David Treuer Challenges Students to Reconsider the Narrative of Native America

Colgate students and faculty alike crowded into Little Hall’s Golden auditorium to hear a lecture from New York Times bestselling author David Treuer on Tuesday, April 12. The lecture, titled “Imagining Native America in the 21st Century,” was co-sponsored by the History Department and the Native American Studies Program.

Addressing an audience of over fifty people, Treuer detailed his experiences as an Ojibwe man, delving into the many aspects of his culture as well as the many ways that Native American peoples have been erased, misrepresented, and mythologized in America over the past two centuries. Having grown up on Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota, Treuer described being intimately familiar with the insufficient and often inaccurate way that indigenous peoples and their cultures are represented by the media and in history books. 

“On the one hand, America is obsessed with us and thinks about us constantly, and on the other hand, many Americans do not think we really truly exist at all,” said Treuer. 

To show the true extent of this myth, Treuer shared an anecdote from his and his brother’s years at Princeton about fellow students asking his brother “What are you?” When his brother would respond, “I’m Native” the reaction was often one of confusion and disbelief. In one instance, a student even responded, “No, you’re not. You can’t be, because we killed all of you.”

Much of Treuer’s talk revolved around this insidious myth that Native American peoples died off around the 1890s with the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.

Real Indians in the American imagination died off around 1890. And if people can admit that we somehow do continue to exist in some fashion, it is only as perpetual sufferers, tucked away in Residential communities. We are not alive, not living. At best we are simply existing in a state of perpetual suffering.”

Despite the prevalence of these tragic narratives and the hold that they seem to have on the American psyche, Treuer continues to fight back against them and counter them with stories of the vibrance, power, and achievements of Native peoples today. 

In addition to evincing the undeniable existence of Native American peoples today, Treuer also dispelled numerous myths such as that alcoholism is a fact of life on reservations when, in fact, rates of alcoholism among Native American people are far below the national average with more Native peoples not drinking altogether than any other demographic. 

“The story of the Native American in this country is overly reliant on the tragic mode. It is almost always a descending line where Native people appear as peoples with a great future behind us. Once we lived in a garden, and now we live in a ruin: that’s the story.”

However, Treuer rejects this myth of Native Americans as tragic figures of a culture now gone.

“My culture doesn’t feel destroyed to me. My civilization doesn’t feel destroyed. Everyone thinks we disappeared in 1890, but to me, that feels demonstrably false. We’ve been up to more mischief since then.”

In one particularly poignant moment, Treuer opened up to the audience about the challenge he faced resisting the pervasive narrative of tragedy while writing his late grandfather’s eulogy. 

“It would have been so easy to describe his life as a tragedy and his death as a tragedy, but that wasn’t what it was,” explained Treuer. “He lived 80 of his 83 years in the town he loved more than anywhere else in the world seeing the people that he loved nearly every day… That’s not tragedy, that’s not bad fortune, that’s not a deficit; that’s a triumph, good luck, and a surplus.”

Continuing on this notion of “surplus,” Treuer proposed that we shift the way that we think about reservations as places of deficit to places of abundance.

“On reservations, we have a surplus of poverty but also a surplus of hustle. We have a surplus of crime but also a surplus of law and law enforcement. We have a surplus of pain but also of humor, creativity, and opportunities to matter. Our lives are full lives, lives of surplus.”

In closing, Treuer reflected on the impact that his own career has had on perceptions of Native Americans and shared his hopes for the future.”

“As a teacher but also as a writer, I believe very strongly that words shape the world. The stories that we are used to hearing shape the way that we perceive the world. The way that the story of myself, my community, and this country is told shapes not just the present but very directly our possible future,” said Treuer.

Sophomore and anthropology major Catie Mooney attended Treuer’s lecture for her ANTH 211 Investigating Contemporary Cultures and was excited to learn how Treuer’s work connected to her own studies.

“I appreciated the insight that David Treuer gave on the importance of diversity within the field of anthropology. Also, it was truly powerful to hear Treuer’s personal experiences with popular media and even scholars misrepresenting Indigenous peoples in their publications,” said Mooney. 

“Treuer’s lecture showed me the immense influence that published narratives have on public perceptions and the equally immense harm that these narratives can cause when they are inaccurate, insensitive, or incomplete.”

Even after a decades-long career of combating misconceptions about Native Americans, Treuer remains optimistic for the future and hopes for the next generation of writers, scholars and anthropologists like Mooney to pick up his mantle.

“The goal is for someone to stand up here behind this podium in twenty years and tell the audience that my book is crap and that this talk that I am giving right now is insufficient,” said Treuer. “The goal is for future generations to look at my work, say that the stories I am telling are limited, and then tell better ones.”

Professor of Anthropology and Africana & Latin American Studies and Director of Native American Studies Michelle Bigenho hoped her students gained a greater understanding of the insufficient and often inaccurate way that Native Americans are portrayed in the media today from Truer’s visit.

“I hope students take away from Treuer’s lecture the compelling point he made about the need to develop multiple narratives of Native peoples–narratives that go beyond those of tragedy and deficit, to render ones of joy and surplus,” said Bigenho.