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Anton Treuer book receives statewide recognition for telling history of Ojibwe in Minnesota

Anton Treuer

Anton Treuer's book "Ojibwe in Minnesota" was recently named as the "Best Read in Minnesota 2010" by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

Treuer, a professor at Bemidji State University, hopes the recognition will draw more attention to the issues inside the book rather than to the book itself.

"Ojibwe in Minnesota," part of the "The People of Minnesota" book series, is only 122 pages. But according to Treuer, its handheld size is intentional.

Treuer said the book is written with the intention of giving people an entry point to understanding the complicated history of the Ojibwe people - their language, culture, economics and legalities. He said he wanted to make every word count.

"Most people don't understand Ojibwe history," Treuer said. "How come tribes get to have casinos? How come they have different hunting rights? What makes Leech Lake different from Red Lake?"

Some of his answers to these questions may be surprising to readers, he said.

"If you read any native history book older than 15 years old, whatever is written about Indian origins is actually completely out of date already," he said.

Treuer said his book covers topics that are often hard for people to talk about, such as issues of sovereignty, the running of casinos and land management.

"There is this prevailing assumption that Indians are all rich from casinos," he said. "Red Lake has a 38 percent unemployment rate, even though they manage three casinos. Before casinos, the unemployment rate was over 50 percent. Leech Lake had a 50 percent unemployment rate before casinos and now are down to about 20 percent."

The book has been a popular sell, Treuer said, because people are curious to know more about sensitive and controversial issues such as mascots, gaming or treaty rights. He hopes his book will give people a better awareness of the Ojibwe culture.

"In America, the only places Indians pop up in curriculum in schools is Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving, and usually a very sugar-coated version of those stories are told," he said.

One section of the book writes about educational reform and the issue Native American students dropping out of school.

"Part of the disconnect is, in spite of any progress we have made, school is still a place where native kids go to learn about others," he said. "There's nothing here that testifies to the accomplishments of their race, people and heroes. No wonder it doesn't resonate."

In his book, Treuer features a section written by his mother, Margaret Treuer, the first female Indian lawyer in Minnesota. He said he chose her because her life represented many of the themes in his book.

"She shows a remarkable story of triumph through adversity and the power of education being used for betterment, which I think is one of the most important messages in the book," he said.

Treuer said very few Native American authors have written books about the history of American Indian clans and cultures.

"Unfortunately for Native Americans, we've been so often imagined and so ill-often known or represented by ourselves, having scholarship by Native Americans really helps as an entry point to communicate across racial lines," he said. "I can be an insider and an outsider."

While the book is written from Treuer's point of view, he said he tried his best to be fair and honest. He said he has received a lot of positive feedback from native and nonnative people.

For the most part, Treuer said, the challenges of the Ojibwe people are "overwhelmingly obvious."

"'Indian cars,' 'Indian time,' and the traditional fry bread taco - it's all gotta go," he said. "If you look at historical pictures of Ojibwe people, I see people in bandolier bags with decent clothing on, and they were 10 times poorer than the poorest people today. There was pride in appearance and an attempt to display the best they had."

Today, Treuer said, he has observed the opposite in some places. He said an American Indian who drives a crappy car is perceived as "more authentically native."

"I'm seeing cultural change that is not all positive," he said. "We have internalized this idea that if you show poverty, you are more native somehow."

Treuer said traditional foods like wild rice and wild game are good for the human body, but other foods such as fry bread are killing people in the form of diabetes.

"There's challenges for native people about what it is that makes them Ojibwe," Treuer said. "My biggest hope is that this book will draw some attention to these issues."

Treuer is a professor of Ojibwe in the Department of Modern Languages at BSU. He is the editor of the "Oshkaabewis Native Journal."

He has authored several books including "The Assassination of Hole in the Day," "Indian Nations of North America," and "Living our Language: Ojibwe Tales & Oral Histories."