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Anton Treuer: On Assassination and History

Author and linguist Anton Treuer on his work and his penchant for gathering oral history
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Indian Country Today Media Network sat down with linguist and award-winning author Anton Treuer to talk about two of his books, The Assassination of Hole in the Day and Ojibwe in Minnesota (both Borealis Books, the trade imprint of Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010). Though different in subject matter and scope, both books had oral history as a key component. Below, Treuer expounds on that and other aspects of his work and outlook. ICTMN reviewed both books.

How did you come to have two history books published in the same year? Were you working on them simultaneously?

I started working on The Assassination of Hole in the Day as my dissertation at the University of Minnesota in 1994. It went through many evolutions. I spent the better part of two years doing archival research, much of it at the Minnesota Historical Society. I also had to research at other archives. I was at the same time doing a lot of oral history research: transcribing, translating and publishing Ojibwe stories. The two lines of research converged on Assassination, and I think helped make the methodology truly different and better than that employed by many historians. Ojibwe in Minnesota was a faster write for me. I have been teaching Ojibwe history, culture and language for many years. And when the MHS Press asked me to write the book, I had most of it in my head already, although I had to firm up research areas and spend a lot of time figuring how to make every word count because the book is so concise. I had a year off on grants and then a sabbatical, so that helped catalyze the writing process. And my wife’s name deserves to be on the cover of everything I write because she gets me the extra time when I need it, and that’s not easy with eight kids at home.

In Assassination of Hole in the Day, you explain that you’d heard about this story from family. Is that what drew you into wanting to research and write the book?

Yes. I grew up traveling the Minnesota lakes region with my family, and hearing stories about the chiefs Bagone-Giizhig. I always wanted to know more and solve the mysteries.

In both books, your recounting of history is complex and layered. As a writer, how do you undertake the task of presenting such complexity to readers? Can you explain briefly about your research methods and gathering?

Research was simply digging up everything that I could, but unlike with some historians, my mind was open to things from unexpected places, like oral history, linguistic analysis and family stories and documents. Most people who write about Indians rarely even talk to Indians, they just talk to dead white men who wrote letters that got compiled in the archives. That information is critical, too, but no wonder so many historians cannot get Indian voices in their narratives, they don’t talk to Indians. The trick, and the success, of these books is to show the complexity of tribal life and human character without losing the audience. I think Ojibwe in Minnesota does this especially well. My experience as a lecturer and a teacher helped a lot. I had to craft and re-craft Assassination to get the same readability, but they are entirely different works. The footnotes for Assassination alone are longer than all of Ojibwe in Minnesota put together.

In gathering those nuances of the past, how important was your use of oral history? Were you able to find historic records of oral history transcribed as well as interview living elders? What do living elders bring to events that happened even before they were born?

Critically important. It was the key to getting Indian voices in the narrative, to having books informed by Indians, not just the archives. The language elements helped do that, too. Some important topics like clans are just not well covered in the archives. Oral history really fleshed that material out, and should help future historians on all aspects of Ojibwe culture and history. I spoke to several family members of the chiefs Hole in the Day, and they had a lot of great information to share, including information that challenged prevailing assumptions about the burial place of the younger Hole in the Day, later supported by other interviews. Melvin Eagle and Archie Mosay also had vivid oral histories about Bagone-Giizhig that helped provide a lot of perspective on the narrative of their lives.

In your books, you have not shied from painful or controversial aspects of history, such as giving historic context to the practice of scalping and examining inter- and intra-tribal tensions and disagreements in The Assassination of Hole in the Day or discussing poverty and addictions in Ojibwe in Minnesota. Why do you feel it is important to include these things? Has there been any reaction within the Ojibwe communities about these inclusions?

I think it is dangerous to rewrite history to either denigrate or romanticize. Indians have been treated both ways, many times. Human beings are complicated individuals and their societies are even more complex. A legitimate work should look at all the facts. Some Native people may not like a lot of light shined on scalping or intertribal warfare, but that was part of life. Some may not like a spotlight on current issues of poverty or substance abuse either, but they plague our communities. The only way to fix problems like that is to address them head-on, develop a deep understanding, and work for meaningful solutions.

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What was the most surprising thing that you learned in researching these books?

I always knew that oral history was a valid research tool, but I was surprised at the depth of knowledge it provided and astounded that so few historians have done much with it in the past.

Did what you discover color or illuminate at all things you had learned or heard growing up?

Yes. I had a cultural perspective on things like clans, warfare, ceremony and even leadership from my upbringing, but the archival research affirmed things and challenged things in ways I did not immediately expect. The chiefs Bagone-Giizhig were morally flawed in obvious ways, but they also maintained power for their people against all odds in one of the most difficult periods of history for Indians. I think I have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of their lives, character, Ojibwe culture, history and contemporary affairs as a result.

It seems as though your concentrations have been on revitalization of the language and gathering history. Do both of these occupations have a similar goal for you and if so, what is that goal?

I am a man of diverse passions, but they are intertwined. I am a language warrior—teaching, writing, building—which serves my communities, ceremonial endeavors and academic interest in history. But the historical work casts a bright light on the importance of retained cultural customs and beliefs, and the language sews those things together.

As I recall, you did not grow up speaking Ojibwemowin. At what age did you decide about the importance of knowing the language, and is there any one thing that made you passionate about preserving it?

When I graduated from high school, I just wanted to get out of town, which I did, attending Princeton University from 1987 to 1991. By the time I graduated from Princeton, I just wanted to come home and walk the earth. My time away gave me perspective on the importance of place, culture and language. When I did come home, I spent a great deal of time at ceremonies and spent a lot of time with great speakers of our tribal language, some of whom operated much better in Ojibwe than in English. That really pushed me over the top. I worked my butt off, too, recording, transcribing, studying, asking questions. Opportunities didn’t just fall in my lap; I went out and made those opportunities.

How is knowing these histories useful today for young people—Indian and non-Indian?

Aside from the fascinating stories in and of themselves, these histories show the unique world view of one of America’s First Peoples. Their understanding of this place is something we all should know. Also, I feel that it is just as important for Americans to know about Indian history and black slavery as it is for Germans to know about the Nazi Holocaust. It helps mitigate the chance that something like that could happen again. And Indians are still here—imagined rather than understood by most Americans. We have a lot of work to do to bridge that gap. I think these works make a meaningful contribution to seeing that happen.

And along those lines, what do you hope readers will take away from reading these books?

I hope they’ll get a great story, or stories. I hope they will get a deeper understanding of Native history and contemporary life. I also hope that they will arrive on their own to a perspective of deepened respect and cooperation with tribal peoples.