LEECH LAKE, Minn. I am not supposed to be alive. Native Americans were supposed to die off, as endangered species do, a century ago. And so it is with great discomfort that I am forced, in many ways, to live and write as a ghost in this haunted American house.
Among my fellow Indians, this is not a popular thing to say. Most of us immediately sneer at warnings of cultural death, calling the very idea further proof that “The Man” is still trying to kill us — this time with attitudes and arguments rather than discrimination and guns. Any Indian caught worrying that we might indeed vanish can expect to be grouped with the self-haters. While many things go into making a culture — kinship, history, religion, place — the disappearance of our languages suggests that our cultures, in total, may not be here for much longer.
For now, many Native American languages still exist, but most of them just barely, with only a handful of surviving speakers, all of them old. (On Jan. 21, Marie Smith Jones, the last living fluent speaker of Eyak, one of about 20 remaining Native Alaskan languages, died at the age of 89.) Linguists estimate that when Europeans first came to this continent, more than 300 Native American languages were spoken in North America. Today, there are only about 100. Within a century, if nothing is done, only a handful will remain, including my language, Ojibwe.
Another heartening exception is the Blackfoot language. The tribe dropped to a population of just over 1,000 in 1900, but they have grown again, and their language is on the upswing — largely because of the efforts of the Piegan Institute, based on the Blackfoot reservation in northwest Montana, with a mission of promoting the tribe’s language. Once moribund ceremonies are on the verge of flourishing again. But for many tribes — who struggle to retain the remnants of their land, life ways, sovereignty and physical and mental health — what is left can’t really be called culture, at least not in the word’s true sense.
Cultures change, of course. Sometimes they change slowly, in response to warming temperatures or new migration patterns. At other times, cultural changes are swift — the result of colonialism or famine or migration or war. But at some point (and no one is too anxious to identify it exactly), a culture ceases to be a culture and becomes an ethnicity — that is, it changes from a life system that develops its own terms into one that borrows, almost completely, someone else’s.
My favorite example of this difference was the question posed to an Ojibwe man by the Indian agent whose job it was to put him down on the treaty rolls. “Who are you?” the Ojibwe was asked, through an interpreter. “Oshkinawe nindaw eta,” he replied, puzzled (“Only a young man”). The Indian agent noted this, and the Ojibwe man’s family still bears his Anglicized response, Skinaway. The man had no thoughts, really, about himself as an Indian or as an individual. The question — who are you? — didn’t even make much sense to him because the terms of identity didn’t make any sense to him; they were not his terms. Nowadays, unlike Skinaway, many of us have come to rely on ways of describing ourselves that aren’t ours to begin with.
In the United States, we Natives now have sets of beliefs that we articulate to ourselves, mostly in English, about what being Indian means. We are from such and such a place; this and that happened to our ancestors; we eat such and such. Unlike the young man who was asked who he was, we think nowadays in English, and we forge our identities with those thoughts. (I am Indian because my parents are, because I live in a certain place, because I eat fry bread, because I go to powwows.)
Without our own languages, however, the markers we use to define ourselves can become arbitrary. One need only change the nouns to see the difference. Instead of “fry bread,” insert “corned beef,” and instead of harking back to smallpox-infested blankets, say “potato famine” — and you arrive at a completely different ethnicity. American Indians are fast becoming ethnic Americans like the Irish and the Italians and the Scandinavians, to name a few.
The timing is strange: We find our cultures most imperiled just as some (though certainly not most) Indian communities are experiencing a kind of economic rebirth from casino money. Not only do we have some wealth — the Seminoles of Florida own the Hard Rock Cafe franchise, and the Mashantucket Pequots own and operate probably the largest casino in the world — we also have the basis of some political clout. In Great Plains states with dwindling populations such as North and South Dakota, Indians (who are not fleeing to the cities like rural non-Indians) have become a huge voting bloc that can sometimes determine the outcomes of state Senate and House races. Because Indians vote Democratic at a rate of about 90 percent, the power of Indian tribes is unsettling to many Republicans. In 2006, Republican Doug Lindgren ran for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives on what can only be called an “anti-treaty” platform that called into question the validity of northern Minnesota’s Red Lake Indian Reservation and its treaty rights. Lindgren hoped to use deep-seated anti-Indian sentiment to consolidate his base. He lost. But our growing wealth and power has in no way guaranteed our survival.
Curiously, it is in the field of “story” that the most ringing claims are made for the continued health and vibrancy of American Indian cultures and lives. But it’s not clear why so many Indian critics and novelists suggest that stories, even great ones, in English by writers whose only language is English are somehow “Indian stories” that store the kernels of culture — not unlike those fabulous caves in the Southwest where explorers found seeds thousands of years old that grew when planted. One Indian critic recently rather self-servingly suggested that “English is an Indian language.” He’s wrong. English is not a Native American language; for most of us, it is our only language — through no fault of our own, owing to a federal policy aimed at wiping out Native American languages. Cultural eradication is a process, and it was precisely through the attempt to stamp out Native American languages that the U.S. government tried to stamp out Native American cultures. To claim that English is a Native language is to continue that process.
More often than not, English was forced on us, not chosen by us. Naturally, one can (and millions do) construct a cultural identity out of whatever is at hand, and no Indian should feel bad (though many of us do) about speaking English. But I don’t kid myself that my writing reflects my culture — or can save it. My novels are exercises in art, not cultural revitalization or anthropology. And if novels published by large publishing conglomerates, marketed to a general readership that doesn’t know the first thing about our lives, written in English by university-educated writers who by and large live far away from their tribal communities, don’t speak their tribal languages and probably earn two or three times as much as the rest of their people are our best defense against the threat of cultural death, we are in worse shape than I thought.
Perhaps we protect and even beatify stories because we have no real presence in film or popular music, because we have no stand-up comics with their own TV shows, because not one of us is a host on “The View,” because there is no Indian Oprah and no Indian Denzel and no Indian on “Lost.” Stories are all we’ve got. So when an Indian holds a copy of N. Scott Momaday’s groundbreaking novel “House Made of Dawn,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, or Louise Erdrich’s widely popular “Love Medicine,” they hold it gingerly, as though carrying the ashes of a recently deceased grandparent.
Our cultures and our languages — as unique, identifiable and particular entities — are linked to our sovereignty. If we allow our own wishful thinking and complacency to finish what George Armstrong Custer began, we will lose what we’ve managed to retain: our languages, land, laws, institutions, ceremonies and, finally, ourselves. And to claim that Indian cultures can continue without Indian languages only hastens our end, even if it makes us feel better about ourselves.
Cultural death matters because if the culture dies, we will have lost the chance not only to live on our own terms (something for which our ancestors fought long and hard) but also to live in our own terms. That Native American cultures are imperiled is not just important to Indians. It is important to everyone, or should be. Because when we lose cultures, we lose American plurality — the productive and lovely discomfort that true difference brings.
David Treuer is Ojibwe from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota and a translator of Ojibwe texts. His most recent novel is “The Translation of Dr. Apelles: A Love Story.”
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