Skip to main content

Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

During a typical semester day, Anton Treuer teaches three Ojibwe language courses on the hour at Bemidji State University.

At 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., the classes are held both in person and virtually. It’s part of his mission to keep the Ojibwe language, or Ojibwemowin, alive and working in the community.

It’s a mission that is at the heart of the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School on the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation in northwestern Wisconsin, where Treuer also serves as a board member.

“Niwiidookawaanaanig ningikinoo’amaaganinaanig da-nitaa-ojibwomotaadiwaad ge-mino-bimaadiziwaad,” according to the school website. “We help our students speak Ojibwe with each other in order to know and live a good life.”

Anton Treuer, an Ojibwe author, speaker and professor who is working to preserve and expand the use of the Ojibwe language, teaches Ojibwe classes at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. He is shown here in an undated photo at the university's American Indian Resource Center. (Photo courtesy of Bemidji State University)

Treuer, Ojibwe, an author, speaker and professor at Bemidji State University, is a leader among leaders with Ojibwemowin revitalization projects for the past 30 years. He has been awarded more than 40 academic honors, including recognition from the American Philosophical Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation and the Bush Foundation, and was a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, according to his website.

He’s also a prolific author, writing books that include, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask,” (2012) and his two latest, “The Language Warrior's Manifesto: How to Keep Our Languages Alive No Matter the Odds,” (2020) and “The Cultural Toolbox: Traditional Ojibwe Living in the Modern World” (2021).

SUPPORT INDIGENOUS JOURNALISM. CONTRIBUTE TODAY.

Indigenous core values direct and drive Treuer as an empowered and strength-based academic and Ojibwemowin leader.

“Our people need healing from generations of traumas and denied opportunities,” Treuer told Indian Country Today. “I know that learning our languages and living our cultures provide powerful opportunities to genuinely heal and connect with ourselves and our communities

“I want to equip my children with their best chance at long, healthy, happy lives,” he said. “And I want to give our future generations a chance to know and carry their cultural toolbox. I see myself as a servant to the Creator and to our people.”

Love of language

Treuer, 53, whose Ojibwe name is Waagosh (fox), is the son of Robert Treuer, an Austrian Jew who fled during the Holocaust, and Margaret Treuer, a citizen of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation who was a tribal judge and the first female Native attorney in Minnesota. His father died in 2016 and his mother in 2020.

He grew up around the Leech Lake area in Minnesota and went to high school in Bemijdi. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Minnesota.

Anton Treuer, Ojibwe, an author, speaker and professor at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, has written 19 books, including his latest, "The Cultural Toolbox: Traditional Ojibwe Living in the Modern World." Treuer is leading the effort to revitalize the Ojibwe language. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society Press)

He has been a professor at Bemidji State University since 2000, and is editor of the Oshkaabewis Native Journal, the only academic journal about the Ojibwe language. He also served as executive director of the university’s American Indian Resource Center from 2012-2015, and has taught at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Red Lake Nation College and other schools and universities over the years.

He’s a member of the executive council of the Minnesota State Historical Society and coordinator of Bemidji Area Truth & Reconciliation.

Treuer has a Facebook following of more than 2,000, and extends his cultural teachings to the internet, where one can subscribe to his frequent posts. In one recent post, Treuer shared “Ojibwe teachings dealing with grief, loss, and hardship, especially as associated with a loved one,” in a video.

The Anton Treuer Projects YouTube playlist has 19 videos, the same as the number of books he has published.

“I am an unlikely candidate to be doing what I'm doing,” Treuer told Indian Country Today. “My father was non-Native. I wasn't immersed in our language during my childhood. But I fell in love with our language. And our people. And this is my calling now.”

He continued, “I am an imperfect agent of this work, but I do my best to align myself with the cultural teachings and values I learned from my elders in how I live, pray, and work. I am the best version of myself when I'm able to do that. Our language culture carries me even more than I carry it.”

Spreading the words

Treuer is now working on two new projects to continue spreading knowledge of the language.

He is co-editing a set of five illustrated children’s books in a partnership between the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the Minnesota Historical Society, and he is working with the Mille Lacs Band and Rosetta Stone’s Endangered Languages Program to produce a series of lessons that will “conserve the tribe’s authentic dialect and heritage,” according to a statement released in January. The Rosetta Stone program is expected to be released in March.

