Author and activist Robert Treuer dies at 89
The land was worth little. Robert Treuer bought it - 200 acres of barren, abandoned farmland near Bemidji - in 1958 for about $2,000.
He planted a tree farm on it, which became a forest of towering pines and a home to snow buntings, evening grosbeaks, deer.
It became Treuer's home, too. It inspired his writing, including his first book, "The Tree Farm," and hundreds of columns, some of which appeared in the Star Tribune. It connected him with the nearby American Indian tribes. It captivated his children.
"He rebuilt a forest," said Treuer's daughter, Megan Treuer, "and I think it symbolized how he rebuilt a life and a legacy."
An activist, author and tree planter who lived in the North Woods for six decades, Robert "Bob" Treuer died Jan. 8 in Duluth. He was 89.
His urge to establish roots can be traced to his childhood. Born in 1926 in Vienna to Jewish parents, Treuer narrowly escaped the Nazis in 1938, landing in a London refugee camp and then a boarding school in Ireland. After reuniting with his parents, they came to the United States in 1939, where Treuer worked as a delivery boy and practiced his English sitting beside the radio.
At 17, Treuer enlisted in the Army, "hoping to kill Nazis," said Treuer's son, Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University. After studying Japanese at Yale University, he was stationed in the Philippines.
There, he witnessed residents starving in the streets, Anton said, and organized a way to bring them the kitchen's leftovers. The needy lined up for blocks.
"I think from his experience with the Nazi Holocaust, he could not suffer any kind of injustice," Anton said. "He was like that with everything he saw later in life."
During the Civil Rights movement, Treuer participated in sit-ins. He became a labor organizer in Wisconsin. Later, he would advocate for American Indian rights.
In the late 1950s, Treuer, his first wife and their three sons - Smith, Paul and Derek - came to Minnesota. He taught English on the Leech Lake reservation, then worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and later as a program director for Red Lake. He knew "very much about the history of Leech Lake," including its treaties, said Larry Aitken, tribal historian for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Leaders often borrowed from Treuer's extensive papers, drawing on his knowledge, Aitken said.
Two Ojibwe families ceremonially adopted him and gave him an Ojibwe name - Waasegaabaw, or Stands With the Light. Wearing a full buckskin outfit, he danced during celebrations, Aitken said. He offered tobacco in exchange for wild game or white fish.
"We all liked him very, very much," Aitken said, including his writings, which are "authentic with a bit of magic in them."
"He was a moral force in an indifferent and often hostile world," said novelist Kent Nerburn, a Minnesota native who lives in Oregon.
Treuer wrote about the birds, land and autumn winds of northern Minnesota. People, too, including his second wife, Margaret "Peggy" Seelye, an Ojibwe woman and tribal judge. The pair had four children, whom he'd wake at 6 a.m. with his typewriter's clacking. After breakfast, Treuer would send the kids outside to climb trees and built forts.
Anton and David grew up to be authors and professors. Micah became an emergency room doctor, his twin Megan an associate judge at Leech Lake. Treuer announced the births of each of his 26 grandchildren with the same cry: "Another victory over Hitler!"
Since his death, several of his children have started reading "The Tree Farm" to those grandchildren, Megan Treuer said. He ended that book by remembering the work of establishing the farm, two of his sons sitting in his lap on the planting machine, handing him seedlings: "I can see the here and now of the forest we have brought into being; and I can face the need to begin harvest preparations. And I realize that whatever the next few years may bring, I have already gathered.
"My real harvest is in."