BEMIDJI -- It wasn’t until after Anton Treuer left home for college that he truly embraced the language of his people.
In spite of that relatively late start, he is now -- decades later -- helping lead the charge to safeguard his own ancestral language as well as any others that may be threatened by a decreasing number of speakers.
Treuer, a noted professor of the Ojibwe language at Bemidji State, released his latest book in early February. Titled “The Language Warrior’s Manifesto: How to Keep Our Languages Alive No Matter the Odds,” the book serves as a guide for the revitalization of endangered languages, as well as the cultures they encompass.
He does that while also talking about his own journey to fluency in the Ojibwe language, wrapping his story and the story of his people together in a narrative that speaks to both the reality of endangered languages, as well as what can be possible if their speakers stand up to protect them.
“For this effort, this book, to be successful, I (knew I) would have to show how I did it, not just talk about it in an academic sense,” Treuer said about why he wove his story into the larger story of language revitalization.
In addition to teaching at BSU and his recent publication, Treuer is the author of more than a dozen other books related to Native American culture, including a comprehensive history of Red Lake Nation called “Warrior Nation: A History of the Red Lake Ojibwe.”
With “The Language Warrior’s Manifesto,” Treuer contends that losing a language would result in far more damage than just the loss of a few words from the world's collective vocabulary. Instead, he argues that languages contain entire worldviews -- entire ways of thinking. Because of that, he states that losing languages would result in humanity having a diminished ability to look at things through a sophisticated collection of perspectives.
“This will permanently close off whole channels of human thought, culture and problem-solving,” Treuer says in the book about the possibility of losing smaller linguistic and religious groups. “The cultural, religious and linguistic bottleneck we are heading toward has the dominant groups in constant, polarized conflict.”
Treuer also uses the book to speak to the concept known as “decolonization.” Essentially, he says that language revitalization can help overcome issues that have affected Native communities for generations.
“... We need to decolonize and re-indigenize everything we do. This is where real healing will come from. And again, the language is a powerful tool in the arsenal for such an undertaking,” Treuer wrote in the book.
At one time, there would have been 500 indigenous languages in the United States and Canada before contact with Europeans. That number, according to Treuer, is now as low as 150. And, an even smaller number of that total are poised to remain strong in the future.
Between the United States and Canada, there are approximately 250,000 Ojibwe people. Of that number, roughly 40,000 speak the language.
As far as local revitalization efforts go, Treuer said there have been steps forward as well as backward. He said even as recently as 30 years ago, there would have been thousands of Ojibwe speakers in Minnesota. Today, that number is closer to 500.
"At the same time, what's exciting and promising is that of those 500 or so speakers, there's a growing number who are children," Treuer said.
Although Treuer can count himself as one of those 40,000 speakers, he didn’t start that way. He speaks in the book about how he came to fluency in Ojibwe as an adult after only knowing a handful of words as a child.
Once he left to pursue his higher education, he began questioning what it meant to be a Native person. From there, he began investing more of his time and energy into Native rituals and ceremonies. He began seeking out those who could teach him more about the Ojibwe language.
That pursuit, though, would come to define much more than just academic prestige for Treuer. For him, it became a way to connect to his culture. A way to help his people. A way to raise his family. In the book, Treuer writes about how he made sure the first words his newborn daughter ever heard were in Ojibwe.
In addition to speaking about the value of Native languages and what they represent, Treuer also uses the book to speak directly to those who may be interested in language revitalization. At times, he gives suggestions about what strategies may work better than others.
“I became aware of how much need there is for strategy and guidance. In a lot of places they’re reinventing the wheel and running into the same problems other places had,” Treuer said in the interview regarding some of the revitalization efforts.
Treuer concludes the book with an example from his own life of what a successful language revitalization effort can look like. He tells the story of when his family was harvesting maple syrup. Treuer's daughter was there with him, speaking Ojibwe to her own children. Treuer's daughter then spoke a prayer in Ojibwe for 20 minutes.
For Treuer, that moment was a reminder of what could be possible for the language he has loved so dearly for so long.
“As I thought back to my own upbringing and the unlikeliness that I would ever know anything about our language, I couldn’t help but marvel at what had just happened,” Treuer wrote in his book. “We built an intergenerational transmission of Ojibwe in a place and family that hadn’t seen that since my great-grandmother was growing up.”