The books project is part of a Mille Lacs program known as Aanjibimaadizing, or “changing lives.” Treuer is co-editing the series with Michael Sullivan, resident linguist for the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School. 

The illustrators of the series are Wesley Ballinger, a Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe artist and a community engagement coordinator for the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota; Steve Premo, a citizen of the Mille Lacs Band, graphic designer, illustrator and artist; and Jonathan Thunder, Red Lake Nation, who is a multidisciplinary artist and the illustrator of the popular children’s book, “Bowwow Powwow.”

Anton Treuer, an Ojibwe author, speaker and professor at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, co-edited with linguist Michael Sullivan a series of five illustrated children's books to teach the Ojibwe language. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society Press)

Ann Regan, editor of the Minnesota Historical Society Press, told Indian Country Today the organization was delighted with the project.

“Working on the Aanjibimaadizing books with editors Anton Treuer and Michael Sullivan, and all their talented collaborators, was a thrill for us at the Minnesota Historical Society Press,” Regan said. “Without the financial support that the Mille Lacs Band's Aanjibimaadizing project provided for all the steps in creating the texts and the terrific illustrations, we simply couldn't have published them. We're grateful to be involved.”

Baabiitaw Melissa Boyd worked with Treuer on the children’s books as well as on the genesis of the Rosetta Stone initiative. A former 2017 Bush Fellow, Baabiitaw is the senior advisor to the Language Revitalization Initiatives for the Mille Lacs Band.

She sought advice from Treuer in 2009 on a book project, and then later worked with him printing five monolingual Ojibwe books.

“Waagosh finds time for his people in the midst of all endeavors, including family, religious and professional obligations and everything in-between,” Baabittaw said. “I can’t thank him enough for answering the call … His leadership in Ojibwe Language Revitalization is priceless and with it he has inspired a new generation of Ojibwe people that will continue to prioritize our culture, religious practices and language.”

Gimiwan Dustin Burnette worked with Treuer in 2011 on another set of books, and is working with him again on the latest books and the Rosetta Stone program. Burnette is also on the Waadookodaading school board and was recently named a Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow.

“Anton has been one of the most pivotal contributors to Ojibwe language documentation and preservation over the past several decades,” Burnette told Indian Country Today. “Anton has been a constant source of guidance and assistance. He has served as a mentor spiritually, linguistically and professionally.”

Looking ahead

Tribal elder Joe Nayquonabe Sr. is among those who worked on the book project.

“I have never seen anyone into our language and culture as Anton,” Nayquonabe said. “I am honored to be his friend. My granddaughter had him in his Ojibwe language class and now she is almost fluent.”

Treuer said Nayquonabe and the other elders who participated played an important role.

“It was so heartening at the book launch event to hear Joe Nayquonabe Sr. … say that working on these books was ‘the best time of my life,’” Treuer said. “In spite of all our losses through COVID and all the challenges of an effort this large, we set up Joe and the other elders to teach our people for hundreds of years to come through this work.”

Treuer said the new projects will help expand access and preservation of the language.

“All those things give me hope,” he said. “But it won’t happen by itself and we can't be complacent. We lose elder speakers every year and efforts are really in their infancy.”

Proficiency in Ojibwemowin is needed to persevere in the near and distant future.

“A language lives when it lives in the minds and hearts of young people,” Treuer said. “There have been some heroic efforts over the past 20 years, including the birth and development of several new immersion schools and programs. I think those schools are a major contribution to the broader effort…

“The future vitality of Ojibwe is not certain, but it is certainly possible,” he said. “It all depends on the depth and breadth of our interventions to save it now.”

Treuer said he would like to hand off the future to the next generation.

“I want to be replaceable many times over as a speaker, a cultural practitioner, a funeral officiant, and in all my language and culture work,” he said. “I'm in my 50s now and shifting into mentoring other emerging language warriors and culture carriers more and more.”

He continued, “I am mindful of a teaching one of my namesakes, the late Mary Roberts, shared with me: ‘If you learn something - a song, a medicine, a word - make sure that you teach it to at least four other people.’ This is the challenge and the blessing of being communal.

“We depend on one another and can rely on one another. It's a team effort.”

Indian Country Today - bridge logo

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.