Anton Treuer

Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe Descendant

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a fourth year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded the inaugural 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. Beginning in 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 over two years to support fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations. In 2022 and 2023, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $75,000 fellowships each year.

2023 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow Anton Treuer: ‘My Goal is to be Replaceable’ 

Anton Treuer (Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe) is an Ojibwe language professor, author of 20 books, international speaker, and father of nine children.

In his 20s, Anton Treuer was on an educational path to become a lawyer. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University in public policy and international affairs, this Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe descendant suddenly had a change of heart. “I told my parents that I’m not taking a job and I’m not going to graduate school. I want to come home and walk the earth and hang out with my elders.”

Treuer felt a deep calling to learn more about his tribe’s cultural and ceremonial practices, and to master the endangered Ojibwe language, of which he says there are very few first-language speakers. “There are about 600,000 Ojibwe people spread out across 141 First Nations in Canada, as well as reservations in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. However, in the United States, we have identified very few fluent Ojibwe speakers,” and he is one of them.

His lifelong journey to immerse himself in Ojibwe culture began in earnest when he met a 90-year-old Ojibwe elder named Archie Mosay, who became an early mentor. “He was a blast from the past,” recalls Treuer, fondly. “He was 12 when he first met a white man, and in his 30s when he first saw a black man ─ or even a car. When I met him, he was sitting in a modern house watching wrestling on TV and laughing. He shut off the TV and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ and told me that he had seen me in a dream.”

A younger Treuer sits next to his 90-year-old mentor, Archie Mosay, who said he had seen Treuer in a dream and “was waiting for him.”

Working with Archie for six years as his apprentice was a “transformative” experience for Treuer. Today, more than three decades later, the 53-year-old is a tenured professor at Bemidji State University where he teaches the Ojibwe language; is one of the youngest fluent speakers of Ojibwe in his community; and a carrier of rare knowledge of Ojibwe language, music, and medicines, as he writes in his Luce Fellowship application.

Somewhere along the way, this determined and passionate culture bearer also managed to earn a master’s and doctorate degree, and author 20 seminal books on the Ojibwe tribe’s rich history and language, including “Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask,” for which he has made numerous international presentations. Treuer also sits on many organizational boards, has won more than 40 prestigious awards, and is the father of nine children.

Treuer refers to his life’s work as three strands of a braid: cultural and ceremonial service, Ojibwe language revitalization, and racial equity education. “It has been the great honor of my life to be a servant to my fellow Indigenous people,” he says.

For the next two years as a Luce Fellow, Treuer will focus his time and energy on building the capacity of his apprenticeship program, an idea born from his invaluable time learning from his late mentor, Archie. “We all have something to teach; and we all have something to learn. The gravity and timeliness of Indigenous language and culture revitalization keeps me digging in. I am on a mission, and I know that it has just begun.”

An apprentice dedicated to apprenticeship

One of Treuer’s elder namesakes, the late Mary Roberts, once told him that if you learn something – a word, a song, a ceremony, anything – make sure you teach it to at least four other people. “I want to equip my community with cultural knowledge to keep our rich Ojibwe traditions going,” he says, explaining in simple terms the overall purpose of the Ojibwe apprenticeship program he created some years ago and continues to run.

To date, Treuer has handpicked 18 Ojibwe Natives of all ages, from teenagers to sexagenarians, to personally mentor in the Ojibwe language and practices of many cultural and spiritual traditions, such as drum ceremonies, medicine dances, and tobacco offerings.

“Already, we have six female chiefs, what we call ‘boss ladies.’ One is around 60 years old. But they are still apprentices,” says Treuer, explaining that being an apprentice can be a slow and patient process. “Archie was an apprentice until he was 71 years old, when his dad died. And he waited until he was in his 90s to find me.”

Treuer poses with two apprentices and his mentor, Dora Ammann (Archie’s daughter), standing next to him.

But Treuer recognizes the risk to this traditional approach of training knowledge keepers. “Through the apprenticeship program, we’re trying to accelerate the kind of learning someone might have done in former times between the ages of 12 and 70.” His formula is all about teaching, guiding, coaching, and supporting the apprentices as they dive in to do the work.

Although Treuer is a mentor to many, he still considers himself an apprentice and continues to learn from other elders, including Archie’s daughter, Dora Ammann, who is in her 80s. “I believe that learning is a lifelong process. It’s not just a one-time, springtime flood. It’s a dance for all your seasons and we should always be learning and refining and growing.”

How he will leverage the Luce fellowship

The Luce Fellowship will allow Treuer to take a sabbatical from his full-time professorship at the university and work exclusively with four apprentices on Ojibwe language preservation and revitalization using a more traditional master-apprentice model. “Specifically, I will drive with them to drum ceremonies and other ceremonies, spending numerous hours discussing, teaching, sharing, coaching, and preparing them for the language content they will be exposed to,” he tells First Nations.

Treuer is a tenured professor at Bemidji State University, where he has taught the Ojibwe language for nearly 25 years.

His vision is for his apprentices to move from learners to leaders and practitioners of Ojibwe language and culture. As he says, “Languages and culture live when they live in the hearts and minds of young people.”

To further deepen their knowledge of the Ojibwe language, the apprentices will also work with Treuer on the Oshkaabewis Native Journal, the only academic journal of the Ojibwe language. Treuer has been a volunteer editor of the journal since 1995.

“It has been a few years since we produced the most recent issue of the journal, and some of the earliest content published would benefit from editorial revisions to ensure the highest possible accuracy,” explains Treuer about the second part of his Luce Fellowship plan. There are hundreds of hours of Ojibwe recordings that have never been transcribed or published. And the Luce Fellow believes that both the apprentices and the Ojibwe community will benefit greatly from completing this work. “We also publish audio for free online and Ojibwe country has really appreciated the ease of access and hearing our stories directly from first-language speakers,” he says.

‘The best is yet to come’

The Ojibwe Native shares that his greatest accomplishment is knowing that if he were to “kick the bucket,” Ojibwe ceremonies would continue to live on. “Our drums are going to keep going,” and the confidence that realization comes with plays right into his overall mission. “My goal is to be replaceable. To have these things live and grow beyond my fleeting time on earth.

With his Luce Fellowship, Treuer will work exclusively with four apprentices on Ojibwe language preservation and revitalization.

“Seven generations from now, when nobody knows my name, no matter how many books I write or what I do, I think there is a real chance that our language and ceremonies will be alive in the hearts and minds of our future generations. And that will be the greatest accomplishment and legacy,” states Treuer.

The 2023 Luce Fellow also believes that the best is yet to come for his people. “We’ve been through a lot in the last few hundred years. But we are finally at a point where we are developing cultural capital and resources.” He trusts that the Ojibwe language, culture, and communities will be stronger and more stable a hundred years from now because of the ongoing, collaborative efforts of so many Ojibwe people.