Bemidji, Minnesota, with a population of 14,000, is located at the center of the triangle formed by the reservations of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and White Earth Indian. Subtle and not-so-subtle racism against Indians has always been a problem here, said Michael Meuers, who works for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa in government and public relations. “There have been lots of grandiose ideas over the years about what to do,” he said, “put more Native Americans on the boards of corporations, hold a big pow wow, create jobs—but they never happened.”

Meuers came up with a much more modest proposal in 2005. “I thought of asking business owners in town to put the Ojibwe words for women (Ikwewag) and men (Ininiwag) on their restroom doors.” The idea came in part from Hawaii, where Meuers had lived for a year in the 1960s. On the islands, he recalled, Native language and culture are a part of everyday life for everyone, as the familiarity with words such as mahalo, luau, aloha, lei and hula prove. On restroom doors, the words men and women are displayed in English and in Hawaiian. From that, Meuers learned that, “a symbol is profound in its simplicity.”

In 2005, a student at Red Lake High School, a school for Red Lake students run by the state of Minnesota, opened fire on the campus with a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol, killing seven. Meuers said, “The next day, I was talking to the city manager and noticed a Red Lake flag on a shelf. I was working for the tribe at that point and I suggested the city fly the flag. The Red Lake flag flew at half-mast outside City Hall for a week. I never heard so many positive comments about Bemidji. It was the people of the city saying ‘Bemidji is crying for the Red Lake babies too.’ ”

This prompted Meuers to take his simple idea about the bathroom signs to Shared Visions, a community organization dedicated to addressing the issues of racial disparity and bias. Rachelle Houle served with Meuers on the Cultural Understanding and Respect Committee and together they set the goal of placing restroom signs in both Ojibwe and English in 20 businesses within a year. Meuers volunteered to pay for the signs.

Noemi Aylesworth, owner of the Cabin Coffeehouse, was the first to put the signs up. Then she painted an Ojibwe greeting, boozhoo, (“welcome”) on her front door and had small signs to put on the café’s tables printed with several Ojibwe words and their English translations. The first 20 businesses were signed up in just a couple of weeks. The language project now has 119 businesses participating—a food market has labeled all of its foods in Ojibwe; a fabric store has bilingual labels for all of its threads and fabrics; the hospital intends to use Ojibwe signs in the new emergency room being built; a funeral home wants to display a prayer for the bereaved in Ojibwe.

Noemi Aylesworth and Michael Meuers Bemidji State University

Ayleswoth (left) was the first merchant to add the bilingual signs proposed by Meuers (right).

While waiting in line at Target one day, Houle was surprised to hear a young non–American Indian cashier greet an Ojibwe elder in her native language. The cashier told her that the greeting sometimes shocks younger shoppers, but that elders really appreciate it. He can also say, “I’ll see you later” (Giga-waabamin miinawaa).

Bemidji State University (BSU) has taken the idea even further. In addition to the restroom signs, the university has posted parking lot designations, greetings and posters with translations of common words in Ojibwe on campus. BSU, which has 250 Indian students, was the first college in the U.S. to offer an Ojibwe language program and now awards a certificate of Ojibwe language instruction.

But what difference do a few signs make? A lot, it turns out. One woman from Detroit Lakes in west central Minnesota told Houle that when she was young she saw signs in Bemidji that read: no indians allowed. To have those signs now say boozhoo is a huge change for her. “Michael and I both feel a change happening here,” Houle said. “For so long, the Ojibwe culture and people have not been respected here. This is a way of saying, ‘You are valuable.’ It’s a way of showing respect and making people welcome in Bemidji.”

Dr. Anton Treuer, the professor of Ojibwe at BSU [see page 26], said Ojibwe, part of the Algonquin-language family, is spoken fluently by fewer than 1,000 people in the U.S. While there are several thousand speakers in Canada, he said the language is in grave danger here. Most of the U.S. speakers are on the Red Lake Reservation in the traditional village of Ponemah. “Language is important,” he said. “It’s a fundamental part of who we are. I’m not saying you cease to be Native if you don’t know your language, but you are more distant from our ancestors. Language is a cornerstone of sovereignty.”

The university’s Ojibwe courses as well as the programs at immersion schools are part of the effort to keep the language alive

Sign at Bemidji State University

Years ago, there were signs posted in Bemidji that read: NO INDIANS ALLOWED.

in the U.S. The immersion programs are in the towns of Bena, Minnesota, on the Leech Lake Reservation (Niigaane), with around 50 students; Reserve, Wisconsin, on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation (Waadookodaading), with 60 students; Minneapolis (Wicoie Nandagikendan), with 30 students; and an early childhood immersion program in Duluth (Enweyang), which has 20 students. Treuer said non-Native people have a role to play and the university welcomes anyone eager to learn Ojibwe.

Outside of the traditional village on the Red Lake Reservation, many Ojibwe are not really familiar with their culture, Meuers said. “There are drugs here, and poverty. People say the culture needs to be revived to bring cultural values back into people’s lives. Values like respect are in the language: The word for elder male means ‘one who holds everything together;’ the word for elder woman means ‘person who holds the family together.’ ”

Eugene Stillday, an Ojibwe elder born and raised in Ponemah, who is working with Treuer on language projects at the university, said, “The Ojibwe signage has opened a lot of people’s eyes. People are recognizing who we are as the original people on this continent.” Stillday, a Korean War veteran who retired in 1997 from the tribal council after 23 years of service, spoke Ojibwe exclusively until he went to kindergarten. “They told us not to speak our language in school. We were punished for speaking Ojibwe and sometimes smacked on the back of our hand with a ruler.” Today, Stillday said you can walk into the natural foods store in town and all the food is tagged in Ojibwe. “A lot of whites go in there, and they ask us, ‘How do you pronounce that?’ ”

“Native people have not occupied positions of political or economic opportunity in town,” Treuer said. “This project has the potential to create a deeper understanding. Native people say they feel more welcome in town, and shopkeepers are picking up some Ojibwe phrases. Promoting the language does a lot to bridge barriers.” Houle said, “A lot of people are open to learning about the Ojibwe culture, but they don’t know how to ask. They don’t want to be disrespectful.” The signs are a way for non-Natives to start conversations with Native people.

As the Bemidji Language Project has begun to foster respect for the Ojibwe people and culture and easier relationships between Natives and non-Natives in this part of northern Minnesota, Meuers and Houle hope that it can do the same in other places. “We keep hearing more and more stories of good feelings, both Indian and non-Indian. Something good is happening in Bemidji. You can feel it. I dare to dream that it will spread,” Meuers said.

Treuer says the university has received many calls and e-mails about how to replicate the program, and he believes it can serve as a template for other tribes. “We were taking our signs around town when we started,” Meuers said, “and now people are coming to us, not only from the U.S. but also from Canada.”