Skip to main content

Letter Men: Brothers Fight for Ojibwe Language

Brothers David and Anton Treuer are members of the Ojibwe nation from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. Both professors, they work to preserve the Ojibwe language, one of the few Native American languages in active use.

19:51

Other segments from the episode on April 23, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 23, 2008: Interview with Paul Polak; Interview with David and Anton Treuer; Review of the new Was (Not Was) album, "Boo!"

Transcript

DATE April 23, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Paul Polak, founder of International Development
Enterprises, on eliminating poverty in third-world countries as
outlined in his new book, "Out of Poverty"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

My guest, Paul Polak, is a pretty unusual kind of poverty fighter. A former
psychiatrist, he's spent the last 25 years working mostly with third-world
farmers living on less than a dollar a day. Polak believes most of the
hundreds of millions of dollars governments and nonprofits have poured into
poverty eradication have produced precious little in the way of results. He
says that's because they rely on big projects and massive subsidies and
because they don't listen to the farmers themselves. Listen, Polak says, and
you can find simple solutions that produce amazing results.

Polak is founder of International Development Enterprises. I spoke to him
recently about his new book, "Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional
Approaches Fail." He illustrates his approach by telling the success story of
a poor Nepalese farmer, Krishna Bahadur Thapa.

Well, Paul Polak, welcome to FRESH AIR. You practiced for many years as a
psychiatrist. What made you change careers and start fighting poverty?

Mr. PAUL POLAK: Probably a sudden acute attack of insanity. I'm not sure.
I actually was working with chronically mentally ill patients and I learned
that really their poverty made a greater impact on how they lived their lives
than their mental illness. So we started working on ways for them to get
better jobs, improved housing, self-esteem, poverty strategies--and the
poverty strategies worked much better than the formal therapeutic strategies.
And somewhere along the way, I decided that, even though homeless people were
very poor in the context of the US, they were living on about $500 a month,
and that was very wealthy compared with really poor people in Bangladesh. So
I decided to go to Bangladesh and talk to poor people there and learn about
their poverty, and what I learned got me very interested in doing things, and
one thing led to another. It was really not very well planned.

DAVIES: You, of course, have spent many years seeking to bring people out of
poverty in the developing world, and there's a moment in your book "Out of
Poverty" where you make a point that seems childishly simple, I mean, utterly
facile, but within pages actually seems quite profound, and it really involves
your asking this very poor farmer in Nepal, `Why are you poor? And what could
you do to stop being poor?' And what does he tell you?

Mr. POLAK: He says, looking at me as if this is certainly a dumb question,
he says, `I'm poor because I don't have enough money, and the way I could get
out of poverty, if I could find a way, is to find ways to earn more money from
my farming.'

DAVIES: And of course a learned development official might say, `Well, this
poor man is only looking at a measure of his poverty. He doesn't understand
that he doesn't make more money because of bigger, broader, deeper conditions
that have systemic solutions. He needs better health care. He needs access
to sanitation and clean water. He needs access to education. He needs access
to political power,' and yet what you discover is that his simple statement
that making more money would make a difference actually gets at the whole
issue in a completely different way. Explain why his answer actually holds
much more wisdom than it seems?

Mr. POLAK: Well, first of all, a lot of experts have lots of ideas about
poverty, but they don't spend enough time talking to poor people themselves.
And I have interviewed some 3,000 of these dollar-a-day farmers, and the more
I learn from them the more I realize that they're right. When a dollar-a-day
farmer who makes a living on one acre actually earns $500 a year in new
income, he then makes the choice of where to invest that money. And,
interestingly enough, the common patterns are to invest the new money in
educating their kids, in providing health care services, in improving their
farming practices; and, even though they don't talk much about it, these
people increase their power and influence both in the community and
politically.

Money brings influence, and talking to these people several times over several
years, people like Krishna Bahadur Thapa, I see a huge change in their
influence. So in the end, when we in the West try to determine what's
important, then we lay our values on poor people. Really what we need to do
is to listen to poor people; and they actually, again and again, I've learned,
are very rational decision-makers and they act in their own self-interest, and
I would trust their views of poverty and what can be done about it over any
expert, including myself.

