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A language too beautiful to lose

February 03, 2008|David Treuer | David Treuer is the author of three novels, the most recent of which, "The Translation of Dr. Apelles," will be reissued this month in paperback by Vintage Books.

ONLY three Native American languages now spoken in the United States and Canada are expected to survive into the middle of this century. Mine, Ojibwe, is one of them. Many languages have just a few speakers left -- two or three -- while some have a fluent population in the hundreds. Recently, Marie Smith Jones, the last remaining speaker of the Alaskan Eyak language, died at age 89. The Ojibwe tribe has about 10,000 speakers distributed around the Great Lakes and up into northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba. Compared with many, we have it pretty good.

If my language does die -- not now, not tomorrow, but, unless something changes, in the near future -- many understandings, not to mention the words that contain them, will die as well. If my language dies, our word for "bear," makwa, will disappear, and with it the understanding that makwa is derived from the word for box, makak (because black bears box themselves up, sleeping, for the winter).

So too will the word for "namesake," niiyawen'enh. Every child who gets an Ojibwe name has namesakes, sometimes as many as six or eight of them. Throughout a child's life, his or her namesakes function a little like godparents, giving advice and help, good for a dollar to buy an Indian taco at a powwow. But they offer something more too. The term for "my body," niiyaw (a possessive noun: ni- = "I/mine"; -iiyaw = "body/soul"), is incorporated into the word for a namesake because the idea (contained by the word and vice versa) is that when you take part in a naming, you are gifting a part of your soul, your body, to the person being named. So, to say "my namesake," niiyawen'enh, is to say "my fellow body, myself."

If these words are lost, much will happen, but also very little will happen. We will be able to go to Starbucks and GameStop and Wal-Mart and the Home Depot as before. We will tie our shoes the same way and brush our teeth and use Crest Whitestrips. Some of us will still do our taxes. Some of us still won't. The mechanics of life as it is lived by modern Ojibwes will remain, for the most part, unchanged. The language we lose, when we lose it, is replaced by other languages.

And yet, I think, more will be lost than simply a bouquet of discrete understandings -- about bears or namesakes. If the language dies, we will lose something personal, a degree of understanding that resides, for most fluent speakers, on some unconscious level. We will lose our sense of ourselves and our culture. There are many aspects of culture that are extralingual -- that is, they exist outside or in spite of language: kinship, legal systems, governance, history, personal identity. But there is very little that is "extralingual" about story, about language itself. I think what I am trying to say is that we will lose beauty -- the beauty of the particular, the beauty of the past and the intricacies of a language tailored for our space in the world.

Yes, that's it: We will lose beauty.

My older brother Anton and I, among many others, have been trying to do something about that. For the last year, we have been working on a grant to record, transcribe and translate Ojibwe speech in order to compile what will be the first (and only) practical Ojibwe language grammar. Since December, we have traveled once, sometimes twice, a week, from our homes on the western edge of our Minnesota reservation to the east, to small communities named Inger, Onigum, Bena and Ball Club, where we record Ojibwe speakers. We've also taken longer trips to Red Lake Reservation (to the north) and south to Mille Lacs.

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RECORDING Ojibwe speech in Minnesota, where the average age of fluent Ojibwe speakers is 55, means recording old people. My brother, at 38, is very good at this, much better than I am. For starters, he is much more fluent. And he looks like a handsome version of Tonto: lean, medium height, clear eyes and smooth face, very black shiny braids and very white shiny teeth. This helps. He has made this kind of activity his life's work; it is what he does.

Right after college, he apprenticed himself to Archie Mosay, at that time the oldest and most influential Ojibwe spiritual leader, who grew up in the hills of the St. Croix River Valley in Wisconsin and did not have an English name until he was 12 and a white farmer he worked for gave him a pocket knife and the name "Archie." He kept the knife and the name for another 82 years. Archie and my brother were friends. Deep affection and respect and tenderness ran in both directions.

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