By Janet Kacskos
In the age of technology, where everything is temporary and disposable, one Millersville undergraduate student is working to preserve a piece of history.
Anishinaabemowin is a Native American language spoken by the Anishinaabe people in the northern United States and Canada, and Jordan Traut, a double English and anthropology major and Japanese culture studies minor, is helping to record it.
“Their language has been passed down orally and was never written,” said Traut, who is originally from Thorndale, Pennsylvania. “Only about eight elders are left to tell their story, and it doesn’t translate to English, or our alphabet.”
This past summer, she traveled 15 hours to northwest Michigan with her mom and little brother so she could attend the “26th Annual Anishinaabe Family Language & Culture Camp.” The camp was designed for the Anishinaabe people to celebrate the unity of their language and culture.
At the camp, Traut heard a session from Brian Peltier, a band member of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, who is working to revitalize their language, along with their way of life and spirituality. Peltier’s session was on “The 7 Fires of Creation,” which told the origins of the people along with the birth of their language.
“Around 1970, with the forced assimilation of Native Americans into residential schools, [the Anishinaabe] were forbidden to speak their language,” she explained. “In some cases children were taken from their homes and put in boarding schools to take away their culture and language.”
Traut is researching Native American oral stories in addition to her regular school work. Traut is also a member of Millersville’s Honors College, and has taken a study abroad semester in Japan. She is the first recipient of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Fellowship.
“My work has focused on collecting Native American creation teachings from people who speak the languages rather than English language translations,” Traut explained. “I had the opportunity to learn about the various initiatives they are working on now to save their language.
“I want to use my thesis research to illuminate the incredible beauty of Native American stories and sophistication of their language, which is so closely rooted in their culture,” she continued. “As a student, I try to stimulate change using my writing to spark dialogue on issues close to my heart like the cultural ramifications of unchecked English language translation and the value of non-Western literature. By studying Native American teachings and stories, an aspect of my thesis, I want to reach back into the past, through the surviving literature, in the hopes that it can make an impact for Native Americans in the present.”
Her thesis centers on one story in particular, which she traces through the stories of Native Americans, Mesopotamian studies and many other cultures. That is the story of a great flood.
“Stories were orally passed down about a deluge of water that wiped out entire populations,” she said. “It’s similar to the story in the Bible. We have a shared humanity and a universal fear that if we cross some sort of spiritual threshold we’re not supposed to, that bad things will happen.”
For Traut, it’s important to remember that cultural work like this is valuable right here in the United States.
“There are Native Americans right here desperate to hang on to their culture and rebuild it,” she said. “We have a Third World situation with terrible issues like not having access to running water, healthcare and other amenities non-native people often take for granted in First World countries.”
Traut’s journey to pursue her passions at Millersville began at an open house. That was where she began falling in love with the ‘Ville.
“I met the English faculty, liked them and the campus culture and environment,” explained Traut. “I have no regrets.”
After graduation in May 2020—only three years after she began her college journey— Jordan hopes to head to Canada to learn more about the Anishinaabe language and culture, and work with the elders on learning it.
In the future, she would like to attend graduate school to study and translate Mesopotamian languages.
“The translation of these languages has been done only by men, who have a cultural bias when it comes to women’s roles,” said Traut. “I want to come at it from a female perspective so the women in the stories don’t get lost. Right now, in the translations, they’re relegated to positions as prostitutes.”
“My life goal is to show others that we’re a lot more similar than different,” she said “It’s not something we think about in our Western culture or in the English mindset. We need to realize that other cultures have ancient stories that are just as valuable to study as Western literature.”