Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Language Too Beautiful to Lose...

February 3, 2008
A language too beautiful to lose
By David Treuer

ONLY three Native American languages now spoken in the
United States and Canada are expected to survive into
the middle of this century. Mine, Ojibwe, is one of
them. Many languages have just a few speakers left --
two or three -- while some have a fluent population in
the hundreds. Recently, Marie Smith Jones, the last
remaining speaker of the Alaskan Eyak language, died
at age 89. The Ojibwe tribe has about 10,000 speakers
distributed around the Great Lakes and up into
northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba. Compared
with many, we have it pretty good.

If my language does die -- not now, not tomorrow, but,
unless something changes, in the near future -- many
understandings, not to mention the words that contain
them, will die as well. If my language dies, our word
for "bear," makwa, will disappear, and with it the
understanding that makwa is derived from the word for
box, makak (because black bears box themselves up,
sleeping, for the winter).

So too will the word for "namesake," niiyawen'enh.
Every child who gets an Ojibwe name has namesakes,
sometimes as many as six or eight of them. Throughout
a child's life, his or her namesakes function a little
like godparents, giving advice and help, good for a
dollar to buy an Indian taco at a powwow. But they
offer something more too. The term for "my body,"
niiyaw (a possessive noun: ni- = "I/mine"; -iiyaw =
"body/soul"), is incorporated into the word for a
namesake because the idea (contained by the word and
vice versa) is that when you take part in a naming,
you are gifting a part of your soul, your body, to the
person being named. So, to say "my namesake,"
niiyawen'enh, is to say "my fellow body, myself."

If these words are lost, much will happen, but also
very little will happen. We will be able to go to
Starbucks and GameStop and Wal-Mart and the Home Depot
as before. We will tie our shoes the same way and
brush our teeth and use Crest Whitestrips. Some of us
will still do our taxes. Some of us still won't. The
mechanics of life as it is lived by modern Ojibwes
will remain, for the most part, unchanged. The
language we lose, when we lose it, is replaced by
other languages.

And yet, I think, more will be lost than simply a
bouquet of discrete understandings -- about bears or
namesakes. If the language dies, we will lose
something personal, a degree of understanding that
resides, for most fluent speakers, on some unconscious
level. We will lose our sense of ourselves and our
culture. There are many aspects of culture that are
extralingual -- that is, they exist outside or in
spite of language: kinship, legal systems, governance,
history, personal identity. But there is very little
that is "extralingual" about story, about language
itself. I think what I am trying to say is that we
will lose beauty -- the beauty of the particular, the
beauty of the past and the intricacies of a language
tailored for our space in the world.

Yes, that's it: We will lose beauty.

My older brother Anton and I, among many others, have
been trying to do something about that. For the last
year, we have been working on a grant to record,
transcribe and translate Ojibwe speech in order to
compile what will be the first (and only) practical
Ojibwe language grammar. Since December, we have
traveled once, sometimes twice, a week, from our homes
on the western edge of our Minnesota reservation to
the east, to small communities named Inger, Onigum,
Bena and Ball Club, where we record Ojibwe speakers.
We've also taken longer trips to Red Lake Reservation
(to the north) and south to Mille Lacs.

RECORDING Ojibwe speech in Minnesota, where the
average age of fluent Ojibwe speakers is 55, means
recording old people. My brother, at 38, is very good
at this, much better than I am. For starters, he is
much more fluent. And he looks like a handsome version
of Tonto: lean, medium height, clear eyes and smooth
face, very black shiny braids and very white shiny
teeth. This helps. He has made this kind of activity
his life's work; it is what he does.

