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Today's Segments:

Scholar Anton Treuer has written extensively about Ojibwe life. He's now out with his first novel, Where Wolves Don't Die. The book explores masculinity, living with nature, family secrets, and race relations.

For this week's Prairie Plates, Rick Gion and Ashley talk about healthy summer foods.

Transcript of Where Wolves Don't Die:

We just had Father’s Day – a time to celebrate what it means to be a dad and what it means to be a man. There’s a new book that explores how to grow from a boy into a man – specifically, an Ojibwe man.

Dr. Anton Treuer has written extensively about Ojibwe life. He’s a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University. He typically writes non-fiction books about his culture like The Cultural Toolbox: Traditional Ojibwe Living in the Modern World and Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask.

He spoke with Ashley Thornberg about his first novel, Where Wolves Don't Die. The book explores masculinity, living with nature, family secrets, and race relations.

Ashley Thornberg

Miigwech, thanks for being on Main Street with us.

Dr. Anton Treuer

Thanks so much for having me.

Ashley Thornberg

Why did you want to write a novel after the many other books and scholarly papers you've published?

Dr. Anton Treuer

You know, this has been such a fun and fascinating effort for me. I've been telling stories my whole life, from my childhood, being brought to and participating in Ojibwe storytelling events, the banter around the kitchen table coming from a very large family. And then, you know, in my professional and ceremonial work, I am always telling stories.

In fact, even when writing nonfiction work, you're still telling stories. But fiction was a whole new effort for me. And in some ways, I found it very liberating.

And in other ways, I found new challenges. And I really, really enjoyed the process for putting Where Wolves Don't Die together. And I'm super excited about the book now that it's coming out into the world.

Ashley Thornberg

How do you describe the book?

Dr. Anton Treuer

You know, this is a young adult novel. And it is both a taut thriller and also a tender coming of age story about a 15-year-old Native kid who gets into trouble in Minneapolis and gets sent to the family's equivalent of juvie to go run a trapline with his grandfather in the Canadian wilderness. And, you know, he is stumbling into a path of self-discovery and learning more and more deeply about his own culture, connections to his family.

It's a very heartful tale. But at the same time, it is a thriller. There's a whodunit and lots of tension in the story.

And so, you know, I have lots of children myself. My youngest ones are 12, 14 and 17. And I read it out loud to them in sections when I was writing it.

And I was just so pumped about their response to the work because they, you know, they kept saying, well, read the next one. Well, what happened next? Do you think it could be this?

Ashley Thornberg

Do you think it could be that?

Dr. Anton Treuer

You know, so that was like, you know, that is the most discerning audience there is.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, kids don't mince words when they don't like something.

Dr. Anton Treuer

Right. They would just be like, whatever, scrolling in their phone or something. But, you know, that is not what happened.

So I was like, this is really good. And then, you know, the other things, you know, I'm trying to do a lot of things with this book. Like, for one, most of the literature about Native people until quite recently had been written by non-Native people.

Certainly the genre has turned and there are lots of emerging Indigenous authors now. But a lot of the literature, even the more recent stuff, speak to the Native experience with poverty, trauma, tragedy, and have characters who lament a culture that they never got to receive because residential boarding schools and things like that. And while this work is unflinching in its look at those tough things, it's really an entirely different story.

And instead of imagining Indigenous culture or lamenting its absence, I wanted to give people a chance to see Native culture. It's a window in. And, you know, the protagonist, this boy named Ezra, goes through these experiences like his first successful animal harvest and things like that.

And it just provides an opportunity to connect people to the culture that I know and live and have been teaching to my children in a way that's real and authentic and relatable, but also in a story that's engaging and full of tension and excitement, you know. So I'm really excited about, you know, that effort. And there's another dimension to this too that I'm trying to do, which is that, you know, I think in recent years, we have had, you know, efforts to broaden the array of voices in literature.

So we have more female authors. We have, you know, the beginning of more voices across gender identities who are producing really great work in the field, all of which is really welcome. And in addition to that, there's been an effort to kind of tackle the patriarchy by examining toxic masculinity and things like that.

But something that hasn't been done as much and hasn't been done as much very well is an exploration of what would it look like for a boy to become a man in a healthy way in its own cultural context. So not, you know, a dismantling of toxic masculinity, but a rebuilding of positive, healthy coming of age. And this story definitely does that.

And I'm really excited about what it can do for shaping or reshaping perspectives of Native culture, adulthood, and lots of things.

