Country Grammar

With two new books out this fall and a massive linguistic project ahead, David Treuer is redefining what it means to be a native speaker

David Treuer won't be showing up again at work until 2008. Perhaps in recognition of that fact, Treuer, who is compact and muscular, has grown out a sandy crop of 48-o'clock shadow. Not that the author is planning to sink into utter sloth—far from it. "I'm taking a year and a half off from my teaching job at the U to embark on an exciting new project," he begins, as we grab a table on the patio of the Central Library's Dunn Bros.

When he says "project," he actually means three interlocking collaborative projects: an Ojibwe dictionary, an Ojibwe grammar, and an Ojibwe oral history. "It's a huge undertaking," he says. "It'll be years in the making. But it's now or never. The language is dying. I don't know that there are any native speakers under the age of 35 or 40 with Ojibwe as their first language. It's do or die. But it's fun. As a teacher, I spend most of my time talking. I love teaching, but it's fantastic to be able to just sit back and listen."

As if he didn't have enough on his plate already. Treuer is also part of the elite force, co-commanded by cultural critic Greil Marcus, currently building the New Harvard History of American Literature. Concurrently, he's working on a nonfiction collection of stories about contemporary reservation life. Plus, autumn finds him touring behind a pair of new books: his third novel, The Translation of Doctor Apelles, and Native American Fiction: A User's Manual, both published by Graywolf Press and shipping in September.

David Treuer
Tony Nelson
David Treuer

Sharing Treuer's fondness for collecting tales is the novel's Doctor Apelles, an underemployed linguist who pursues an austere, solitary existence. His most cherished document is in a language that only he can translate, and it sends him head over heels in love with love. Early on, Apelles tramps through the Canadian woods to interview an elderly woman who speaks a vanishing Ojibwe dialect. Delighted to meet a rare soul who, literally, speaks her language, she unleashes a veritable flood of stories.

"I was thinking of a particular person when I wrote that scene," says Treuer, lighting a Marlboro. "A woman named Nancy Jones. She lives on a reserve in Canada, has a bunch of kids—including twin sons who are my best friends—and holds the world record for beaver-skinning." Jones, a renowned linguist herself, has held the beaver record since 1971—stripping an intact carcass to a fully skinned and stretched pelt in 22 minutes. The average is 45. "She's a remarkable woman," Treuer continues, "in her late 60s, raised in seasonal camps, very adept at the seasonal lifestyle."

Growing up on the Leech Lake Reservation as one of six children of an Austrian Holocaust survivor and an Ojibwe tribal judge provided Treuer with the opportunity to pick up more than a little seasonal lore. And he's not inclined to allow his knife to get rusty. During his sabbatical, he, his wife—writer Gretchen Potter—and their eight-month-old daughter Elsina, will be spending most of their time in a renovated cabin on family land near Bemidji. Treuer the younger sleeps in a blanket made of beaver pelts skinned by her father. "They're the softest thing in the world," he says.

Treuer's aptitude with sharp objects extends to the foil: Before choosing a career as a writer, midway through his undergraduate days, Treuer trained in the hope of becoming an Olympic fencer. Ultimately, he collected an anthropology degree from Princeton and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. This scholary side comes to the fore in Native American Fiction. Drawing from the work of authors such as Forrest Carter, James Fenimore Cooper, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and Sherman Alexie, Treuer presents a commanding case for judging—and enjoying—Native fiction as literature, rather than binding it to notions of cultural authenticity. He has nothing but praise for contemporaries Erdrich, Welch, and Silko. Alexie is another matter.

"I give Alexie a hard time," Treuer says, taking a hit of his iced depth charge. "But he's a very imaginative writer. He's really gifted. But I don't think he made good on the promise of his first collection of short stories. I don't think he's held himself to the same standards. I think he presents a very narrow portrait of Indian life in his books, then promotes it as, 'This is what Indian life is like; this is what real Indian rez life is like.' I'm Indian, and my life isn't like that. I went to summer camp, Camp Chippewa for Boys. I learned to shoot, I learned to camp, I learned all kinds of things. And it was on the reservation!

"Alexie's work is taken as 'authentic.' And it's that atmosphere of authenticity that I rebel against. Novels aren't supposed to be authentic; they're supposed to be magic. What I'm saying in the User's Manual is, 'stop reading these novels as educational material, and start reading them as literature. They will last. As cultural documents, they just don't hold up."

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