TRIBE: White Earth/Leech Lake Ojibwe
MEDIUM: Music, Art and Ceremony
LOCATION: Bemidji, Minnesota
Anton Treuer (White Earth/Leech Lake Ojibwe) has spent his life's work focused on transcending barriers.
As the new executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, Treuer is on a mission to make connections among tribal members and multiple generations of Natives in order to perpetuate the traditional culture and language.
"That's why art, language, and technology are so powerful," he said. "They transcend barriers, and they connect people across time and space."
An accomplished singer for ceremonial drum groups on the Leech Lake and White Earth Reservations, as well as a teacher, storyteller and keeper of the Ojibwe language, Treuer has worked tirelessly during the past two decades to gather hundreds of hours of recordings and thousands of pages of traditional stories in Ojibwe with English translations.
For his contributions to his community and the country, he has been named a recipient of the 2014 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award. Here, he talks with First Peoples Fund about his mission, the importance of passing the traditions from generation to generation, and why his new role at the resource center gives him a platform to preserve and revitalize the language of his ancestors.
1. For almost two decades, you have published the only academic journal of the Ojibwe language. What kind of work is involved in that and what is your motivation?
This is a make or break time for the Ojibwe language. The vitality of our tribal tongue is not certain. But it is possible to keep it alive. It all depends on the depth and breadth of our effort to preserve and revitalize it now. Embedded in our language is our unique worldview and oral art forms. It is a cornerstone of identity—and what keeps us identifiable to our ancestors. The journal was designed to catalyze these efforts by recording, transcribing, translating, and sharing the rich oral artistry and knowledge of our cultural carriers with the rest of the world. I have developed many very deep and fulfilling relationships with the speakers who publish in the journal and have learned a lot about our ways, language, and art through them. Plus it has lasting value for many other projects and those who appreciate the language and culture in its own right.
2. Of community involvement and leadership, you recently said that one of the beauties of the Indian experience is that "the older you get, the more useful you become." What did you mean by that and what is your role in your community?
I have many roles in our community. I am a father of nine children and a grandfather, but I am also relatively young. I work hard to teach our children the ways of our ancestors—traditional art forms, harvesting, hunting, and gathering. They can all run our maple sugar camp or snare rabbits without any need for having someone show them how. I feel great about that. I am also an accomplished signer of traditional music and a carrier of our language. Because of that and because of my work around ceremonies, I am also part of the officiating crew for ceremonies. I sing, speak, and show others how to build wigwams entirely from pre-contact materials.
I feel connected to our ancestors, our current generations of all ages, and also feel part of a growing group of Native people trying to shape the future vitality of our culture. I guess you could say that I have one foot in the wigwam and one in the ivory tower. But I'm Anishinaabe all the way. I have always admired our elders, like the late Archie Mosay, whose depth of knowledge and wisdom made him more sought-after and appreciated the older he got. It's even built into our words for elder—gichi-aya'aa, which means "great being." We can all learn a lot from that.
3. What is the role of the younger generation in this work?
Our culture is already in the hands of our youngest people. I believe in our ways. And I believe in our youngest generation too. I feel like my role is in many ways to try to help connect the young to the old, the future to our ancestors, so we can be assured that we will always have the opportunity to know who we are as Native people and give all of our people the tools they need to be successful. And by that, I don't just mean financially successful—that's a narrow and non-Native definition of success. I mean successful in terms of spiritual development, health, and happiness. Culture and language make critical contributions to that effort.
4. You recently moved from your teaching position at Bemidji State University to serve as the Executive Director of the American Indian Resource Center. What kind of experiences as an instructor at Bemidji do you carry in to your new role?
Teaching is a sacred act. I love it and I will never stop doing it. I am trying to leverage a bigger impact on the capacity of our people to teach the language and culture by working our capital campaign and growing our strategy for both change and continuity. Change is an ongoing part of the human experience, but we need to shape the change rather than be passive observers of it. If we don't try to shape the change, our chances of keeping our tribal languages and cultures strong is greatly diminished.
Perhaps a decent analogy is this: We want to get somewhere. Teaching is like driving the car. The administrative work is like designing and building the car. They are both important. You can't do one and not the other. But the driving—the teaching—is what nourishes my soul best of all.
5. You have worked hard to expand access to traditional art forms for Native people. What kind of progress is being made and why is it important?
There is rapidly growing interest in Native ways among the tribal population. The number of people I see engaging in our music, art, and writing is growing. And the number of people involved in language and culture is growing too. At stake is our identity as Native people.
If we are assimilated with Europeans, or European Americans, or anyone or anything else, what distinguishes us from them? Nothing. How would we be recognizable to our ancestors if we look differently, think differently, and don't speak their language? Most of our people are not speakers, and it's through no fault of their own. But they have access to our language and culture through those who do. We need to broaden the base... make it sustainable. Everyone benefits from that.