DAVIES: OK. And so if we accept the notion that if they could increase their
income, that would in fact improve their lives and give them better access to
education and a healthier lifestyle. But again--and a development official
might look at this and say, `But what he doesn't understand is that he is
trapped in a situation where he can't make any more money.' And what we
discover in some of the experiences that you have had is that there are
actually quite simple things that are within the grasp of a dollar-a-day
farmer which actually accomplishes that. Give us an example of something in
Bahadur's case that allowed him to increase his income.

Mr. POLAK: Well, Krishna Bahadur Thapa was living from what he could earn
from his two-acre farm in the hills of Nepal and what he and his son could
earn during the off-season finding work in the city. They had one acre down
by the river, and that acre was devoted to rice, which was grown by simply
using the rainfall that fell in the rainy season; and the other acre they grew
some vegetables and so on, but they really--what Krishna Bahadur Thapa told me
on the very first day is, what he needed to start to earn more money from
farming was water control for his crops. So he was fortunate enough with his
family to have access to a quarter-inch pipe full of water, and it ran
actually during the dry season when vegetables sold at three times their
normal price, but that quarter-inch pipe full wasn't enough water to grow
much.

So eventually he found, when he visited his uncle in Pokhara, that his uncle
had used a low-cost drip irrigation system provided by IDE, the organization
that I started, to take advantage of a little bit of extra water from that
village's drinking water system to drip-irrigate some off-season vegetables.
So Krishna Bahadur Thapa was the first person to invest in a drip-irrigation
system. It cost $26 to irrigate 1/16 of an acre, and because drip-irrigation
is much more efficient and the drip irrigation system he invested in was much
cheaper than the traditional drip irrigation, he grew a sixteenth of an acre
of cucumbers and cauliflower, and at three times the normal price, he earned
$250 in the first off season and never looked back.

DAVIES: So if I understand he was able to grow these vegetables in the off
season, which fetched a high price, and the key to it was a very simple drip
irrigation system, unlike the kinds of irrigation systems that are used in big
farms elsewhere, which require a lot of power and are expensive. So the
breakthrough here was a low-tech solution to his farming needs, right?

Mr. POLAK: Yes, that's right. It took us actually seven years to take the
standard drip-irrigation system invented in Israel and dumb it down. By that,
I mean, what Bahadur used was a 50-liter plastic tank at about shoulder
height. So with a small plot you don't need high pressure, and that system
used very thin-walled tubing to deliver water through those tubes beside each
row of plants and then little drip points that came out at each plant. That
used the water in a very miserly way, and it actually produces double the
amount of vegetables at a much improved quality and about half the water. So
he could easily irrigate a lot more vegetables using this drip system, but the
trick in designing it was to lower the cost. And we did that with some very
simple steps.

Most tools, you can pretty much tell the cost by weighing them, and if you
take the wall thickness down because you're using low pressure, you've got a
much cheaper tube. And instead of fancy emitters, we used little microtubes
and punched holes--Krishna Bahadur Thapa punched the holes himself. And
instead of a fancy filter, we used a simple flour sifter with a piece of
cloth. Now, this isn't quite the standard of uniformity of an Israeli system,
but it works extremely well, and it allowed Bahadur to use his small supply of
water to eventually irrigate a quarter acre of vegetables.

DAVIES: And then the quarter of acre grew and his income grew, and he was
able to invest in other stuff, right?

Mr. POLAK: Yes. Seven years later, from a situation where he and his family
were barely surviving on between 50 and $150 a year, mostly from selling some
surplus rice when they had a good crop and from working, they now are living
on $4800 a year. Their net income is $4200 a year. He has dammed up another
stream just investing his own funds. He now irrigates one acre of vegetables
and earns something like $2400 from that one acre. He has four milk cows and
sells $450 worth of milk to his neighbors. He raises goats and sells the
young goats for meat. He has some fish ponds and raises fingerlings, which he
sells to local farmers. And he's invested $2200 in a new, improved house.
All of his grandchildren are going to school as long as they want to, although
both of his wives are illiterate. And one of his sons has actually gone off
to be a contract laborer in Kuwait, and he's sending some money home. So they
are not only out of poverty but they're in the middle class and upper middle
class by standards in Nepal.

