David Treuer —
Language and Meaning, an Ojibwe Story

Language is a carrier of human identity. It is a vehicle by which we understand and express our very sense of self. Novelist and translator David Treuer is helping to compile the first practical grammar of the Ojibwe language. He describes an unfolding experience of how language forms what makes us human. Some memories and realities, he has found, can only be carried forward in time by Ojibwe.

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is associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota, a novelist, and translator. He divides his time between the Leech Lake Reservation and Minneapolis.

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Toronto-based photographer Nadya Kwandibens walks with her father at her home in northern Ontario, Canada. A member of the Northwest Angle #37 First Nation, she often confers with her father to learn Ojibwe vocabulary.

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This sustainability feature is supported by the Kendeda Sustainability Fund of the Tides Foundation.

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This is one of my favorite SOF programs in the last year. It seemed not so much about what a specific faith was, but rather how the deep beliefs within the culture are sustained, and that they are held sacred enough to be respected in the form as part of the substance.

What I like most about it was expressed so well by your guest speaker when he shared the two things he could about Ojibwe ceremony. It must be conducted with sustainable technology (i.e., low tech) and in the Ojibwe language. It cannot be translated or transmuted, but continued in its essence of Ojibwe-ness. When he talked about the ritual of spear fishing with his friends he was accompanying on a Northern Wisconsin lake, he compared the culture of the TV watching home owners by the lake to fog, in contrast to Ojibwe traditional practices that honor, honor elders and life far more ancient, that takes notice and value of what is in the world, and cares for those elders, those who came before. Knowing that it is in many fragile acts, of thought, of notice, of language, of respect, through ceremony and ritual that speaks in Ojibwe, in the elements used in ceremony, that these understandings of connection through time and space to life are honored and held within this community.

The beauty held in the sense of difference in verb forms, of speaker, actor, time, etc. holds the sensibility and notions of these different tenses as distinct and worth communicating, and gives us just a glimpse of the ability to hold distinct and valued nuances, which creates a much fuller and better articulated view of the world, and also places the user of the language into a very connected and complex community in/across time and place. Such richness to see so much as merely fog in a far greater landscape.

I listened with great interest to the program on Ojibwe. As a linguist and teacher of Yiddish at a university I have long been interested in the intricate relationships between language, religion and identity. THank you for a fascinating show and please do more on the subject.
Miriam Isaacs, Univ. of Maryland, College Park.

It was lovely to hear the Ojibwe language spoken and spoken about on Speaking of Faith this morning. I am a Mohegan who is trying to reclaim and resurrect our language one hundred and one years after that last native speaker died.

The native people on the eastern seaboard were the first to lose their languages through the encroachment of English. But in southern New England, the Mohegan were able to hold on to their language the longest, because of the foundation of friendship with the settlers laid by our Sachem Uncas in the 1600s. This culture of hospitality and welcoming perhaps made us less threatening to our white neighbors and they pretty much left us alone. Our cousins the Pequots across the river did not share this philosophy and were deliberately disseminated and outlawed. We were also considered Christianized and therefore civilized, so we were not included in the later forced westward movement.

Personally, my native roots spring from both Connecticut and Hawaii and during my teenage years in Hawaii I discovered the Baha'i Faith. One of the interesting principles of the Faith that brings me to where I am today is the need for a universal auxiliary language. Auxiliary implies that first languages are maintained and the auxiliary language is the helper. Because of this, as the Baha'i Faith spread across the world we have been making it a practice to help preserve the languages in those countries where the Faith was taught. This practice moved me to work as a linguist for our Tribe. I am now on the Council of Elders (an arm of our government) and continuing my linguistic work as well.

I am a rabbi who claimed my Judaism after I became an adult. I learned Hebrew in my 40's. I was amazed at the similarities David Treuer spoke of between how the Ojibwa language "holds" the culture and how Hebrew does the same: Hebrew also is based on verbs and their manipulation into other parts of speech. We also have legends of God making us from the dust of the Earth and breathing in Adam the soul of life. We also believe that worlds are created from words, and that God's formation of the world was through speech. I appreciated the way he explained how the cultural resonances cling to a word---and that same word accurately translated into another language carries different nuances, prejudices. Language is so much more than simply a way to verbally communicate! I do artwork to try to give people an opening into the sacredness of Hebrew.

I enjoyed listening to this broadcast, or what I could hear of it. I found it to be very interesting that this man, David, grew up on the reservation I do believe but did not learn the language until he was an adult. I really like that he and other fellow Ojibwae native americans are doing what they are to preserve this ancient language where so many have been lost. I was suprised to learn that of the 6-7,000 languages used today, 70% may cease to be in use by the end of the century. It sheds a new light on the term "melting pot" when refering to ethnicities and cultures. It's as if languages will be melting right along with these heritages and cultures. I certainly have taken notice of the emphasis place on learning second and even third languages today. Mostly spanish because there is a rapidly growing amount of mexican americans living in the u.s. I don't know if I necessarily agree with this being the case but we are of a culture to adapt. In fact, I think if it hasn't been all ready created, we'll be speaking a language of spanish-american/english version of our old language.

I totally agree with him about the elderly being precious people. One can learn so much from someone with such a great history. It's important stories, languages, traditions are past down from generation to generation. It means something, is special and should not be taken lightly. I thought it was very cool David mentions that these people find their truest selves to be in their native language. That there is no combat of words. This language is a portion of your soul. When these young men and women receive their names, they accept their soul that is given to them, passed on from generations of their family. That is really deep and meaningful. That certain memories are kept alive in this context so that the language itself does not die. I like they are not allowed to use any technology in their ceremonies. It makes it all the more sacred.

He mentions about scientists showing statistics of how speech influences thought. I couldn't agree more. I doubt that these ceremonies that they perform when an Ojibwae is given their names would have nearly the same impact if performed in English than their native language. There is definitely something about their language that is powerful and awe alluring. It makes you stop and listen almost as if it commands you to do so. You might not be able to understand what they are saying but the meaning behind it is so much more. I think it sounds cool but in some ways, yeah, like jibberish. It's no wonder when David mentions about there being up to four vowels in one word alone in this language. I also didn't know that the Ojibwae language was voted the hardest language to learn. I always thought it was Russian.

One last thing that is very cool is their ceremonies or get togethers for when they hunt the first deer or animal of the season, or fish. It is their way of becoming closer to them by killing them and then honoring them. I also liked the part about the veterans being the only people to take people out of mourning. They have touched blood so therefore they know what it's about and closer to the meaning of death and somehow understand it better. I think we have people like priests or pastors to help with that but it's not continuous.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this broadcast. Studying other languages is on my to-do list for my life.

I am so grateful for Mr. Truer's sensitivity and humor, and his important work on the behalf of Ojibwe culture. I enjoy Krista Tippet's questions. This episode has beautiful quiet spaces.

With reference to a way to express something that was going to happen but did not in English, I believe the form "was/were to do something" is an equivalent to the phrase in the Ojibwe language. For example: The meeting was to be held yesterday but had to be postponed until next Monday.

Just as language is being preserved by Mr.Treuer,a way of life in a threatened environment is being protected by Winona LaDuke of northern Minnesota,who is from the same area where her tribal members still grow and harvest wild rice.
Her story and her voice could be a treasure to Mr. Truer.