Right after college, he apprenticed himself to Archie
Mosay, at that time the oldest and most influential
Ojibwe spiritual leader, who grew up in the hills of
the St. Croix River Valley in Wisconsin and did not
have an English name until he was 12 and a white
farmer he worked for gave him a pocket knife and the
name "Archie." He kept the knife and the name for
another 82 years. Archie and my brother were friends.
Deep affection and respect and tenderness ran in both

The people we are interviewing are also our friends.
There is Tom Stillday, from the traditional village of
Ponemah on the Red Lake Reservation. Tommy Jay, as
he's known, is somewhat famous for his spiritual work
and for his sense of humor; he refers to his knees as
his baakinigebishkigwanan, which means "openers," and
once he described his Indian name, Ozaawaabiitang
(Yellow Foam), as the "puke of the waves as they wash
up onshore." He is a Korean War combat veteran, has
served on the tribal council and was the spiritual
advisor for one or two sessions of the Minnesota
Senate. He is also my daughter's namesake.

Then there is Anna Gibbs, also from Ponemah, also
famous -- for her voice and her special and
spectacular cept by human grasping.

Since we've begun our project, six of our informants,
our friends, have died, including Mark Wakanabo, who
worked as a janitor at our tribal school for decades
until someone realized that since he was a fluent
speaker, it would be better if he pushed young minds
toward the language rather than pushed a broom. He was
a sweet man, about whom I knew very little, except
that he was gentle, with a soft voice. Two of his sons
(identical twins) were my friends through middle and
high school.

Luckily, other people are working on making more
Ojibwe speakers. My good friends Keller Paap, along
with his wife Lisa LaRonge, David Bisonette, Thelma
Nayquonabe, Harold Frogg, Rose Tainter, Monica White
and others, have started an Ojibwe language immersion
school named Waadookodaading (We Help Each Other) on
the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in north-central
Wisconsin. The school has been in operation for six
years, and all the children in the program have passed
fifth-grade aptitude tests mandated by the state of
Wisconsin. Sixty-six percent of them scored in the top
10 percentiles in English and math, compared with a
much lower passing rate among students in the tribal
and public schools on and near the reservation. And
yet the students at Waadookodaading received no
instruction in English and their math was taught in

LAST spring, I went spearing with Keller Paap and Dave
Bisonette on a lake in their treaty area. Band members
fought for and won the right to continue exercising
their treaty rights on ceded land, and so they do. One
of those rights is to spear and net walleye pike
during the spring spawn. It is cold on the water in
April, and it was that night. We took the boat across
Round Lake to the northeastern shore and into the
shallow waters where the fish spawn. One person ran
the motor, the other stood in front wearing a headlamp
and speared the fish with a long pole. With a few
modern modifications, this is something we have done
for centuries.

The night was very foggy. Mist skated over the water
and billowed up, disturbed, over the gunwales of the
boat. We kept close to shore. Round Lake is a resort
lake and many of its bays and inlets are packed with
houses. (It is rumored that Oprah Winfrey has a house
there.) Most of these places were closed up,
shuttered, waiting for the tourists to come in for the
summer. The docks reached down into the lake as if
testing the water, but finding it too cold, drew up
halfway on the banks. Yet here and there, lights shone
from living room windows. And when the house was
perched especially close to the lake, we could see
televisions glowing ghostly and blue.

It was past 10 -- time for Letterman and Leno. Dave
and Keller and I spoke Ojibwe over the puttering motor
and the watery stab of the spear going down into the
water and the clang as it came out with a walleye
wiggling against the barbs. The pile of fish grew on
the bottom of the boat, and they flapped dully, trying
to fly against the unforgiving aluminum sky of the
boat. A dog barked from shore. I could hear, clearly,
Letterman's Top Ten List coming from an open window.
Fish scales, knocked loose by the tines of the spear,
were plastered all over the inside of the boat, and
they sparkled like jewels when swept by the lamplight.

This way of life and the language that goes with it
felt suddenly, almost painfully, too beautiful to
lose; too impossibly beautiful and unique to be
drowned out by the voice of a talk show host or by any
other kind of linguistic static. And I thought then,
with a growing confidence I don't always have: We
might just make it. *