Now, not all farmers can do as well as Krishna Bahadur Thapa, but once you add
$500 a year in new income, you're in the middle class, and you have choices.
You're effectively out of poverty.

DAVIES: Paul Polak is founder of International Development Enterprises.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Our guest is Paul Polak. He's been fighting rural poverty in the
developing world for 25 years, focusing on simple tools and techniques. His
new book, "Out of Poverty," illustrates his approach in part by telling the
story of a poor Nepalese farmer, Krishna Bahadur Thapa.

Well, this is a remarkable success story for this one farmer in Nepal, and the
transformational moment was developing a low-cost drip-irrigation system that
allowed him to irrigate plots that he could not grow before. But the bigger
question is, can you replicate this among thousands, hundreds of thousands,
even millions of people? I mean, are there these low-tech solutions which
will allow dollar-a-day farmers in large numbers to transform their lives?

Mr. POLAK: It's a little bit more complicated than just water. First of
all, what the development community has been encouraging small farmers like
Bahadur to do is to grow just rice, wheat and corn and other subsistence
crops. That's fine to feed their families, but it's a loser's bet in the
global marketplace, and they need to pick four or five crops that are likely
to have a steady market demand. One of the most important things to start
with is helping farmers decide which crops they can make money from. And we
can do that very simply by taking all the farmers in an area, interviewing 25
of them, and asking them what they made the most money from last year.
Usually you come up with 20 crops in an agroclimatic zone, and then we winnow
those down by talking to the traders in the markets to find out which are
likely to have big market demand and aren't likely to be easily flooded, and
that brings it down to four or five. And we recommend four or five because
you can never predict the future value of any single crop.

So actually, for instance, the other thing that happened is that in Krishna
Bahadur Thapa's village...(unintelligible)...68 out of the 75 families are now
growing off-season vegetables. IDE, with the help of a local grassroots
organization and some partners, helped the village form a collection center.
That is, they rented a little warehouse, they hired a commissioned sales agent
with a cell phone, and now all of them are pooling all of their vegetables and
getting very good prices. So you need access to markets in addition.

DAVIES: You described how a simple low-cost drip-irrigation system helped
transform this farmer's life; and there are other, again, fairly low-tech,
inexpensive tools which have helped farmers elsewhere: treadle pump, which
will allow people to get water from underground aquifers, and some other tools
and techniques. And one of the points that you make is that people who do
agricultural research need to focus on the dollar-a-day poor and not just on
agribusiness. In a way, there are technological obstacles that we're really
not working on overcoming, right?

Mr. POLAK: Absolutely. Ninety percent of the people who design things in
the world today spend all their time solving the problems of the richest 10
percent of the world's customers. And before I kick the bucket, I want to see
that silly ratio reversed. When you come to agriculture, the problem is that
all of the cutting edge agriculture tends to be from the West--Europe and
North America. And in Europe the farms are big and getting bigger. What is
not taken into account is that, of the 525 million farms in the world, fully
450 million are less than five acres. Most of the farming in the world is
conducting on small plots, and it's a very different beast if you're doing
crop rotation on a quarter-acre plot than on a 1,000-acre farm. So what is
needed is a new agriculture. It's a revolution in agriculture focusing on the
seeds and cultivation practices and irrigation needed by one-acre farmers.

DAVIES: You know, you've describe how low-tech innovations can help
dollar-a-day farmers dramatically increase their income and improve their
lives, but you talk a bit in this book about how traditional approaches to
poverty don't work. And one of the things you say is that subsidies can
undermine efforts to alleviate poverty. How? Give us an example.

Mr. POLAK: Well, when I was working in Bangladesh, then-President Ershad got
impressed with treadle pumps and made a promise as part of a political process
to bring 10,000 treadle pumps to his home neighborhood and he would give those
away to poor farmers. So what happened is that, at that time in his area, we
had manufacturers and dealers ready to sell pumps and they were selling pumps.
Everything stopped because the farmers naturally waited for a free pump. He
then contracted with a large company that had ties to the government that had
never made treadle pumps. They made a few hundred that were very poor
quality. The poor hundred were given away. Meanwhile, thousands of farmers
who could have started making money by buying a treadle pump didn't do it, and
several of the small enterprises who were making a living manufacturing and
marketing and installing treadle pumps went out of business.