Ashley Thornberg

We're visiting today with Dr. Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe by day and now novelist, in addition to many other books that he has written that are a little bit more scholarly in approach. And you can find out more at antonTreuer.com, and Treuer spelled T-R-E-U-E-R. And what you just said about toxic masculinity, there's a really beautiful passage in the book after Ezra has his first big hunt and a time when he is navigating being a boy and into a man.

I'd love it if you could share where Ezra's dad and grandpa are teaching him what it means to be a hunter and provide for your community. And it starts with his dad dipping the spoon into the moose meat and offering Ezra meat from his first kill.

Dr. Anton Treuer


“Gaawiin. Indinenimaag abinoojiinyag ayaanzigwaa gegoo ji-miijiwaad. No,” I said, following his instructions, “I’m thinking of children who don’t have enough to eat.” There were a few murmurs and nods among the men sitting next to Grandpa Liam. 

“Gwis.” “Gaawiin. Indinenimaag gichi-aya’aag gashkitoosigwaa ji-bami’idizowaad. No. I’m thinking of my elders who can’t get out in the woods to hunt for themselves.” There was more nodding, and I could feel all eyes on me as my dad pulled the spoon back and offered it to me a third time.

“Gwis.” “Gaawiin. Indinenimaag indinaawemaaganag, niijanishinaabeg, miinawaa gaa-pi-izhaajig jiwiidookawiwaad. No. I’m thinking of my family, my community, and people who came here today to support me.” He pulled the spoon back and then offered it to me a fourth time.

 “Gwis.” He nodded, and I opened my mouth and took the meat, chewing slowly and aware of every set of eyes in the building still fixed on me. 

My dad returned to his seat and Grandpa Liam started to speak again. “Ezra, you just changed your life. Up until today, you were what we called a dependent. You depended on all of the people in this room to provide all of your food.” My gaze shifted around the room from Daniel Drumbeater to the George family to my grandparents and my dad. Grandpa Liam continued, “But today, you are providing for all of us. This is what it means to be an adult. 

From today on, you will have a special power.


It's the power to gather resources. You'll have it when you hunt and trap, when you fish, when you pick berries, and when you get a job. Use your power to think of children in need, elders who can't get it for themselves, your family, and community.

Ashley Thornberg

Anton, what does it mean to you to be a man?

Dr. Anton Treuer

You know, this is something I think about a lot. Both in recent years, I've lost both of my parents and have raised nine children, and I'm now in the grandbaby business. We have four grandchildren.

Yes, thank you. And, you know, I think about, you know, what my parents gave to me, what I hope to give to my children and grandchildren. And to me, this passage speaks to that.

I, you know, I went through a first kill feast the first time I had a successful harvest. We've done these ceremonies with all of the boys and girls in our family as they become successful harvesters. And it's really an impactful ceremony.

One of my sons, Isaac, he had really been moved by this ceremony. And it seemed like every time he'd even get a rabbit, he'd be calling my mom and she'd say, come on over here, I'm cooking for you. And I remember one time I had a friend complaining, you know, oh, my back, I can't get out in the woods.

And he didn't say anything, but he went out in the woods. He's about 16 then, harvested a deer, cleaned it up, packaged it up. And he went over to my friend's house and filled up his freezer.

And then he left. And my friend calls and he, yeah. And so my friend calls and he's like, what an incredible young man.

I didn't even know anybody remembered these teachings. Can I give him some gifts? Well, I said, of course.

And then the same kid, a couple of years later, he had, he and his buddy were going to double date to the high school prom. So I got him set up with a tux. And his friend's mom said, oh, my next check, I'll get you the tux, I promise.

And then her car went down and she had to say, I'm so sorry, but I can't. So he was all heartbroken, ready to cancel his prom date. My son said, oh, forget that.

Come on, let's go. They went to the tux place. My son canceled his tux.

He took the money. They went to the Goodwill. They bought a couple of suits and everybody went to the prom.

And I remember showing up at the prom to take pictures. And I'm like, where'd that tux go that I rented you? You know, and then he said, but, you know, you should have told me.

I said, I would have rented the kid a tux. And he looked at me just quizzically and said, but dad, it's my job to look out for people who don't have enough. And so it just kind of reminded me that.

Ashley Thornberg

Your son is real?

Dr. Anton Treuer

That's a real human. Yeah. And like, what's in that cultural practice, sure, it reflects our values as a people, but it shapes our values too.

