COLUMN: New book helps close old cultural gap

This is my Sunday column for the May 27, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Anton Treuer appeared as a guest in the April 7 Bemidji edition of the Great Northern Radio Show.

New book helps close old cultural gap
By Aaron J. Brown

When I was preparing to do my radio show in Bemidji last month I met Dr. Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University. I needed some help understanding native culture so I could integrate some music and stories into my show. I couldn’t have connected with a more appropriate source, as Treuer’s new book, “Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians (But Were Afraid to Ask)” was about to be released by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Dr. Treuer was kind enough to appear on the show and I’ve since read the book (and wish I had done so sooner).

Boy, was I afraid to ask a bunch of stuff! I grew up with mixed ethnic heritage, though all white and European, on the Iron Range of the 1980s and ‘90s. Though the Nett Lake and Fond-du-Lac reservations weren’t terribly far, they were not places I went. My dad, a 1970s hitchhiker, had some harrowing stories and the reservation myths around the schoolyard were ominous.

Among my peers, also all white, some would brag if they had some Indian blood in them because that was considered cool, so long as it didn’t interfere with being white. At school we were told the correct term was “Native Americans” and history was boiled down as “Columbus, exploration, Thanksgiving, bad stuff, reservations.” In college I learned that “American Indians” was OK to say, and that the bad stuff was really, really bad. But after that, not much.

In reading Treuer’s book and his earlier one, “The Assassination of Hole-in-the-Day,” I learned of the Ojibwe historical figure who was killed by Leech Lake tribe members in 1868. Bug-o-na-ghe-zhisk and his father of the same name were dynamic leaders who assumed historic powers among the Ojibwe during a time in Minnesota history when the tribe outnumbered whites 2-1. He projected power and sometimes even fear everywhere he went, his ability to communicate in European power structures among his greatest strengths. He lived and was killed in north central Minnesota, not far from here, and I hadn’t heard of him until I was 31 (except, unconsciously, when the Bug-o-na-ghe-zhisk School in cancelled classes due to snow).

There’s no excuse for that. Treuer makes a compelling argument that Native American history really is just an important part of History, and should be taught to everyone as such.

Treuer’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians” covers much more than this, delving into all the stereotypes and communication barriers that have built up among native and non-native peoples. He spares no participant in the cultural cold war; everyone has something to do and something to gain in opening this conversation. Treuer describes how Indians in America are often imagined and seldom understood. Reading this book will help you understand more, regardless of how much you know about the Indian experience today.

“Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians” is smoothly-written, fascinating and often entertaining. It also ends on a hopeful note, as Treuer shows many of the advances made in Ojibwe language and cultural understanding made in the Bemidji area near the Leech Lake reservation where he grew up. He shares the story of how his non-native mechanic began engaging with him in the Ojibwe language, without any prompting or training. Indeed, once old grudges and Midwestern notions of conflict avoidance are set aside, much is possible.

Generations of cultural misunderstanding cannot be fixed by a book; however, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians (But Were Afraid to Ask)” by Dr. Anton Treuer is a good start.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on public stations like 91.7 KAXE. The next show is June 16 from the Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

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