That, unfortunately, is a typical story with government subsidies. Rarely do
they work. I'm not suggesting that all poverty problems can be solved through
the private sector--there still has to be a public investment in things like
schools and roads--but subsidies on the price of goods and services for poor
people just about always screw things up.

DAVIES: You say there are several myths of poverty eradication. One of them
is that we can donate our way out of poverty. What do you mean by that?

Mr. POLAK: Well, much of the current investments in development
unfortunately are based on giving things away. My experience is that this
just doesn't work. What happens when you pour a lot of Western development
assistance into a very poor village is that all of the quick-buck artists
congregate like moths before a flame. What happens is that some things
definitely improve. That is, you can certainly increase the yields of food
crops if you have an army of foreign experts. But when the money dries up, so
do all the good things that had been accomplished while an army of experts
were available.

And bottom line is, over 25 years of working with the dollar-a-day people, I
am convinced that poor people have to invest their own time and money to move
out of poverty. They lack opportunities; and you can provide opportunities,
most of them through private sector mechanisms. And if you do it through the
private sector, it may take a little bit longer, but you have a sustainable
supply chain. Right now, for instance, in countries where we're no longer
supporting the distribution of treadle pumps through the private sector,
50,000 treadle pumps a year are being purchased through the private sector
systems that have been encouraged to come into being by our work.

DAVIES: Well, Paul Polak, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. POLAK: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed spending this time
with you.

DAVIES: Paul Polak is founder of International Development Enterprises. His
new book is "Out of Poverty." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: David and Anton Treuer, Ojibwe Indians, on preserving
the Ojibwe language
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

My guest David Treuer says only three Native American languages now spoken in
the US and Canada are expected to survive into the middle of this century.
His language, Ojibwe, is one of them. It's spoken by about 10,000 people in
the Great Lakes region. David Treuer and his brother Anton, both members of
the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe Indians, are fluent Ojibwe speakers who believe
more than words are lost when a language dies. They're working on a project
to record, transcribe and translate their language in the hope it still will
be spoken centuries from now.

Anton Treuer teaches at Bemidji State University in Minnesota and is editor of
the Oshkaabewis Native Journal, a collection of stories in the Ojibwe
language. David Treuer teaches literature and creative writing at the
University of Minnesota. His third novel, "The Translation of Dr. Apelles,"
was published earlier this year.

Well, David Treuer and Anton Treuer, welcome to FRESH AIR. David, you
recently wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times about your efforts to preserve
the Ojibwe language, and you write that if this language dies, not just words
but many understandings will disappear. What do you mean? Give us an example
of that.

Mr. DAVID TREUER: Well, for example, in the article I talked about the word
(Ojibwe spoken) our word for "bear," is derived from another word (Ojibwe
spoken), which means "box." So inherent, or inside, the word for bear is the
concept that they hibernate or box themselves up for winter. And that's just
one of many examples, and this is true for any language. An example of how
concepts live inside of words, and live through them, and if the words die,
well, then the concepts will probably die, too.

DAVIES: Yeah, Anton, what's something that, when said in Ojibwe, can never
quite be recreated in English?

Mr. ANTON TREUER: One thing that's very different for Ojibwe is that the
roots of words are known to everyday speakers, and although there are roots to
words in the English language, they often come from Latin or the Germanic
roots of language and are not known to everyday speakers. So one thing that
happens with Ojibwe is that people are communicating on two levels. There are
the words and the things or actions they're associated with and then the
deeper meanings as well.

A couple of examples come to mind would be, in Ojibwe the word we have for "an
elder," (Ojibwe spoken), literally means "a great being," and the word we have
for "elderly woman," (Ojibwe spoken) literally means "one who holds things
together" and describes the role of the family matriarch. In English you have
words like "elderly woman," "aged woman," "old woman," and no wonder everybody
wants to dye their hair, get a face-lift, a Botox injection and won't admit
how old they really are in the English-speaking world, but in Ojibwe you have
a different concept of age and gender that comes across in the language very
clearly.

