By Prairie Rose Seminole
Special to the MHA Times
“We are the descendants of ancestors who worked hard for our survival,” Dr. Anton Treuer tells the group of students listening in the library at White Shield School. Looking out the window, it starts snowing, the wind picks up blowing against the outside walls. “It’s cold here, the people knew how to survive,” he tells the mostly sophomores in the room. Treuer, who comes from Leech Lake, MN, speaks of his family, his nine children and how they live off of the land. Through harvesting food, and hunting Treuer tells the youth that his kids process over ten thousand dollars of food from the land. “They eat a whole lot more than that, a year,” he jokes.
Treuer was brought in to speak to the students and do a professional development with the teachers this past week by the Missouri River Education Cooperative (MREC). The White Shield school administration and teachers this last fall read Dr. Anton Treuer’s book Everything you Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask. The MREC felt it was a good time to bring the author in. The book, published in 2012, is inspired by Dr. Treuer’s lifetime of interactions with people. “I had a profoundly well-educated Princetonian ask me, ‘Where is your tomahawk?’ I had a beautiful woman approach me in the college gymnasium and exclaim, ‘You have the most beautiful red skin.’ I took a friend to see Dances with Wolves and was told, ‘Your people have a beautiful culture.’ I made many lifelong friends at college, and they supported but also challenged me with questions like, ‘Why should Indians have reservations?’ ” In matter-of-fact responses to over 120 questions, both thoughtful and outrageous, modern and historical, the Ojibwe scholar and cultural preservationist gives frank, funny, and sometimes personal tour of what’s up with Indians, anyway. White/Indian relations are often characterized by guilt and anger. Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask cuts through the emotion and builds a foundation for true understanding and positive action. Dr. Treuer is a professor at Bemidji State University, in Bemidji Minnesota where he lives with his family. An internationally renowned expert on issues such as cultural and language preservation. He is the author of 13 books and is a regular presenter at conferences and workshops. His book, Ojibwe in Minnesota was named Minnesota’s Best Read by the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress in 2010. He edited Awesiinyensag: Dibaajimowinan Ji-gikinoo’amaageng, an Ojibwe-language children’s book that was named Minnesota’s Best Read for 2011. In 2012, he won the Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History for his book, The Assassination of Hole in the Day.
Dr. Treuer’s presentation to the youth in White Shield starts with a long introduction in the Ojibwe language. When the eyes of the youth start to look around, Dr. Treuer pulls them back into the presentation by speaking English and referring to a slide show. Dr. Treuer displays photos of where he is from and tells the coming of age stories for men and women in the Ojibwe tradition. One slide is an image of a forest in the background and grasslands in the fore ground. “My father bought this land and planted all these trees,” the eyes of the kids light up. “This just shows that one person can make a difference, even on the land.” Dr. Treuer speaks to his upbringing as the oldest of his mothers’ kids and how he witnessed a financial empowerment because of education. Dr. Treuer’s humble beginnings in a home with no electricity or running water, to his mother pursuing her education to becoming the first American Indian woman attorney in the state of Minnesota. The family then moving into a nice home, opening up opportunities for her family, and community. “How many of you hunt?” hands go up in the room, the photo of a young boy holding two jack rabbits nearly his size on the screen. “This is my son,” Dr. Treuer starts to tell the story of the first kill ceremony that is held for his sons as they start to hunt. The story tells of the young men moving from a dependent of his people, to a provider for his people. He speaks to a similar story for young women, how young people, become adults, how the choices we make will impact the lives of those around us.
Class after class, with the telling of each story and anecdote, Dr. Treuer’s words resonate with the students. “There will be a lot of people who will tell you to spread your wings, but I encourage you to explore your roots…we have ten thousand years of history in this place and continue to make history. Our culture, the way we look at the world, our language, our connection to this land, is who we are.”
Dr. Treuer speaks to each class, as if his material is being presented for the first time, every time. Going through timeline of events that has shaped his life and relating those experiences to the young people “we have history, we are not history,” speaking to how we as American Indians have survived and continue to survive. “If you step out of your community, you are an ambassador, representing your faith, your community, your race.” Instilling in the young people, that how you carry yourself matters.
Dr. Treuer’s visit to White Shield, ND was a day interacting with students who gifted him with local corn that they grew, a school shirt and a Pendleton. Dr. Treuer closed his day visiting with local elders and sharing a meal with the community. It was a cold day in the classroom and a dark drive back to Bismarck. True to his understanding of Indian time, Dr. Treuer stayed, “as long as it takes.”