Indigenous languages are disappearing. Across the U.S. and Canada, where there were once 500 such languages spoken, today 150 remain. Of those, only 20 are spoken by children. Ojibwe is among them. There are 500 speakers of Ojibwe left; most of them reside in Minnesota.
Anton Treuer is one of those speakers, and he’s fighting to keep the language of his ancestors alive. The professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University is calling on others to assist in the onerous task of language revitalization in his new book, The Language Warrior’s Manifesto.
The barriers to teaching and learning indigenous languages are profound. Native people have endured colonization, historical trauma, and endemic poverty. Communities often don’t have enough money or resources to meaningfully invest in indigenous language revitalization. They’re worried about food, clothing, and shelter instead, resulting in a sense of complacency about indigenous languages like Ojibwe.
“People wish it well, they just don’t necessarily do things to make it well,” Treuer says. “I think there’s a tendency for people in the mainstream to think of languages as like pretty birds singing in the forest. Like, ‘We love all the pretty birds. That’s neat. But not important.’ And that’s simply not the case.”
Most of education in the U.S. is taught in English, and data shows it isn’t serving indigenous students; only 50 percent finish high school. “The education system that ignores us and denigrates our existence will not be the source of our liberation,” Treuer writes.
Immersion language schools are one of the solutions. They’ve been found to reduce truancy, increase test scores, and connect students to their communities and tribal traditions. Since the biggest predictor of what language a child will speak is not the language of their parents, but the language of their peers, immersion schools are a crucial component in preserving indigenous languages.
“Language revitalization is not just about the pretty bird. It is a tool that the data shows engenders academic success, engagement from students, and supports tribal sovereignty,” Treuer says.
Language is a cornerstone of culture, and Treuer believes it’s “pretty inextricable” from identity. “For anybody who has their language, they have this unique way of looking at the world.”
He began seeking out Ojibwe language resources and instruction as an adult during and after his education at Princeton. Elders played a crucial role in his learning—as did falling in love. Treuer, a father of nine, believes that in the same way a parent’s love for their children pushes them to overcome the challenges of parenting, people must fall in love with their tribal languages in order to make revitalization a priority. “If you really fall in love with it, you’ll be highly motivated,” he says. “You’ll figure the rest out.”
You don’t have to be a teacher or a student to participate in indigenous language revitalization. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has teamed up with the Minnesota Historical Society Press to develop a literary tradition for what was formerly an oral language. A team of 50 people that includes elderly speakers, aides, transcriptionists, text editors, marketers, publicists, grant writers, and outreach workers are collaborating to make that happen.
On other language revitalization projects, young people have been recruited to work as actors in short videos or to do website development. The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, an online resource from the University of Minnesota that allows users to search and listen to Ojibwe vocabulary, is in need of data entry workers. “Depending on somebody’s interests and aptitudes, there are a lot of ways to get involved,” Treuer says.
While the future vitality of the Ojibwe language is uncertain, Treuer is inspired by the ways immersion schools, resource development, community work, and ceremonial resurgence and growth have breathed new life into the Ojibwe language. “My dream is to see it flourish once again, to reestablish the intergenerational transmission of Ojibwe.”
Anton Treuer’s The Language Warrior’s Manifesto is available in bookstores now.