And I guess that's one of the things I was trying to do with Where Wolves Don't Die is give people a window into some of the Ojibwe culture that shapes those things and how that manifests in someone's growing and maturing and becoming an adult.

Ashley Thornberg

It seems like you are especially, not just obviously by the title here, but drawn to wolves themselves. And there's a passage in the book about how they hunt together. They raise their pups together.

They're stronger in a pack and the alpha male doesn't typically fight with the other males to establish dominance. He does this by having more and then providing more. Talk a little bit about how your background informs this idea of being a part of nature rather than better than nature.

Dr. Anton Treuer

Right. And, you know, this is like within literature, it's a delicate thing. I think Native people get fetishized and exoticized, you know, with, you know, with regard to things in the wild.

But at the same time, we have a clan system and the clans are animals, birds or fish. And they double as a symbol for your family and a spiritual guide. And so, you know, Ezra is of the wolf clan.

And so this is, you know, part of his awakening happens, you know, introspectively as he understands himself. And part of it is happening as he is outward facing and connecting with his family members, but also with the natural world. And I think, you know, I spend a lot of my time outdoors and it has been through these practices, things like fasting, hunting and so forth that I've deepened my understanding and connection to those things.

And so I wanted to provide a way for people to, you know, relate to that experience. And even, you know, although it's a subtext, you know, within the broader piece, what does it mean to be indigenous? And, you know, a dictionary definition will tell you something like to be of the land, you know.

And someone who is of the land can still be of the land, even if they're off visiting Prague or something like that. But, you know, those connections do need to be fed and nurtured. And so Ezra starts his journey in Minneapolis and he's in a city and he's hating the dirty snow and wishing for a chance to be with his family and in his place.

But as he gets there, it's not exactly what he expected. And it's transformative.

Ashley Thornberg

As he is learning how to hunt and be in what you called the family's version of Juvie, going and work in a trap line. He does encounter some very dangerous animals. And I think tied into this sort of fetishizing indigenous people or I think what Louise Erdrich has called like indigenophilia is this idea that we're trying to make you all like, oh, you're at one with nature and all of these things and you're all magical.

But you talk in the book a lot about, yes, nature is sacred. It's also trying to kill you. Are those two at odds?

Dr. Anton Treuer

Well, it's an irony, just as it is with every human being. You know, sometimes it's uncomfortable when everyone's looking at us and sometimes we want to be seen. And, you know, I think, you know, within the native experience, there's a great TED talk called The Danger of a Single Story, which says that among the other things that it shares is that the problem with stereotypes is not so much that they're incorrect, as much as they're incomplete.

And they leave you with one story to understand a whole complex person or a whole complex group of people. So for indigenous people, yes, there is a connection to place, to the water, you know, for northern Minnesota and Canada, you know, where this book is set, you know, to the water, the woods, you know, animals and so forth. But at the same time, that's not the only thing that's happening there.

You know, Grandpa Liam is teaching Ezra how to trap, how to harvest those things, not just only live in perfect harmony. Although I think you would say trapping and living in harmony are not mutually exclusive. You know, but at the same time, you know, it is a harsh world that they live in.

And, you know, sometimes they're dramatic experiences, you know, when a fisher attacks Ezra, you know, and there's a fight to the death, you know, that ensues. And so it's not only hugs and harmony, there's also contest and, you know, an evaluation of what is our place in the natural world. And I do think there is an indigenous frame and context for that, that is a little different than you would hear, you know, in many other cultures.

You know, even in Ojibwe artwork, we have a lot of floral designs because in our creation story, you know, all of the growing things were placed here first, and then the four-legged animals and the flying creatures and the swimmers and last of all humans. And if we were to perish from the earth, everything made before us would get by just fine. But if anything made before us were to perish, well, surely we would too.

And so there's this sense of respect and reciprocity that no one can tread upon the earth without taking something. But that when we take, we should be giving back. And, you know, those kinds of philosophical concepts are built in through the practice and the culture that is exhibited, you know, and just lived by the characters in the work.

But at the same time, it's not just in the clouds, philosophical, you know, imagining. There's also this harsh realities of the world, the losses that Ezra, you know, has endured, you know, prior to the start of the novel and endures through them, the experiences that other members of the family have had, and they're coming to terms with, you know, the unfairness of the world and the harshness of the natural world, kind of like the wolves that Ezra has affinity to are in a fight for their own survival. And they take lives, but they also nurture life.

