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CritiCal to Future FluenCy

While Treuer attended Princeton Uni- versity and then earned his master’s and Ph.D. in history from the Univer- sity of Minnesota, he spent summers working with Mosay. When Mosay

died in 1996, Treuer, then 27 years old, became a spiritual adviser, a role gen- erally reserved for elders. Mosay also left him in possession of rare Ojibwe cultural knowledge.

“I’m the only person who still knows some of his music in its ritual con- text,” says Treuer, who worries that much of that knowledge could be lost. For the Ojibwe, sacred songs and leg- ends may not be written or recorded, which makes saving them even more challenging as the population of fluent Ojibwe speakers diminishes.

Endangered Language

“For Ojibwe people, language is one of the central threads that connects us,” says Treuer. “Our spiritual traditions and culture hinge on the survival of the language. As we lose speakers, we are very worried. We have a lot of eggs in very few baskets.”

to follow. He hopes that the finished work will make the language easier to access and teach, ultimately leading to more language initiatives.

Valuable Speakers

In the Midwest, Treuer says most Ojibwe speakers are 70 years old or older. In the last 15 years, he has inter- viewed nearly 50 fluent speakers for his grammar book and for two other books he has written. In that time, 35 of them have died, and young speakers are not emerging quickly enough.

Yet, Treuer believes the trend could be reversed. Other cultures have revi- talized their endangered languages through immersion programs for chil- dren. The Maori of New Zealand once had fluency rates of about seven per- cent. Now Maori is the official lan- guage of the country. Native Hawai-


Treuer has been awarded a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation to continue his work developing the first comprehensive grammar manual of the Ojibwe language, one that includes the many Ojibwe dialects, some of which have never been documented. For languages to survive, linguists believe grammar documentation and revital- ization programs must exist.

Treuer is the first Bemidji State faculty member to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in the 83-year history of the fellowship.

He is one of 191 fellows from the U.S. and Canada out of 2,615 total applicants in 2008.

Treuer is one of only three 2008 fellows to be recognized for work in linguistics.

The Guggenheim Fellowship will release Treuer from his BSU teaching assignments, giving him time to con- duct the many interviews needed to research the book. Other than some brief sketches by missionaries, there are no pedagogical manuals for Treuer

Treuer’s work is also supported by grants from the American Philosophical Society and the Bush Leadership Foundation.

He is editor of the Oshkaabewis Native Journal, the only academic journal of the Ojibwe language, and author of the books, Living Our Language: Ojibwe ales & Oral Histories and Omaa akiing.

ians, Blackfeet, and Mohawks also have had success with immersion efforts.

Believing immersion is the only way to become fluent, Treuer hopes to even- tually introduce his Bemidji State stu- dents to immersion experiences. One possibility might be an exchange pro- gram with one of the isolated Ojibwe villages on the Canadian border where Ojibwe remains the predominant language.

If interest in the language grows, he also envisions expanding Bemidji State’s Ojibwe studies program from a minor to a major.

Treuer leads by example. He speaks Ojibwe at home with his children, takes them to ceremonies, and involves them in a traditional Ojibwe lifestyle as much as possible. He also encour- ages Ojibwe parents to support their children in any effort to learn the lan- guage. To ensure the knowledge shared by Mosay and others is not lost, he also mentors others interested in becoming spiritual leaders.

Knowing that fluency can be revital- ized in about 12 years through a suc- cessful immersion program, Treuer hopes to see the day when Ojibwe is once again commonly spoken among the Ojibwe people.

In the meantime, he implores the next generation of Ojibwe speakers to study the language.

“There’s a lot at stake,” says Treuer, acknowledging that his own life has been enriched by his knowledge of Ojibwe language and tradition.

“It’s amazing how beautiful the lan- guage is.”


Bemidji State University


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