rapidly, Treuer said, citing Chaucer, who's now "almost unintelligible."

"People have the idea native culture doesn't change," he said of the image of teepees and painted faces. "It's something inside us that makes us Ojibwe, and it's important to develop a perspective on that identity," said the advocate of cultural preservation and language revitalization.

Native American "language is still here, but it's hanging on by thin threads."

Less than 1,000 now speak the native language, he said, and they are mostly elders, living in Minnesota.

"My fear is that if we lose the language, we will be descendants of the Ojibwe, rather than true Ojibwe.

"Cultural change is not necessarily bad," he said. "The challenge is what we accept and what we don't."

An Objibwe may go to the Twin Cities to earn a living, but they are brought back to the reservation when they die. "There's a connection."

The powwow, he told his audience, is relatively new. "I know; I'm slaying the holy cow," he said of the American perspective. The cultural practice evolved to bring generations together for feasting, shows of generosity and other practices with no drugs or alcohol allowed, he said.

But the Leech Lake tribe's powwow budget eclipses the money spent on traditional lifeways, Treuer said.

"We are agents of our own cultural change," he said. "We think of tribal government as a bastion in retaining old ways. But often, what we do exacerbates tribal cultural change."

He advocates immersion in tribal culture, citing a school in Wisconsin that has embraced the native language and culture, with success.

He addressed modern school systems, with history books "worshiping" notable early American political figures such as Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. "These people killed Indians or supported genocidal policies," he said.

The paradoxical teaching is a contributing factor to dropout rates. "We once roamed freely across the land. But during the reservation period, tribal leadership was pushed to the side, youth were sent to boarding schools."

The formation of the United States, he said, "held morally repugnant actions. We have to take an honest, hard look at an ugly chapter in U.S. history."

Treuer is editor of "Living Our Language: Ojibwe Tales and Oral Histories," "Aaniin Ekidong: Ojibwe Vocabulary Project," "Omaa Akiing" and the "Oshkaabewis Native Journal," the only academic journal of the Ojibwe language.

Treuer's author visit was part of the Kitchigami Reads/Kitchigami Writes project, made possible with funding from the State of Minnesota Legacy Fund to preserve arts and cultural heritage.