‘Decolonise and re-indigenise’: The Ojibwe language warrior


Anton works with colleagues on the Ojibwe language programming for the Milles Lac Ojibwe tribe of Minnesota PHOTO/Mary Pember/Al Jazeera

Anton Treuer is part of a movement of indigenous Americans reclaiming the power and authority of their people.

There is a grassroots movement in the US of indigenous communities taking back their power and authority as sovereign nations. This surge in independence is driven partly by language warriors who are pointing the way. The following is the story of one such warrior.

Anton Treuer grew up in the Deep North.

Just as the Deep South is associated with racial antipathy, so too is the great regional swath of land spanning Northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota for native Americans.

Treuer is a descendant of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tribe, whose lands border the small city of Bemidji, Minnesota, in the heart of the Deep North.

Surrounded by three Ojibwe reservations – Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth – Bemidji is a border town (predominantly white and known for racial hostility towards native people) if ever there was one.

“When I went to Bemidji public schools in the 1980s, there were no native teachers, no native police officers, no native people in charge,” he recalls from a vacant classroom overlooking a manicured campus in the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University.

The 50 year old is now in his 20th year as a professor of Ojibwe language at the university, but he is still among just a handful of indigenous language professors teaching in US universities. 

The resource centre is the hub of native life for students and the community. It houses collections of the intricate floral beadwork for which Ojibwe are known and large black and white portraits of notable Ojibwe leaders hang in the great room, which functions as a classroom as well as a community space for ceremonies and meetings.

It is a showpiece for both the city and the university; a celebration of native peoples. But things were not always this way in Bemidji.

A bucket of whiteness

Anton Treuer is now Dr Treuer. Dressed in a crisp shirt and with his long hair, flecked with grey, pulled back into a sleek bun, he looks every bit the professor.

He is a native man in leadership, living proof that native people can flourish in spaces previously dominated by white people.

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