Dedication Statue Shaynowishkung Chief Bemidji
Michael Meuers
Bemidji area residents have been working on projects to improve relations between whites and American Indians for several years. Here, an estimated 300 people turned up June 6, 2015, for the dedication of a statue of Shaynowishkung, nicknamed Chief Bemidji. The city of Bemidji got its name from the Ojibwe word Bemijigamaag which means “lake with cross waters,” referring to the Mississippi River crossing through the lake.

Imagining Reconciliation: Bemidji Group Works Toward Common Ground

Tanya H. Lee

A grassroots movement led by people in the town of Bemidji, Minnesota, and their neighbors both on and off nearby reservations have set out to find a path to reconciliation between whites and American Indians. No government is taking part; no plan has been laid; no blame will be assessed; and no one knows how long this journey might take.

“Truth and reconciliation is not an event,” says Dr. Anton Treuer, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, one of the people facilitating the process. “It’s not something that happens in a week, a month or a year. It’s a process and it might take a really long time. If it’s just something short then it’s only something to make people feel good rather than to really change the culture and reconcile the historical experiences of diverse people.” Treuer is an author and a professor at Bemidji State University.

At a planning meeting of the Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation project, from left, are: Minnesota Native News reporter Melissa Townsend; Simone Senogles, Red Lake Nation; Tori Graves, and Anton Treuer, Leech Lake Ojibwe. (Michael Meuers)

RELATED: Dr. Anton Treuer Will Return to True Passion—Teaching Students

Understanding is key. Becky LaPlante, of the Blandin Foundation, has been working on a similar effort, the Circle of Healing, being carried out by a group from the Grand Rapids, Minnesota area. She says, “For the first 18 months, the 30 or so participants just sat in a circle and listened to each other. We began to build awareness about our shared history, which is largely unknown in dominant culture and to some extent in Native culture.”

The Blandin Foundation has been sending people to participate in the Bemidji effort, at the invitation of people in that group.

RELATED: Ojibwe Words Help Temper Racism

That kind of inclusiveness is equally crucial. Justin Beaulieu, Red Lake Band of Chippewa, says, “One of our principles is to make sure the group is inclusive, to make sure everyone can participate and they feel comfortable participating. Who is at the table right now and who else needs to be?”

Flags of four nations fly proudly at the dedication of a statue of Shaynowishkung, Chief Bemidji. From front: U.S., Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, White Earth Band of Chippewa, POW/MIA. (Michael Meuers)

The faith communities are among the groups that need to be there. Beaulieu says, “There was a significant amount of harm that was done to children and to families by the faith communities, looking at Manifest Destiny and how these people were utilizing the laws to take children out of their homes, to separate the families. So how do we heal those parts? We are trying to identify where the harm was and how those things have impacted our generations, the adverse childhood experiences and how those cycles have perpetuated over time.”

He notes, however, “The most important thing is that we’re not trying to assess blame or to make somebody feel like they’re bad. It’s about understanding what happened, why those things happened, then healing them.”

This effort is really just emerging,” says Treuer. “We didn’t even put out a public call, but a couple hundred people are involved in the process so far.”

Other efforts in other places have had varying degrees of success. From the movement in Germany after World War II to apologize for atrocities committed against the Jews, to Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the 1990s following the end of apartheid, to Australia’s apology to its Aboriginal people in 2008 and to Canada, which just issued the final report of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding First Nations peoples, nations have found that dealing with extremely painful oppression and far-reaching injustices is very hard work.

A project to add Ojibwe words to signage in Bemidji has met with great success. Principal Drew Hildenbrand points to a sign that says, “Welcome to Bemidji Middle School.” (Michael Meuers)

In the U.S., efforts to bring about reconciliation between the colonizers and the colonized have included the 1993 apology from Congress to Native Hawaiians, Kevin Gover’s apology on behalf of the BIA in 2000 and an apology to Native peoples signed into law by President Obama in 2009.

RELATED: 7 Apologies Made to American Indians

Part of the difficulty is the inclination to put difficult events into the past and keep them there. Beaulieu says, “For me, personally, I hear ‘Get over it’ all the time from people, or ‘We didn’t do that.’ I just want people to understand, ‘Of course you didn’t do that, but it does have residual effects that have come down the line. And there’s new research being done that shows that those changes within the physiology can be passed along. We are trying to get over it, but it’s going to take help from everyone and understanding.”

Linsey McMurrin, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is on the staff at Peacemaker Resources, Inc., another group invited to participate. “When we talk about historical trauma, people think that’s all in the past. What they don’t understand is that it’s also ongoing. That piece really needs to be brought to the forefront. So many people dismiss the concerns that Indian people and their allies have about historical trauma,” she says.

What happens next in Bemidji is part of the journey. McMurrin says, “We’re just reaching out to the community. We don’t want to tell people how this should go and we want to be really mindful not to recreate conditions of colonialism, forced participation and paternalism. We need to focus on relationship building and strengthening those relationships that have already been established.”

During the Grand Entry at the Bemijigamaag Powwow on April 4, 2015, city and state officials walk with tribal officials. About 3,000 people attended. (Michael Meuers)

RELATED: Minnesota’s First Bemijigamaag Powwow Unites City, State and Tribes

Treuer summarized some of the challenges. “You can only really influence people who are in the room with you, so the goal is not to chase everybody away from the table and sit there eating alone. That’s why a lot of these things have failed in the past. If it goes too fast, then sometimes non-Native folks get really uncomfortable and step away because they’re way beyond their comfort zone, but if it goes too slowly then a lot of times people of color feel like it’s a feel-good pat on the back and nobody’s willing to do any real change. The trick is to go a bit in between where everybody agrees to stretch the bounds of their normal comfort and everybody agrees to be patient and kind in going through that process at the same time.”

And so goes Bemidji, one step at a time.

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