Anton Treuer Q&A

February 22, 2021
Anton Treuer won't let the Ojibwe language die out.

“The Ojibwe language is beautiful. One example that gets at the way language encodes meaning is our parting, ‘giga-waabamin miinawaa,’ which means ‘I”ll see you again.’ We have no word for goodbye. It’s ‘I’ll see you again’ in this world or the next —  an affirmation of the soul-to-soul connection between two people.”

You have authored 19 books while also raising nine children and teaching at Bemidji State. What drives your productivity? Do you have writing rituals? 

My writing ritual consists of locking the door and yelling at the kids on the other side of it to let the dog out. I rotate my focus. Sometimes I take a deep dive into writing and try to limit all but the unavoidable other professional work and projects. But I go months without writing as well. There are times when I’m very focused on supporting the works that are published with book events and public speaking too. But I do not have a writing block at a certain time every day or write every day. I do work out every day, eat at least three meals a day, and sleep eight hours every night. It makes the time I devote to everything else energized and effective.

You’ve said there are fewer than 1,000 Ojibwe speakers in the U.S. Do you have hope this number can grow? 

Definitely. We are already under way. Lac Courte Oreilles had 20 speakers left 20 years ago. They all died. But they have 150 new speakers there now. The number may seem small, but it speaks to a pattern emerging in places that have made commitments to immersion education for young people. They aren’t alone. But this is a make or break time for us. The future our language in many places is not certain, but it’s certainly possible. It all depends on the depth and breadth of our interventions to save it now.

How far along are you in your Ojibwe language book? 

We are producing new Ojibwe material all the time. I’ve been part of a team working at Mille Lacs that has a series of Ojibwe books now published by the MN Historical Society Press. It’s exciting. The grammar book is a critical missing piece and it’s on my radar screen, but not yet in production.

When I think of Native authors I love I think of you and your brother, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, and Tommy Orange. Who else should I be reading? 

Here is an abbreviated list of Native authors I recommend in Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask:

  • Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative by Ignatia Broker
  • Ojibway Heritage by Basil Johnston
  • Portage Lake: Memories of an Ojibwe Childhood by Maude Kegg
  • Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West by Ned Blackhawk
  • To Be the Main Leaders of Our People: A History of Minnesota Ojibwe Politics, 1825–1898 by Rebecca Kugel
  • The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation by Melissa Meyer
  • An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
  • Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Doloria Jr.
  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

You’ve said that you read all 25 books in the Tarzan series twice in middle school, and they helped hook you on reading. Were they your Harry Potter books? 

I love the way books can transport us to an entirely different world. Tarzan did that for me in middle school. My kids had to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches whenever a new Harry Potter book came out too because I was reading. George R.R. Martin does that too, and so many others.

You’ve compared the diversity of languages to a game of Jenga, saying that every time a language is pulled away we destabilize the tower of human knowledge. How many languages are we in danger of losing? 

There are 7,000 languages in the world today. Only 100 are widely taught at colleges and universities. The rest are in some kind of trouble even if they don’t know it yet.

Your mother was the first female Native judge in the country. Did you ever consider going into law? 

I almost went that route. Right out of college that was my plan, but another calling screamed louder. I have no regrets. My sister, Megan Treuer, is the lawyer and judge now.

You and your brother David are both prolific authors. Were you competitive growing up? Do you read each other’s drafts? 

Yes. But I always won, obviously. We are dear friends and fierce competitors. You should see board games when the extended family gets together. We typically don’t read one another’s drafts. But we bounce questions off of one another. He’s a good advisor even if I best him at all the board games.

What is the most beautiful word in the Ojibwe language? 

It’s all beautiful. One example that gets at the way language encodes meaning is our parting, giga-waabamin miinawaa, which means “I’ll see you again.” We have no word for goodbye. It’s “I’ll see you again” in this world or the next —  an affirmation of the soul-to-soul connection between two people.

What’s next for you? 

The Young Reader edition of Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to ask releases on April 6. I will be busy promoting that as well at The Language Warrior’s Manifesto, which just made finalist for a MN Book Award. And I just handed off the new manuscript for The Cultural Toolbox: Traditional Ojibwe Living in the Modern World. Look for that in the fall. Everything else is still top secret.

— Photo by Makoonzhish