DAVIES: So in a way, the kind of development and evolution of the language is
contained within the word because you have the root and then the way it's
expanded to...

Mr. A. TREUER: Right.

DAVIES: ...to embrace a different meaning?

Mr. A. TREUER: Right. And it also means that it's easy for fluent Ojibwe
speakers to make new words for new things. So when a television set came
along, they didn't have to borrow a lone word from English. They could create
another one that is intrinsically Ojibwe, they call (Ojibwe spoken), or "a box
that reflects an image through light," could just describe what they saw.

DAVIES: You know, David, you write in this piece in the LA Times that there's
this woman Anna Gibbs, whose Ojibwe name means "the way the moonlight will
wrinkle on the water on an almost-still night." And I guess what's interesting
to me about that is that in English we certainly have the word for moonlight,
but is Ojibwe a language in which there are far more and varied descriptions
of natural beauty and phenomena? I mean, many, many ways to talk about
moonlight?

Mr. D. TREUER: I suppose there is. I mean, a language is, you know, grows
along certain lines. Every language does. And Ojibwe language needed to be
very precise when describing--especially weather phenomenon, in particular
weather and water. In the Great Lakes region those are the two most important
forces that are going to shape your life. So, yeah, we have many, many, many
words that deal with those concepts with a kind of precision that is
astounding to me.

DAVIES: Yeah. Anton, do you want to add something? Is there another word
for water that has a functional meaning in the life of Ojibwe?

Mr. A. TREUER: Well, there are so many words for water and different ways
to speak about precipitation, the way that a wave looks, sounds. There's a
lot of nuanced meaning and understanding that is embedded in the language, and
I think it's--David's very accurate when he's saying this was shaped in large
part by the fact that people got their food from the land and often from the
water, and so Ojibwe people living in that area, of course, had to be able to
describe and understand everything that was going on around them.

DAVIES: So fishing or trapping or hunting or gathering wild rice might be
very different in different climactic or conditions so they needed to be
communicated in a much more precise way?

Mr. D. TREUER: Sure. There were high mortality rates. People went fishing
on thin ice. In the fall and in the spring, they went fishing when the water
was extremely cold. When there were certain types of waves, they were more
dangerous or less dangerous. In Ojibwe a root, (Ojibwe spoken), would pertain
to water or precipitation, and so just to give you an example just with the
precipitation terms, you get (Ojibwe spoken), meaning there's a fine
sprinkling like a mist. You get words where you have (Ojibwe spoken), where
the water's starting to fall in larger droplets. (Ojibwe spoken), where you
get a heavy rain. And all of these are different verbs in Ojibwe, rather than
using one word for water or rain and other adjectives to describe, they're all
separate words.

DAVIES: Why is this language threatened?

Mr. D. TREUER: It's the same process that threatens many, many languages.
First and foremost, there was a government policy of language eradication
beginning in the late 19th century and stretching through the first half of
the 20th, wherein native people were not only not encouraged to speak their
native languages, they were penalized for doing so. Penalized in their
communities, penalized at boarding schools. Many, many Ojibwe children, and
many Indian children across the country and Canada were forced into
residential schools where their languages were forbidden.

Another reason is that so the march of English across the linguistic landscape
where it's--every bit of noise you hear, every bit of linguistic noise, is in
English, at least in America, from TV to instant messaging to conversation on
the street. And you don't walk down the street and hear someone speaking
Ojibwe, not in New York City, not in Minneapolis so often. Not in Omaha,
Nebraska. And so...

DAVIES: What about on the reservation--yeah--do the kids there speak it or
are they being assimilated into mainstream American culture?

Mr. D. TREUER: Oh, not so much our reservation, exactly. Our reservation,
most of the kids speak English, except for these children who are going into
these immersion language programs, and they're becoming Ojibwe speakers, which
is very heartening.

DAVIES: You know, Anton, I was going to ask you, if you would, to pick one of
the stories that's recorded and translated in the Oshkaabewis Journal...

Mr. A. TREUER: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...this translation of stories told in Ojibwe. Pick one that you
like and then maybe tell us what moves you about it.

