MOORHEAD — Anton Treuer is used to hearing lots of different questions about Indians.
From the earnest (What terms are most appropriate for talking about North America’s first people?) to the ignorant (Where are the real Indians?), Treuer, whose mother was an enrolled member of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation and a lifelong resident of the Leech Lake Reservation, has heard them all.
Open to having a thoughtful, educational conversation, Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, wrote “Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask.” The nonfiction book, published in 2012, poses over 100 questions that the author dutifully answers, often coming from the perspective of a Great Lakes Indian to show that Indian culture and history isn’t monolithic.
The book was the area’s One Book, One Community selection this year. Treuer will discuss the title and a young readers’ edition that came out earlier this year at a Tuesday night, Oct. 26, talk at Concordia College.
Given the title of the book, we took the opportunity to ask Treuer a few questions.
Q: The “… But Were Afraid to Ask '' part of the book title, have you found is there an apprehension to ask questions?
A: Our political and racial environment is kind of testy right now. Some people are more interested in calling out than calling in. I think broadly within whiteness, there is a kind of white fragility that's been written about often. Where even a white teacher who is very experienced talking about a whole variety of topics and issues will be so worried about offending someone or getting their head bit off by an angry parent that it almost becomes safer not to do anything. “What am I going to do on Columbus? If I say this, the Natives will be mad. If I say that, the Italians will be mad. So what am I going to do?” As little as possible, and then the response gets built not around the needs of the students, it gets built around comfort.
To white folk, I'll say, "Be brave. Lean in. Ask your questions." I do my best to try to create a safe space where people feel comfortable and can do that, and I think that is a helpful part of the learning environment… We're all responsible to make the world a better place, even though we didn't get it this messed up.
Q: After eight years with the book, what are some of the questions that have been asked to you?
A: When we did the young reader edition, we added a whole new section just on social activism because there's been so much going on. Like the Dakota Access Pipeline or maybe the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial. I also get asked questions about relationships between groups. How do you advocate for the value of Native lives in the context of Black Lives Matter so that it's not a muzzle to Black pain, but at the same time we address invisibility and marginalization? We spend a lot on the political front, Deb Haaland’s appointment to a major cabinet position (U.S. Secretary of Interior), to a shift and movement around Indigenous environmental issues and advocacy on missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Q: The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women came back to the forefront again with some people questioning whether Gabby Petito’s death would’ve got as much attention if she was Indian or a person of color. Do you see those voices now being heard a little bit more?
A: It’s resonating, it's evolving. I do think that Indigenous people are becoming more effective in advocating on those issues and are being heard more than they were. I also think there's a lot of pushback in our current political and racial climate, like being politically incorrect as a point of pride for some people. For anybody of any political party getting anything done in Washington is really hard right now, and so those things have slowed or stalled. There is legislation that would address missing and murdered Indigenous women mainly through auspices of the Violence Against Women Act… So when things stall in Washington, it's not just frustrating, because new things aren't being done, but I mean it really affects people's lives and their safety.
Q: You’ve been really active in trying to revitalize Indigenous languages. What impact can that have, people learning their heritage language?
A: It can be really powerful. Native Hawaiians at their low point had only 1,000 speakers left. Today they have 24,000 speakers, but you can also go to school K-12 and get a college degree in all Hawaiian mediums. They changed most of the road and place names to Hawaiian names and everybody in Hawaii, regardless of their background, feels that is something to be proud of and distinctive about that place, not just important to the Hawaiian people. For the Hawaiian people, it has been a cornerstone of identity. It's not just about pretty birds singing in the forest, but it's about all the things it takes to equip our kids for long, healthy, happy lives. Instead of being assaulted and colonized for not being someone you will never be, being safe, being validated, accepted, supported and celebrated for being exactly who you are. We all need that.
Q: In the arts there are a lot of non-Indians who really misstep when they try to portray Indians or Indian issues, like the “Scaffold” sculpture at the Walker Art Center. If there are people who are not Indian and they want to create art with Indians or Indian issues, what's the best way to go about that?
A: I get a lot of those questions. “Can you read my book manuscript and tell me I’m not going to make anyone mad?” It's complex and there are multiple perspectives on it. We have to be careful about cultural appropriation. That doesn't mean we should be frozen and not have anything to say about anybody else. In music, how can you say that any one culture owns a particular musical form when so many have informed it? That said, you know when it comes to especially things like culture, religion, we are often imagined and infrequently well understood. A lot of people want to continue to imagine. This has happened with every minority group in America. The Native-inspired stuff is going to be pretty dangerous and is likely to fail.
Native-led things are likely to succeed, so as we're seeing now with “Reservation Dogs.” When you have authentic Indigenous voices that resonate for Indigenous people and the rest of the world can appreciate, those things land and they work, and the Native -inspired and imagined stuff does not.
What: Anton Treuer
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26
Where: Concordia College Centrum, Moorhead
Info: This all-ages event is free and open to the public; the event will be livestreamed at https://video.ibm.com/channel/concordia-college