The Ojibwe communities in America have experienced tremendous change and challenge as a result of the novel coronavirus outbreak. I have seen and felt this on many levels — personally, professionally and culturally.
I am a college professor who teaches the Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University. I also write books and frequently do a lot of travel and consulting. I am also a spiritual leader who officiates at traditional Ojibwe funerals and other ceremonies. When COVID-19 hit, all my classes moved to online instruction through Zoom. I made those adaptations with a little more ease than many professors because I have been doing a lot of work and instruction with those formats already, but it still hurt engagement with many students who really benefit from the kinetic connection of personal contact. My family’s income was cut in half by the loss of significant consulting income. And I have felt the stress of worrying about elders in my family and community who are especially vulnerable if they get coronavirus.
Beyond my personal experience, all of Ojibwe country is deeply concerned about COVID-19. Our language revitalization work has slowed or stopped in many places to avoid exposing elder speakers of the language to potential infection. Immersion schools, like most schools, have moved online, and it’s a lot harder to immerse kids without the language nest environment at school. Everyone is stressed.
Lots of Ojibwe people have health conditions that make potential infection life-threatening. I personally know three Ojibwe elders (all fluent speakers) who died from COVID-19 infections. There have been many others I know who have died without being tested for COVID-19 with symptoms that at least raise the possibility that they, too, had the virus, including my mother, who died on March 18.
We worry not just about the deaths and the potential loss of more loved ones. We worry about the potential impact on our language and culture. Most of our speakers are 70 years old or older now. Many Ojibwe communities have a dozen speakers or less. Every fatality echoes for generations; and every year, one of our precious language carriers lives is a year of teaching and sharing that enhance our chances of keeping Ojibwe a living language.
As someone who officiates at traditional Ojibwe funerals, we have seen big changes. Some of the other officiants are old and have stepped back from any gatherings for health reasons. That has forced people like me to do more work and other younger culture carriers to step up and officiate for the first time. It has stressed a lot of people. And we have had to alter some of our protocols at funerals — limiting attendance, limiting or even eliminating feasting (which is very important in Ojibwe culture) and doing ceremonies outside with closed caskets to avoid virus spread.
We will go forward from here, but nothing will be the same after COVID-19. Thank you for hearing my story.
About the author
Anton Treuer (pronounced troy-‐er) is a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and the author of 18 books. His equity, education and cultural work has put him on a path of service around the region, the nation and the world.