Mr. A. TREUER: OK. Let's see here. Well, here's a story by Joe Auginaush
which appears in "Living Our Language," and it's titled (Ojibwe spoken).
Means "we're not losing our language." And he spoke this, and I transcribed it
and translated, and it reads as follows.

(Reading) (Ojibwe spoken).

And in this section Joe Auginaush is saying that `people are saying that we
are losing our language, but I don't think we're losing our language. I
think, on the other hand, our language is losing us. That our language is
still here, it is still fluently spoken. It is still known by many people,
but it is us who are lost. It is us who are not valuing and using and working
to preserve our language. And in doing so, we are the ones who are lost.'

DAVIES: David Treuer, you recently wrote in this piece in the LA Times, you
described an experience that you had when you were fishing for walleye in a
traditional Ojibwe way and had a moment which sort of brought home to you the
importance of preserving this language and culture. Could you describe that
moment?

Mr. D. TREUER: Yeah. The moment occurred when I was spearing walleye with
two guys from Lac Court Oreille Reservation in Wisconsin. And it's dark, it's
foggy, and you do it in the middle of the night with headlights so the eyes of
the walleye glow in the dark. And you coast along in shallow waters spearing
fish, and it's a pleasant thing to do. It's cold, but it's fun. You're with
your friends and you're providing food for people, and the food's given out to
whoever needs it. And we're busy fishing, talking quietly, and I can hear
televisions on coming from houses on the shore, houses owned by non-native
people, and I can hear Leno and I can hear Letterman, and I felt very strongly
that we were doing something, that my friends and I, we were actually doing
something, doing something for others, doing something for ourselves in
comparison to a sort of passive acceptance, you know, coming through
television.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David and Anton Treuer. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Anton and David
Treuer. Both are college professors, and both members of the Leech Lake band
of the Ojibwe Indians are working to record transcribe, translate and preserve
their native American Ojibwe language. David Treuer is a writer. His third
novel, published recently, is "The Translation of Dr. Apelles." Anton Treuer
teaches at the Bemidji State University in Minnesota, where he's also director
of the Ojibwe language program. He's also is editor of the Oshkaabewis Native
Journal, a collection of stories in the Ojibwe language.

You two have an interesting background. You were not born on the reservation.
Tell us about your parents.

Mr. A. TREUER: Well, our parents are--you know, I guess I'm one of the few
people that actually both loves and respects his parents, and I feel grateful
for them. Our father is Austrian by birth, and he escaped with his parents to
the United States in 1938--Austrian and Jewish--and he and his parents escaped
the Holocaust. Most of the family died in concentration camps. And through a
series of life accidents entirely too complicated to recount here, he wound up
on the reservation where he met our mother, who's Ojibwe, from the
reservation. She's--grew up in a very poor family in a sort of
stereotypically tiny long cabin with no running water, no indoor plumbing,
just electricity, grew up very poor. And anyway, so they married and had our
younger brother and sister, and we were all raised together on the
reservation.

DAVIES: And Anton, so you were raised in Washington by a Jewish father and
the Ojibwe mother. And what prompted you to move to the reservation?

Mr. A. TREUER: Well, actually, we were born in Washington, DC, but raised
primarily in northern Minnesota.

DAVIES: OK.

Mr. A. TREUER: Both on and near Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation. So had an
interesting experience of being connected to place, at home, but also feeling
a certain level of disconnect. And for me, really, I feel like I knew who I
was when I rediscovered the Ojibwe language, and I did have the honor and
pleasure of hearing a lot of Ojibwe when I grew up. My mother carted us off
to ceremonies and made sure we had exposure to those things. But I don't
think that I truly valued anything that I was exposed to of my Ojibwe language
and heritage until I was much older.

DAVIES: You spoke English at home?

Mr. A. TREUER: Well, we spoke English primarily at home, although my mother
did use the Ojibwe language to the degree of her ability, and then also made
sure we had exposure at ceremonies and so forth.

But it was really when I left the reservation, when I went to college where I
felt like I was a minority for the first time, or in that way, that I started
to think about and value the things I'd been exposed to as a child and really
appreciate them. And then, as I delved deeper, really rediscover the
importance and the beauty of the Ojibwe language.