And this is, yes, a paradox, but it's also one that we all live, regardless of how we face it.

Ashley Thornberg

Anton, we've been talking about so much of the book in the context of the natural world. And there is also a couple of teenage boys in this book.

There is a white kid who is extremely aggressive and racist and picks on Ezra and Ezra's love interest for seemingly no other reason than they are indigenous. And I'm drawn to two passages in the book. One, where Ezra is fighting with this fisher and he slows down and watches the pattern of the attack, the faint, the hiss, the lunge, retreat, repeat.

And that's how he learns to go after this animal acting in the wild. And then when he's up against this other guy who wants to fight him, he might've been stronger than me. He might've been faster, but I had watched a lot more UFC.

I was reckless and I was foolish. So there is this going back and forth here between training and intuition, but also raw emotion when two teenage boys come head to head. Talk a little bit about that, both maybe your experience as having once been a teenage boy and then clearly raising a number of teenage boys and how they're interacting in this world.

Dr. Anton Treuer

Yes. You know, even when we were talking about the first kill ceremony that comes across in the book, there's a section afterwards where they're saying, moose don't usually attack people, but when one does, it's usually not a calf or a big mature antlered bull. It's usually a young one, a young bull.

And they're also the ones that are most likely to get shot or even hit by a car. And it's kind of like providing a metaphor for manhood that we make a lot of our biggest mistakes when we're young. And there's guidance, like if you want to be a big mature antlered bull, you got to act like one and move a little slower and think before you do.

And so he has these experiences, both from watching UFC or Naruto and whatnot, but also his experience in coaching and his direct experiences, learning with his grandpa Liam in the wild, running the trap line and so forth. And it does come to a head, of course, in his confrontation or when he's confronted by this kid, Matt, who he's had a number of altercations with. And so I think ultimately for an adult, this is part of what we have to learn how to grapple with.

It's okay to have feelings and it's okay to use the energy from your feelings happy, positive energy or anger and apply it in a positive or constructive way. So you can take it out on the woodpile, as opposed to the person sitting next to you. We do have to be physical as well as intellectual and emotional in our relationships, but it's learning how to balance those.

That navigating our emotions, we don't just wanna be a mindless heart that is just governed by our emotions only. And we don't wanna be a heartless mind that's just Machiavellian and calculating. And so this is something that Ezra is grappling with in his journey and in his confrontations with Matt and something that I know I have had to grapple with.

I certainly have been emotionally reactive and just getting older doesn't mean that you immediately grow out of it. It's something you have to work at. And watching my own kids having to deal with those things, it's painful to watch and you can't just helicopter and rescue your kids.

They have to learn their own way. And as a parent, you try to provide healthy opportunities and outlets where they can learn that in an environment that's not gonna get them in danger or in some sort of horrible trouble. But at the same time, life will teach the lessons whether you do that intentionally or not.

Ashley Thornberg

Ezra, so much of his journey is being that young bull moose and growing into the antlered creature that his dad and his grandpa have become. And there's a passage in the book here from Grandpa Liam talking about bacon. And so much of the book does explore race relations and he calls it one of the white man's great gifts to the world.

And it goes perfectly with one of our gifts, wild rice, bacon and wild rice. And he takes this as a sign that the great spirit is telling that there is hope in this world and someday we'll all get along if we pay attention to the signs. Is that- Is that noble or naive to believe?

Dr. Anton Treuer

Oh, it's a little bit of both. Really, I do think as human beings, all of us from all backgrounds, we want the same things. We want our children to have a decent chance at a long, healthy, happy life.

You know, I think about my father. He wanted me to be better than him. I don't know how many people one encounters in their own life who want you to be better than them.

But I certainly felt that with my dad. I certainly feel that about my kids. You know, and it's something very special, sacred even.

And so, you know, when I think about race relations and things that are, you know, spoken of, you know, just through experience and conversation like that passage about the bacon, you know, I don't think it's entirely naive for us to move towards greater alignment, support and understanding. I mean, it's really what education's about. It's what a good book is all about.

It's what doing things in mixed company and connecting with one another, even on a radio program, is really all about is helping us understand one another better to, you know, not just imagine, but understand and then also empathize with one another. Because when you know someone, then you engage with it and you care about it. And it's only in the not knowing or the imagining or the layers of disconnection, objectification from someone or something or a whole group of people that it becomes possible to wish it's destruction.

