“Whites never get asked to speak for all white people. Everyone knows there is a diversity of opinion on any subject, and nobody could speak for all members of their race, but Indians are often asked to speak for or represent their entire race.” So writes Anton Treuer in his new book from Borealis Press, Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask.
Treuer didn’t seek the role of “ambassador” between races. But he has found himself thrust into the position, be it in his home area surrounded by three of Minnesota’s largest reservations, inside the hallowed halls of Princeton, his alma mater, or elsewhere in his travels.
Treuer’s book arose from questions asked at his public talks. It makes an effective primer for non-Natives who are curious about American Indians, past and present, and could be a resource for all the unintended ambassadors of Indian country. And it covers a broad range of history, politics, economics, education, religion, culture and terminology.
Treuer, who has written several books about history and language, deftly weaves in examples and his own views, usually of Ojibwe heritage and history. He excels when relating personal details, such as the difficulties brought on by enrollment blood-quantum requirements and errors in past enrollment records. (His mother is enrolled, though he and some of his children are not, at White Earth; other relatives are enrolled at Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and Red Lake.) He also recalls incidents of racist bullying at public school.
Some of his observations are blunt: If you refer to your “Cherokee princess great-grandmother” rather than say that you are Cherokee, he urges, you might want to rethink your phrasing. But other issues, like poverty, drinking or politics on and off the reservation, are more complex. The book ends on an upbeat note, with a chapter that discusses improvements in interracial relations in Treuer’s home region, even the integration of Ojibwe language on signage and into the vocabularies of some non-Native residents.
Creating safe ground with thoughtful answers to even the dumbest of questions builds bridges—whether in a book like this or in Sonny Skyhawk’s “Ask N NDN” column on this magazine’s own website. To those who are building such bridges, miigwech.