There have been times in my life when I found myself with a burning question, but instead of shooting my hand up I would sit there in my desk or whatever and send out every little psychic vibe I could muster. I wanted someone else to ask the question. I wanted them to ask it so I didn’t have to.
You probably don’t know the feeling, because I believe you are wise and self-assured. But for the rest of us, the fear of looking stupid or ignorant or insensitive is, like, the engine that drives so much of life.
Sometimes, we meet someone who encourages us to ask questions—nothing being off limits, no matter what—and we know in our little hearts that we won’t be judged, that we are safe, that we are in the hands of a true teacher. This perfectly describes my experience with Anton Treuer’s Everything You Wanted To Know About Indians But Were Afraid To Ask. Perfectly.
Treuer is a faculty member at Bemidji State University, where I studied writing and theatre and how to survive Minnesota winters which frequently dipped below minus forty degrees Fahrenheit (see also: that is real, I am not inventing this number in order to impress or horrify you). The University and the city that surrounds it are themselves surrounded by the three largest Indian reservations in the state: Red Lake, White Earth, and Leech Lake Reservations. Northern Minnesota is Indian Country, as Treuer calls it.
I am not Native American. But I have lived in Minnesota for the whole of my life, and I went to school with kids who studied the Ojibwe language. Place names like Bemidji, Manohmen, Nokomis, and Nemadji never sounded unusual to my ear. I had friends who lived on the Fond du Lac Reservation near my hometown. I knew that there was such a thing as the Indian experience, and that it was different in ways than my experience. But what did I know about the experience of being a Native person?
Almost nothing, is the short answer. I never shot my hand up to ask anything, never tagged along to events, never really listened to or participated in the rich cultures that defined so much of my home state. So I knew almost nothing.
But I wanted to know. But I also didn’t want to ask stupid questions, or accidentally embarrass myself or the person who was kind enough to field those stupid questions. I know that asking questions is always better than not asking—but the idea is easier on paper at times than in real life, isn’t it? Yet paper is a great start, and lucky for us there are miles of books ready and waiting to help.
Treuer styles his book like a Q and A that might follow one of his lectures, and many questions are lifted directly from these talkbacks. His tone is conversational, sometimes funny, sometimes pointed, and always, always, always patient and free of judgment. One could either plow through the book from top to bottom or read it as a choose your own adventure, jumping around from topic to topic since the answers are all pretty concise. And who doesn’t love a book you can easily read in small sips?
Some of the topics, including the controversies around mascots like the Redskins, Indians, Braves, and Blackhawks, are familiar to anyone has been on social media over the last handful of years. But Treuer adds depth to the discussion. For example, the University of North Dakota “Fighting Sioux” has stirred up long, heated discussions about cultural insensitivity. Treuer explains why the name itself is even problematic. “The word Sioux,” he writes, “derived from the Ojibwe term Naadowesiwag (a species of snake), was a code word for ‘enemy’ and often frowned upon by Dakota tribal members.”
While it can’t and shouldn’t replace an actual conversation, this book helped me feel more prepared to explore and experience a world that’s always been touchably close to my own. There are more out there—miles of them, probably—and I can’t wait to find them.