So, you know, I do think, you know, Grandpa Liam was onto something there. And at the same time, the problems don't just go away on their own. We do have to be intentional about thinking about them, acting upon them, orchestrating positive and meaningful change.

But I've met so many people who really care and are really trying to do that. So I'm really excited.

Ashley Thornberg

In the book, it talks about Byron, Ezra's dad, that this is a dream come true for him. Ezra realizes that Ezra working on the trapline with Grandpa Liam is also a dream come true for Byron. And to feel what he felt and to pass that on.

Anton, I can't help but notice, you know, there's a young bull male in the book. And that Byron is a professor teaching his language, which is what you do. And one of your first answers was immediately that you have entered this realm of grandparenthood.

So there's a little bit of you throughout this whole book. Is that fair?

Dr. Anton Treuer

Oh, that's very fair. I, you know, in many ways, I spent a lot of my professional life working with people much older than me, recording elders, transcribing them, publishing their stories, working with our elders and ceremonies and things like that. So my world has been full of elders.

And it's also been full of young people. You know, not only from my own upbringing, but raising nine children and now, you know, in the grandfather business and all of my grandbabies live nearby. And so we see them all the time.

Speaking to characters who are elders, as well as young people, is something that I think about and can describe, you know, from my own experience, rather than something I just imagine. And the same thing with, you know, fatherhood and so forth. And, you know, I thought about the fact that life is so much like what happens when we're busy making other plans.

Dr. Anton Treuer

People move to a new, you know, city, state, or what have you, not because they don't value where they just moved from or the people who are right next to them, sometimes even their closest family members, but because they're seeking, you know, financial opportunity or things like that. And so, you know, a lot of times there's a consequence, an unintended consequence to our movings around and pursuits. And, you know, I think for Byron, who's kind of living the Twin Cities life, in part because of his job, in part because of, you know, his wife's job, she had passed away before the book started, you know, ends up having this consequence of Ezra not getting all of the things that he did when he was a kid.

And so he wants to orchestrate that for him. And, you know, he's trying to find a way. And so, you know, as the drama unfolds, you know, he creates an opportunity for Ezra, but it's also an opportunity for himself to, you know, approach fatherhood in a different way, and an opportunity for Grandpa Liam, with a grandfather in the book, to, you know, engage with grandparenting in a whole new level too.

Ashley Thornberg

The other books that you've written, The Language Warriors Manifesto, How to Keep Our Languages Alive No Matter the Odds, or The Cultural Toolbox, Traditional Ojibwe Living in the Modern World, very different from a novel. These are, oversimplifying here, just facts that you are putting out there. And yes, it's your responsibility to kind of weave a narrative thread.

But a novel is a very different beast. Did a different set of emotions or anything kind of come up in this process that would have been different from the other books?

Dr. Anton Treuer

You know, I throw myself into everything that I do. And I've been really lucky that I've been able to do many different kinds of work. So, you know, The Language Warriors Manifesto, or The Cultural Toolbox, there's part of it that is just memoir from my own language journey, from my own cultural journey.

I've done some history books, you know, like Warrior Nation, History of the Red Lake Ojibwe, or The Assassination of Hole in the Day, where I'm still telling a story, but it has to be all nailed down and footnoted in those cases. And then I've had other ones where it's a little more perspective, like everything you wanted to know about Indians, but were afraid to ask. But doing fiction was very liberating, not just because I didn't have to do footnotes, but I could explore storytelling in a different way.

And I could describe things in a different way. You know, the pressure is not on to be utilitarian and concise, you know, and practical in all the descriptions, but to transport people into this world, and to transport people into a deep understanding of this imagined character and his journey. And so I found that liberating and exciting.

And then also, you know, I know writing young adult literature has been really fun for me too, because, you know, I'm thinking of my own children, and I do lots of work. I work at a university, but I do lots of work in K-12, both with students and with the staff. And thinking about, you know, I knew what it was like to read a book that I found really boring going to school.

And I knew what it was like to read one that was so engrossing that I would like put the book inside of the textbook we were supposed to be reading in class and be going through that, you know. And so I wanted to do that. And very heartened by the initial response just from my own children.

And with this coming into the world now, I'm really looking forward to hearing how it lands with young readers everywhere. And I guess, you know, like a Harry Potter book or something like that. Hopefully it'll land for everybody else too.

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