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Building inclusive communities with words

Bemidji, Minnesota, with a population of around 15,000, 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 Band of Ojibwe. The traditions and culture of the individuals living in these places are not only underrepresented but also unfamiliar to many non-indigenous persons of the region. Additionally, patterns of racism against persons of Native American heritage has been a problem in the area for many years.

Over the past two decades, several different initiatives from various institutions have attempted to combat some of these problems and build more cultural awareness and inclusive spaces. The common thread among these initiatives? Words.

If you pay a visit to downtown Bemidji or visit the campus of Bemidji State University, you will likely come across signage written in both English and Ojibwemowin, the native language of the Ojibwe indigenous peoples from the area. During my visit, the most common signs I came across included “Welcome” (boozhoo), “Thank you” (miigwech), and restroom signs for women (ikwewag) and men (ininiwag). The local co-op has made great efforts to label indigenous foods with their Ojibwe names.

Sample Ojibwe/English signs from around Bemidji.

Members of Harmony Natural Foods Co-op posing with indigenous food items for sale and the Ojibwe labels.

The Ojibwe language project that inspired all the signage around town started back in 2005 and now has over 119 businesses participating. As it turns out, this action has had a great impact. Rachelle Houle, one of the project’s creators stated:

“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.”

In October 2019, a partnership between Bemidji State University (BSU), the Red Lake Nation College, and the Bemidji Public Library spearheaded the latest effort at building more cultural awareness and working towards the ultimate goal of bringing the community closer together, fostering inclusion, and healing historical conflicts. The project again focused on words, this time in the form of a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read project, an initiative of the National Endowment of the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. An NEA Big Read project funds a series of events focused on the themes in one book and offers opportunity for dialogue among community members.

As part of the NEA Big Read project, BSU selected Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. In their project proposal, they noted that the “issues and characters in the book resonate with our population on a daily basis. Things like treaty rights and tribal jurisdiction that govern land use and citizen rights generate discussion and debate but are misunderstood by many of the non-indigenous members of the population. The Round House focuses on real world issues that confront our community every day. As well as informing our community on Native issues, it discusses mental illness and sexual assault which affect every facet of our community.”

To kickoff their NEA Big Read, the Watermark Art Center in downtown Bemidji opened an exhibition on missing and murdered indigenous women (#MMIW) called Bring Her Home. Mayor Rita Albrecht paid a visit to the exhibition and also served as a panelist in a Women in Politics panel at the public library. The broad participation by other various leaders at that event also demonstrated strong multi-organizational buy-in at a high level: Mayor Rita Albrecht, Red Lake Nation Treasurer Annette Johnson, Beltrami County Administrator Kay Mack, and Bemidji City Council Member Emilie Rivera. Other events included a lecture on tribal law and sovereignty by tribal lawyer, Michael Garbow, an artist talk with Joseph Thunder, and several book discussions all over the region. Over 1,000 copies of The Round House were given away for free.

Mayor Rita Albrecht posing at the Watermark Arts Center exhibition with NEA Big Read books.

The reservations in the area also hosted their own events, some of which were open to the public. In this news article, “Tom Hokanson of Red Lake Nation College said he and another instructor have combined their English classes for the semester and have incorporated The Round House into the curriculum. He said they have discussed topics touched on in the book such as inequalities in the criminal justice system, sexual assault and racial issues.”

Tribal lawyer, Michael Garbow, giving a lecture on tribal law and sovereignty at BSU.

The lasting impact of all this activity isn’t easy to determine. However, it’s clear that this is the latest effort to build a more inclusive community in partnership between institutions in town and the local tribal governments. Ever since the inception of language project in 2005, the community is making conscious efforts to raise awareness about indigenous peoples and cultures via initiatives like the NEA Big Read. The power of language, the written word, and communication definitely seems to be a force of positive change in northern Minnesota.

Stack of The Round House books. Photo by Annalise Braught.