Preserving culture on the tongue

Cultural values are intrinsic to the Ojibwe language and can’t be separated from the words that are being said, Anton Treuer explains in The Language Warrior’s Manifesto: How to Keep Our Languages Alive No Matter the Odds (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2020). “In Ojibwe,” he writes, “our word for truth is debwe — literally meaning ‘to speak from the heart’ or ‘heart sound.’ If someone says they will take care of someone else, that’s a promise for life and across generations. But in white American culture, truth is not a heart sound, it’s a fine-print version of legalese.” The U.S. government has broken hundreds of treaties with Native Americans, and every new president can abolish agreements made by his predecessors, he writes. “This nation does not keep its word.”

As the son of a lawyer from the Leech Lake Reservation and a German Jewish Holocaust survivor, Treuer grew up familiar with Ojibwe customs but, like his mother and grandmother before him, he didn’t speak the language. He became fluent as an adult and now teaches Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask (2012). The Language Warrior’s Manifesto is a candid and humorous memoir as well as a measured takedown of how the United States education system fails tribal youth. He says that language revitalization is the solution to a number of related issues that negatively affect Native people and culture.

In “The Language Warrior’s Manifesto: Indigenous Language, Culture, and Art in Motion,” the first lecture in the School for Advanced Research’s Indian Arts Research Center 2020 Speaker Series, Treuer discusses language revitalization in art and culture as a means of healing intergenerational trauma. He speaks at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4, at the New Mexico History Museum (116 Lincoln Ave.) and signs copies of his book ($18.95) after the talk. Admission is free, but advance registration is required; 505-954-7200, sarsf.info/rise2020

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