DAVIES: I'm wondering whether you have a sense of being Jewish from your
father's heritage. Was Hebrew or Yiddish ever spoken around the house?

Mr. D. TREUER: No, in fact, our father's family were pretty well, I guess
the word is assimilated Jews in Vienna. They saw themselves as socialists
first...

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. D. TREUER: ...before anything else, and they're very political people,
not observant at all. So I never considered myself Jewish. I didn't really
know any other Jewish people growing up, and I finally, you know, met some
other Jewish people in college. That was the real discovery. In college I
had a friend who didn't know what to call me or to call Anton. He said,
`Well, you're half Jewish, you're half native. I don't know what to call you.
Oh wait. I know. I'll call you Running Bernstein.' And he did. For three
years of college called me Running Bernstein.

DAVIES: And were you offended?

Mr. D. TREUER: No, no. He was a funny guy. He was half-Greek and half
African-American and he called himself Afro-Grecian. So no, I was not
offended.

DAVIES: You mentioned that your father, you know, was an Austrian Jew who was
fairly assimilated, and that is, he came, you know, to United States. It
sounds as if his sort of attachment to his traditional culture largely
disappeared, and I wondered if in some way that affected your own sense of
commitment to, you know, preserve your attachment to Ojibwe language and
culture.

Mr. D. TREUER: It did. Our father is an amazing guy. He's really an
astounding man, and he worked for decades and decades on the reservation with
native people, with Ojibwe people, our reservation and many others in
Minnesota, and unlike a lot of people of his generation, or of his cultural
background, he had the most--and still does--had the most profound
appreciation for native ways, and he supported our mother, he supported Anton
and he supported me, our other siblings, many other native people in their
efforts to preserve language and their efforts to preserve culture and
ceremony, and so in that way he had an amazing influence on us. He valued our
lives.

DAVIES: You know, we're just about out of time, but I thought I would ask
you, you know, as you've both spent some time now really entering the world of
linguistics and this effort to, you know, preserve the Ojibwe language, you've
also become aware of the challenges of preserving it and the obstacles that
traditional languages face in surviving in a modern world. Are you more or
less optimistic that 100 years from now people will still be speaking Ojibwe?
Anton?

Mr. A. TREUER: I am more optimistic. You know, I've often heard people
worry and speak about how, you now, we're losing our language or we're losing
our culture. But to me what amazes me more than anything else is how much we
still have, that, in fact, we still have a beautiful language that is still
spoken over a wide swathe of territory from Quebec to Saskatchewan, and in the
United States from Michigan out to Montana. And in addition to having our
language, we still have all of our major religious ceremonies and customs.
And it might seem that we hang onto these things by thin threads at times, but
we are hanging onto them.

And then when I turn and I look at David's daughter Elsina, for example, and I
held up a stuffed rabbit for her, she looked and she said, `(Ojibwe spoken)!'
And she made a shooting sound and pointed her finger at it and identified it
and spoke, you know, the Ojibwe word for it, and I thought, you know what?
She's not only learning her language. But she's also learning about Ojibwe
life ways that hunting and gathering and making our own food is acceptable and
preferable, and at age two she was already showing the signs and the hope that
not only our language but our life ways will be continuing.

DAVIES: David?

Mr. D. TREUER: I feel the same way, and if you look 30, 35, 40 years ago,
young native people from all over the country were becoming very political,
and a lot of them joined the American Indian movement. They thought that
affecting institutional change was the way to help Indian people, and they may
have been right. But you look around today, the same young people who would
have joined political movements are turning their attention not outward, but
inward. They're turning back toward self-improvement, toward language
revitalization, toward ceremonial revitalization. Not just Ojibwe people, but
young native people from many, many different tribes. They're not trying to
change the government's mind--that's still important, but they're trying to
change their own minds. So I'm very hopeful, and I believe in the power of
our language and I believe in the power of our people to keep it alive.

DAVIES: Well, David Treuer, Anton Treuer, thanks so much for speaking with
us.

Mr. A. TREUER: Thank you.

