Preserving indigenous culture, on our terms

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...

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.

We stubbornly continue to exist. There were just more than 200,000 Native Americans alive at the turn of the 20th century; as of the last census, we number more than 2 million. If you discount immigration, we are probably the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. But even as our populations are growing, something else, I fear, is dying: our cultures.

While many things go into making a culture -- kinship, history, religion, place -- the disappearance of our languages suggests that our cultures 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.

Cultures change, of course. But at some point, 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 [Only a young man]," he replied, puzzled. The Indian agent took it down, and the Ojibwe man's family still bears his Anglicized response, "Skinaway." The Ojibwe 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.

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 are our best defense against the threat of cultural death, we are in worse shape than I thought. They are 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 and don't speak their tribal languages, and probably earn two or three times as much as the rest of their people.

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.

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 an Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation and a translator of Ojibwe texts. His most recent novel is "The Translation of Dr. Apelles: A Love Story." He wrote this column for the Washington Post.

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