Krista's Journal: Languages Lending Themselves to Memory

June 19, 2008

The word "sustainability" has entered our common vocabulary, a critical concept for the period ahead. But like every catchword, new and old, this one is in danger of losing meaning through familiarity and overuse. And so, as we've taken on programming about "sustainability" these past years, we've tried to open up unexpected and challenging layers of meaning it might have in 21st-century lives.

The exhaustion of raw materials and the extinction of life forms, for example, are matters of broad public concern. But diverse languages, too, are dying in a world of interconnected economies, information, and entertainment. They are threatened by the same ethos of reckless dominance that narrows diversity in the natural world. My colleague Rob McGinley Myers — one of our newest producers — writes in our staff blog this week about the road we took to finding David Treuer's voice and creating this particular show. It has been an adventure, mind-opening on many levels.

First of all, to think deeply about the inner workings of language is to become aware of how unconsciously most of us reckon minute by minute, hour by hour, with the ways we inhabit and are shaped by our mother tongues. This is especially true, I suspect, for those of us who grow up speaking English, the closest thing in the contemporary world to a global lingua franca. Even David Treuer, who spent his childhood on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, was not motivated to become fluent in Ojibwe while he was growing up.

Yet when he went away to college — following his elder brother, Anton, to Princeton — he began to wrestle with issues of identity. Anton became a linguist and returned to the reservation. David became a writer and followed him a few years later. When he came home as an adult who wanted to understand the world of his birth in all its complexity, he saw the elders of his tribe in a new light — as bearers of rare and precious knowledge. He saw, for the first time, that English was a kind of "secondhand clothing they wore in public." The idiom of their deep knowledge — the vessel in which it was carried in word and story, intact and graceful — was Ojibwe. To understand this deeply, he would have to meet them on their own terms, in this tongue.

As someone who spent nearly a decade of my adult life abroad (in Germany) — speaking a second language in which I eventually thought and dreamed — I am fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of vocabulary, grammar, and speech patterns. And I'm compelled by David Treuer's sense that they work on us inwardly. As he acknowledges, some great linguists insist that the particularities of language do not make a distinctive mark on the human psyche and spirit. But Treuer's experience suggests otherwise. I'm wildly intrigued to learn that Ojibwe is dominated by verbs — with, according to Treuer, a two-thirds ratio of verbs to nouns — and that there is a "fourth person" in Ojibwe grammar. I'm curious about the suggestion which David Treuer makes in one of his novels — and expands on in our conversation — that native languages "lend themselves to memory." Indeed, he has come to believe, some memories can only be carried forward in time in Ojibwe.

Similarly, Treuer describes a relationship between spiritual ceremonies and language so symbiotic that Ojibwe elders believe that the spirits do not understand English. On a more pragmatic level, he tells of negotiations between tribal leaders and the U.S. government in which the Ojibwe representatives insist on speaking in their language, with a translator, though they are all fluent in English. This, they say, is an essential element of their integrity in the negotiation — a clear and tangible signal that they are a sovereign people and nation.

We experience something of the aural dignity and raw beauty of the Ojibwe tongue in this program. We hear conversation and banter among elders, families, and even an Ojibwe immersion school classroom. The sound of these voices alone brings home the scandal of a long stretch of U.S. history where the eradication of native languages was at the center of federal policies aimed at unifying "civilization."

Yet ironically, in a wholly positive sense, all the children who attend that Ojibwe immersion school, now in its sixth year, have passed fifth-grade aptitude tests mandated by the state of Wisconsin. Sixty-six percent of them also scored in the top 10th percentile in English and math. I will continue to ponder the provocative case they and David Treuer present — by example as much as word — that the flourishing of civilization in this century may depend upon a capacity to live graciously with differences that languages keep vital.

Recommended Reading

Image of Native American Fiction: A User's Manual
Author: David Treuer
Publisher: Graywolf Press (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 224 pages

Though billed as a book of literary criticism, David Treuer's collection of essays is really a provocative and passionate book about the stories America tells itself about Native Americans. He examines why it is that Native Americans "overpopulate the American imagination" from the Boston Tea Party to Dances with Wolves. He argues for a new way of reading the work of Native American writers as literature, rather than as culture.

Voices on the Radio

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.