Mr. D. TREUER: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: David Treuer teaches literature and creative writing at the
University of Minnesota. His third novel, "The Translation of Dr. Apelles,"
has just been published. Anton Treuer teaches at Bemidji State University in
Minnesota.

Coming up, Ken Tucker on the new album by the group Was (Not Was). This is
FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ken Tucker on the new Was (Not Was) album, "Boo!"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

The band Was (Not Was) began 30 years ago in Detroit. They had a couple of
dance hits in the '80s but have been dormant since 1983. Now the group has a
new album called "Boo!" Rock critic Ken Tucker says the group's mixture of R&B
dance music and convoluted wordplay is as intriguing as ever.

(Soundbite of "Semi-Interesting Week")

Was (Not Was): (Singing)
On Monday I was trying to get my freak on
With a couple twins from Washington, DC
One of them wore the American flag
The other sang "the land of the free"

We were not that patriotic
But the sisters really didn't seem to mind
(Unintelligible)...the following morning
They did the red, white and blue bump and grind

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KEN TUCKER: That cut, called "Semi-Interesting Week," is typical Was
(Not Was) music: a funky melody with lyrics that don't quite match the mood
of the music. On that song, the narrator muses about patriotism and boredom.
Elsewhere, a song called "It's a Miracle" sounds like a lush Philly soul
ballad. It includes a verse about a woman who falls in love with a convicted
man in prison.

Even the album's first single, the irresistible song called "Crazy Water,"
makes a mystery out of exactly what the band means by the words "Crazy Water."

(Soundbite of "Crazy Water")

And I...(unintelligible)...town
At the corner of Main and Third
There's nothing moving,
Not a butterfly nor bird
Used to be some action here
Big motel and movie stars
But it's been like judgment day
Trains and planes and fancy cars

Well
Senators...(unintelligible)...the president's daughter
All came to town for that crazy water
Senators...(unintelligible)...the president's daughter
All came to town for that crazy water

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: The master minds behind Was (Not Was) are the so-called brothers
Don and David Was. But Don Was is really Don Fagenson, who produced Bonnie
Raitt's best-selling album "Nick of Time," as well as albums for Bob Dylan,
The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and many others. David Was is really David
Weiss, a former jazz critic. Working with R&B vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson and
Sir Harry Bowens, they perfected a mixture of dance rhythms, soul music and
dada poetry. At least once on every album, David Was takes the microphone
himself to deliver an especially opaque, funny, vaguely menacing screed. On
this album he does it on a track called "Needle Tooth."

(Soundbite of "Needle Tooth")

Mr. DAVID WAS: SOS. SOS to Needle Tooth. Your presence is requested

Back when I ate cactus pie they called me Needle Tooth. `Hi, Needles,' the
cops would say. `Your top's...(unintelligible).' `Thanks, boys.'

(Unintelligible).

Ciao, baby. Ever heard of Christopher Columbus? Ever heard of Firetown?
Ever been to a seance? Does the year 4011 ring a bell?

Needle Tooth special tonight at 7, one it's actually camera.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: It's pretty obvious that, as funky as these guys get, you're
never going to mistake a Was (Not Was) recording for a Kanye West or a Justin
Timberlake album.

The other standard characteristic of Was (Not Was) collections is a guest star
turn by a highly unlikely collaborator. In the past, Was (Not Was) songs have
been warbled by everyone from Mel Torme to Ozzy Osbourne. On the new album
they somehow corralled Kris Kristofferson to declaim the composition called
"Green Pills in the Dresser."

(Soundbite of "Green Pills in the Dresser")

Mr. KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: Green pills in the dresser
Gray clouds in the sky
Prisoners on the rampage
It's Christmas in July
Flypaper headlines
The prince is in a fix
The midgets are unruly
And the river's turned to bricks

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: As assiduously oddball as Was (Not Was) strives to be, they also
seem incapable of not filling the majority of their albums with music that
would sound great on TV or the radio.

Was (Not Was) is in the midst of its first tour since reforming, and advance
reports are that they throw a wild party. If you go, keep an ear out for
their mash-up of Donovan and Curtis Mayfield. Its title, of course, is
"Sunshine Superfly."

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Boo!" by Was (Not Was).

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue