Special Edition of Minnesota Native News: Bemidji, Rocking the Boat Part 1
Across the U.S. age-old racism and inequities are once again gaining the public’s attention, with movements like Black Lives Matter. In Minnesota, when it comes to disease, school drop-outs, incarceration, Native Americans endure some of the greatest racial disparities in the state. But there is work being done in towns across the state to take on these disparities. Towns like Bemidji — a small city in Minnesota’s north woods. Here, Natives and non-Natives have been working for decades to focus attention on the root causes of these problems and to forge a new vision for the future.
Reporter Melissa Townsend tells the story of their progress.
This is the first in a two part series in the extended edition of Minnesota Naive News.
Special Edition of Minnesota Native News: Bemidji, Rocking the Boat Part 1
Host Intro (Marie Rock)
Across the U.S. age-old racism and inequities are once again gaining the public’s attention, with movements like Black Lives Matter.
In Minnesota, when it comes to disease, school drop outs, incarceration, Native Americans endure some of the greatest racial disparities in the state.
But there is work being done in towns across the state to take on these disparities.
Towns like Bemidji -- a small city in Minnesota's north woods.
Here, Natives and non-Natives have been working for decades to focus attention on the root causes of these problems and to forge a new vision for the future.
Reporter Melissa Townsend tells the story of their progress.
This is the first in a two part series in the extended edition of Minnesota Naive News.
SECTION 1 - POW WOW
[pow wow set up ambi sound]
On April 4th the city of Bemidi hosted the historic Bemijimaag intertribal pow wow.
Say it with me….
Come on say it with me — bay - mih-jig-ih maag — it’s actually ohibwe for bemidji.
It was a brand new event - the first pow wow at the 5 year old Sanford Center.
It was the first time fry bread tacos were ever served at the arena’s concession stands!
It was the first time the City of Bemidji, tribal radio station KOJB, and regional public station KBXE ever partnered together on an event to celebrate American Indian culture.
[clanging ambi sound in]
Dancers are here hours before it starts. The sound of their jingle dresses and regalia echoes off the concrete floors in the vast arena.
It’s the first time 79 year old George Earth has ever been to the Sanford Center.
He’s from teh Leech Lake reservation.
GEORGE EARTH: i’ve never been here before, but i always thought it needed some interaction with the community — yea.
By community - he means the large Native American community that lives here.
And today George may be getting what he’s wanted.
23 drum groups and nearly 500 dancers are signed up to take part in this historic pow wow.
Rayna Hunt and her cousin Roman Rock are here from Cass Lake - that’s on the Leech lake Reservation.
RAYNA: We just come together and it’s like family - we see each other. I mean i feel like a whole person when i’m with my other people.
Rayna doesn’t dance, but Roman does.
ROMAN: When I’m out there dancing, nothing else exists. [from end: nothing else exists but me and that drum and that’s all that matters to me is dancing and getting this all out and a lot of built of feelings and emotions inside and it’s a way to release.] It’s just me. It’s me dancing for my ancestors from the past, my family that I lost - just trying to make other people happy. I know I do that bc my grandfather Walley Humphrey tells me my aunts, my uncles, my little cousins tell me when they watch me dance, their jaws hit the floor. (:38)
The space is blessed and Eagle staffs stand along the perimeter of the arena floor.
[add crowd sound here]
The place begins to fill up with dancers on the floor and spectators in the stands.
There are babies, toddlers, adults, elders — people are excited. This is a celebration.
Dolly Bow-String from, Bowstring Minnesota is psyched about the big crowd.
DOLLY: It’s awesome. i’m glad there’s a lot of people here - different nationalities, different cultures.
A few minutes after one - in front of 3-thousand people — the pow wow MC Darryl Kingbird gives the word to the host drum -
KINGBIRD: A-ho. Young Kingbird, Grnd Entry time boys — XX. [music]
It’s time for the first Grand entry — and all the dancers and dignitaries dance together in a procession into the arena.
For a number of people in the crowd, this is their first pow wow because this event is intended to introduce non-Natives to this traditional celebration.
KINGBIRD: If you are interested in anything that we have and you guys want to learn about it - we are here to share with each and every one of you. Learn about the people that are amongst you in Bemidji - bemidjigad.
Bemidji resident Kathleen McKinstra says this is an eye-opener for her and her 4 year old daughter Carol.
KATHLEEN: We said it’s like a live rainbow - the colors, the sounds, the chanting, [CAROL: boom, boom boom] the drums… and i realize that when i come to an event like this i realize how ignorant i am and how much i have yet to learn. But living in bemidji i certainly have the resources in my community to start that learning and it’s time to get going on that.
It is the first bemidji pow wow to host tribal leaders along with Minnesota governor mark Dayton, state representatives and city council members.
Brad Walhoff and Gary Charwood - from tribal radio KOJB, broadcast live from the event all afternoon.
[pow wow hour 2-18:50] I think this is long overdue. I think it’s Bemidji saying hey, we live together, we are a community, now we need to embrace each other. what do you take from that? CHARWOOD: Absolutely Brad, I believe it’s an historical moment here in bemdji …
[end of grand entry]
Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht gives a traditional tobacco offering and new pendleton blankets to the three tribal leaders from the region.
In exchange, they offer their nations’ flags to be hung in the entry hall of the Arena.
Carri Jones is head of the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe.
Every Native and non-Native I talked to said — it was a big moment.
KATHY 18:48 i took my 81 year old aunt who’s lived in this area for over 40 years
Kathy Annette is a citizen of the White Earth Nation and grew up on the Red Lake reservation. She’s lived in the Bemidji area most of her life. [ Now she’s the head of the Blandin Foundation that makes grants to communities state-wide.]
KATHY…and as we walked in - she was looking all around and she watched the dancers, natives and non-natives sitting together in the audience and listening to our tribal leaders, the local leaders, the state leaders and as we were walking out later - she stopped and looked at me and said - isn’t this something. Isn’t this something?
KATHY: 17:57 … you look back 30 years - would you have had tribal flags hanging in bemidji? the answer is no. for a number of reasons - today you have tribal flags hanging in bemidji
KTHY 18:16 it means that our tribal nations are recognized, it mean that people in bemidji have said these are valued. It’s a different time.
This historic Bemijimaag pow wow in Bemijdi was years in the making.
****Over decades natives and non-natives have been struggling to look at a painful past.
They’ve been trying to find ways to co-exist as two respected and distinct cultures - in one community.
SECTION 2 - BEMIDJI
[add street and water ambi here]
BEMIDJI is a small city along the western shore of Lake Bemidji in the north woods of Minnesota
The downtown grid is 7 streets wide and 23 streets long. Not that big.
The giant statues of lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his companion Babe the Blue Ox are on the south end of town and the campus of Bemidji State University is on the north.
Fifteen-thousand people live here. About 3-thousand residents are Native American. That’s a really high percentage for a town in Minnesota.
This was - of course at one time - ALL Indian land — mainly associated with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
But NOW this predominantly white town sits in the middle of three of the largest and most populous Indian reservations in the state.
That makes Bemidji incredibly unique.
A 1/2 hour north is Red Lake Nation, 15 minutes east is the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and to the southwest is the White Earth Nation.
It’s a border town if there ever was one. And borders towns - that is — predominantly white towns sitting on the edge of Indian reservations — are known to have a history of overt exclusion and racism. Seriously — everyone I’ve talked to say border towns have earned a bad reputation.
SECTION 3 - HISTORY OF RACISM
LENORE: 5:14 …Well i can tell you this -
Lenore Barsness is a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. She describes herself to me as a light-complected Native American woman.
LENORE: … but i have siblings who are darker complected, I have a mother who is darker complected, so all of my life i noticed a difference in how we were treated based on which family members were with me.
She says when they were shopping in Bemidji stores, employees would follow them around to make sure they weren’t stealing anything.
Anton Treuer is also from Leech Lake. He’s a lean middle aged man, with a dark braid running along his spine. He says as a young person in middle school in Bemdiji, he had to deal with racist taunts.
ANTON TRC 14:05 … there were four kids sitting around a quad table in shop class. and i was the only native at our table. And the kids started in - indians are all drunks, they’re just leeches on the gov, they’re running us dry…
Kathy Annet, who was at the powwow with her 81 year old aunt, grew up on the Red Lake reservation. She remembers a variety of ways Bemidji businesses discriminated against Native Americans.
EDIT THIS TAPE
3;56… young men because they had long hair. 4:08 these were some of our finest traditional dancers who weren’t allowed access to jobs without being told you will cut your hair. it was being in line at a grocery store and seeing people getting checks cashed and when you came up as a native - and i experienced this - the manager was called to take a look at this. Um… people that were being accused of shoplifting and it wasn’t so and things being taken that were paid for.
KATHY: 15:56 everything is negative about that experience - weather you’re angry, humiliated, intimidated, ashamed, um — what healthy emotion comes from an experience like that? …. there is none.
*** GOOD SOLID BREAK HERE —
SECTION 4 - HISTORY, 1966
— ADD ANTON & JODI
Through her work with Blandin Foundation Kathy Annett is acquainted with rural towns across the state. And she says NOW - Bemidji is at the forefront of race relations work between natives and non-natives.
She says Bemidji is leading the way.
Which made me wonder — How did that happen?
[period music here — long time comin’ ?]
Big changes really began in 1966 with two men — Bob Kohl [K-O-H-L] and Roger Jordain — [Red Lake Chairman at the time].
Anton Treuer and I are going to tell this story.
He was that by in the bemidji middle school but now he’s A RESPECTED HISTORIAN, PUBLISHED AUTHOR AND Director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University. [TAKE THAT SHOP CLASS BULLIES!]
HE’S CURRENTLY WORKING ON A BOOK ABOUT RED LAKE
ANTON: Bob Kohl was a radio personality here in Bemidji and was also hired as publicity director for the freshly minted Bemidji area chamber of commerce.
Kohl decided to tour homes of local families who were receiving welfare benefits.
ANTON: and based upon his personal observations he then gave a series of three radio programs in which he basically went on a racist rant. and i can pull out a few and read them to you - it’ll get you a better sense for why this upset so m any people. in fact why don’t we do it right now…
[bed of his searching his computer ambi]
While he’s searching his computer for QUOTES FROM THE BEMIDJI PIONEER NEWSPAPER let me tell you — Bob Kohl’s comments are seriously disturbing. I debated weather to even include them here— but I think it’s important to hear - one, because this is what Native Americans had to deal with - and TWO, so you’ll understand just what set off the next series of events.
ANTON: So Kohl was at a couple of homes at Red Lake he described them as indescribably filthy, the people are so low on the human scale it is doubtful they will ever climb upward. their satisfaction level is so low that it corresponds to that of the most primitive of earth’s animals. perhaps we should never have lowered our sights to this level. perhaps we should have let nature take her course, let disease and malnutrition disrupt the reproductive process and weed out those at the very bottom of the heap.
Yea… disturbing. And Anton Treuer is quoting just one section of one broadcast.
ANTON: Yea, there’s more…
Kohl did three broadcasts on local radio station, KBUN.
ANTON: So in any event that didn’t go over too well in Indian country.
TO SAY THE LEAST…
ANTON: Roger Jordain who was tribal chairman at Red Lake at the time says enough is enough. Took the issue before the tribal council and they voted to boycott Bemidji. He communicated with other tribal leaders, and pretty soon Leech lake joined the boycott and eventually White Earth.
This was huuuuge. Anton estimates American Indians were 50% of shoppers in Bemidji. And overnight there were gone.
Literally — overnight - Kohl’s broadcasts aired October 24th, 25th and 26th and by October 29th - 3 days later - all three tribal nations had blacklisted Bemidji.
The tribal governments also threatened to withdrawal all their money from Bemidji banks - to the tune of 2-million dollars.
ANTON: There was an editorial in the Bemidji Pioneer that the boycott has been so effective and so thorough that over the week for the first time since bemidji became a community bemidji streets have been practically devoid of indians. This is a deplorable situation and one that can not be allowed to continue. Bemidji can not long withstand the harmful effects of a strict boycott. [who wrote that?] that was an editorial in the Bemidji Pioneer.
Other people defended Kohl, David Umhower wrote I hope that those Indians offended by the broadcast do boycott Bemidji if they do it will be a cleaner town.
Roger Jordain was also writing during this tIme. His niece Jodi Beaulieau read me some of his quotes from the tribal newspaper - the Red lake Times - these are dated October 28th 1966.
JODY: I am sure that any merchant — who thinks of us as sub-human would not want us in their store - we will not force ourselves on anyone. when it’s made known to us we are wanted there - and the best proof of that is not only a smile when we come in through the doors, and another smile when the cash register jingles but some actual hard support in putting an end to this type of vilification and name calling.
Jordain wanted Kohl to apologize and then be fired.
But that wasn’t all he wanted. Jordain has his eye on the larger picture — in fact - he wanted to deal with nothing less than the economic discrimination and exploitation that had been in place since the founding of Bemidji.
ANTON: From the arrival of the first white folk in Minnesota this has been a racially charged atmosphere. The entire Timber boom, native peel were literally overwhelmed by a deluge , a flood of white settlement. their ability to obtain employment int eh logging industry and any of the other businesses that there rapidly growing was really really diminished. [TOO MUCH? NO Keeping Indians impoverish and denying them opportunity was how they created opportunity for everybody else.] When you skip up to Bob Kohl, his statement and the economic conditions in the 1960’s well of course, everything didn’t just repair itself overnight.
[begin music here… ]
Bob Kohl did apologize.
ANTON: Kohl came up to Red lake and gave an apology to the tribal council and of course everyone at Red lake heard he was coming so there were over 200 people at the tribal council meeting.
[bed of music fades back in a touch]
AFTER THE APOLOGY, ACCORDING TO THE RED LAKE TIMES - THE RADIO STATION AND THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE PLANNED TO KEEP KOHL ON.
BUT THEN ROGER JORDAIN STARTED TALKING ABOUT EXPANDING THE BYCOTT AND WITHIN A DAY KOHL RESIGNED….
[DOOR SHUTTING SOUND?]
On November 4th — 7 days after Roger Jordain organized the boycott, Bemidji mayor Howard Mengee met with him to talk about that larger picture.
ANTON: I think the mayor was really trying to find a way to make things better. Roger Jordain said well, to make things better you need to address economic opportunities and this isn’t something that is going to happen overnight. A lot of people have a lot of learning to do. And so they ended up creating an organization … called … the community relations commission. And this was the first effort in the Bemidji region to look at some sort of racial reconciliation and be intentional about it.
There was a big push to train regional business owners and employees on cultural competencies so more native people would be hired.
Joe Lueken was a white man who owned Luekens’ grocery stores -a small local chain.
He set up an affirmative action program and successfully put many new Native employees on a management track.
ANTON: I’ve personally seen him show up at a couple of pow wows and be given honor songs and they call out everyone to come shake his hand…
Lueken’s commitment not withstanding, Anton says the momentum from the boycott and formation of this new coalition lasted for a relatively short time.
ANTON: I think Native people got disillusioned with a pace of change that was too slow. and i think some white folks got scared. It was just not comfortable.
SECTION 5 - HISTORY, SHARED VISION (use convo as bed)
In 2005 a group of natives and non-natives felt something new was needed.
MAYOR: … I think it did a lot to heal some bad feelings way back when … i think it, it really served it’s purpose and so it seemed like we were ready for the next step.
Rita Albrecht is the current mayor of bemidji but in 2005 she wasn’t in gov. She was just Rita
So Rita - who is not Native — and a few other volunteers started a new organization called Shared Vision.
She says they wanted to take a more proactive approach.
in 2009, the group worked with researchers from Wilder Foundation to survey people in the Bemidji area.
This survey went directly after something most people wanted to avoid — tough questions about race and life in Bemidji.
RITA 2:55 that was an eye opener for us.
One questions asked — Do you feel the Bemidji area is a welcoming community to people of all races?
3:31 there was a disconnect. between how Indians viewed uh - you know the community and how whites viewed the community.
To be specific…
88% of white residents said the bemidij area was welcoming.
And 73% of Natives said — it was not.
Lenore Barsness, the light complected native woman from Leech Lake, says this documentation of the Native experience was a very big deal.
Lenore says before the survey— it didn’t feel like reports of racism were taken seriously.
LENORE 9:11 …They’d say did they write something up, did did you investigate, they do this, do that, how do we know that’s true. So what you do is you ignore the felt experience that people have.
In fact Lenore says the survey could have been just as easily ignored. if it weren’t for non-Native allies.
LENORE: 13:30 that’s where those alliance are so important. would that have been attended to as well if it had been an all-native group of people sponsoring that research. the fear is that it wouldn’t be.
This was in 2010, so 34 years after tribes boycotted bemidji over racism - this new alliance of Natives and Non-Natives brings this issue to the fore again - the majority of american indians felt unwelcome in Bemidji.
That feeling was partly because of the overt prejudice and racial hostility shared earlier — but it was also because American Indians felt invisible.
People I talked to said — when you looked around town, there was no indication that Native Americans lived here when in fact MANY MANY Natives lived here.
cut??? There was no community awareness of the art, culture, history of the strong sovereign nations just beyond the town’s north, east and west borders.
SIMONE: Either we’re not here or we’re criminals or we’re drunks or we’re romanticized.
Simone Senogulls is from the Red Lake Nation and she grew up in Bemidji.
Her son was in elementary school around the time of the survey. She says even young people like her boy experience this.
SIMONE 21:03 …he was I think a 3rd grader and one of our family members was going into his school to sing on hand drum for the K class. so the K teacher asked my son - will you come and intro. your person, … And so my son was in there talking about - well, OK he’s going to come and sing a song and you know he sings on a hand drum. and there was this little K girl and she was saying — we’re really going to see an indian, we’re going o see a real indian? we’re going to see a real indian? and she was really excited and my son stopped and he said — you are looking at one right now. [laughter] you are talking to a real indian right now.
Rita Albrecht says this is part of what that group - Shared Vision - wanted to change. In 2010, they started to look for ways to engage more Native Americans in the community…
3:49 For example, how can we engage Native Americans into the life of the community in particular on board service, non profit service, committees, commissions, all of that. We recognized we don’t have a lot of diversity around the table.
…and they also wanted to find ways to teach non-Natives about Ojibwe culture.
SECTION 6- OJIBWE EVERYWHERE
40:52 [Intro in Ojibwe] … which means gathering cloud is my name and i am from Bemidji which is a very common way for people to introduce themselves along with their clan.
Michael Meuers is a white Irish man who has been working with the Red Lake Nation for just over 20 years and he was part of the Shared Vision group with Mayor Albrecht.
The Ojibwe Language project was partly his idea. It’s a movement by the group Shared Vision to put Ojibwe signage in public places around Bemidji.
He’s popping nicorette gum as we drive the streets of downtown looking at the low slung storefronts.
we’re on third street and I see Roy’s Comics, the Senior Center and the Cabin Cafe.
MEUERS 4:04 this cabin is the first place that posted ojibwe signage — you can see it - anion boo zoo - on the door there.
It’s a tidy looking storefront with a faux wood facade meant to make it look — well, like a log cabin. And there’s a little sign hanging over the wide sidewalk out front.
Michael says he told a few people about the idea of having Ojibwe signs around bemidji and they didn’t think it would fly.
5:33 so so i - … we were sitting - someone telling me it will never work - we were sitting in the cabin and i said - i tell you what, i’ll go and ask the owner right now. [mel laughs]
5:52 so i went up and i asked the owner if if ah, it was her daughter it wasn’t her - that i’d like to them to post ojibwe signage XX and XX on the restroom doors and i don’t know a month later, and they had that on the front door — boo zoo onninnn. and all of a sudden, i’ve got to fulfill now…
He said he would buy the signs for the first 10 people who posted it.
And what i figured, well, i’d get 20.
6:30… and well, that’s when i was walking down the street and i had 20 before you could shake a stick - people committing to doing that it and … it was easy.
The idea spread like wildfire — Michael says all the schools and over 150 businesses now have Ojibwe signage
6:57 … bemigjhi co-op has a lot of their foods marked in ojibwe.
7:09 Naylor electric has - they don’t exist anymore - for a time they had television, washer dryers - everything was marked in Ojibwe.
14:12 [mel - What’s the impact do you think of the ojibwe signs?]
15:55 … what it does is it tells - it tells the … - the ojibwe people we want your business, we respect you,
16:18 we respect you and your culture. and it teaches the non-indians a little bit about the culture that was here the indigenous culture that is here before 1895.
There’s one other reaction to Ojibwe signs — that you might not expect.
Michael Meuers says the tourists — EAT. IT. UP.
MEUERS: They love it.
16:36 at the the the um… cabin coffee house, she had these table tents, you know you normally have desserts or whatever - she put how to count to 10 in ojibwe, animals of the north woods in ojibwe, Red Lake 7 clans in ojibwe [mel - she ran with it] yea, she even put stuff on the menu in ojibwe. and
17:04 people were stealing these things off the tables during the summer - they’d steal them. So what she decided was to make a bunch and put them by the cash register and give them away. People eat that up.
I have to say when Michael told me this — some alarms went off in my head.
I picture non-Native tourists coming to town seeking out bits of Indian culture like their birdwatching… looking for something rare and exotic.
Is this - even in part - a gimmick to attract tourist?
So I tell Michael…
17:31 MEL - That is so interesting, on one hand I would steal that off the table! let’s talk about one in ojibwe. At the same time — it’s like - when you say the tourists eat it up - … that’s sort of like - oh, we’ve crossed back over to exploitation.
17:51 No no, the difference is it has to be authentic. when i was a kid and my folks used to go up north - to a resort - we’d go through Mill lacs and they had this this .. pow wow ring or indians are dancing and they’ve got on the dakota head dresses and they are pretending- they are acting it out…
18:52 Yea, yea, so so it was for the tourists but this is authentic. … and that’s the difference, its got to be authentic.
SECTION 7 - CONCLUSION
Over the past 50 years efforts like the ojibwe signage project have made American Indians more visible— less demonized, less romanticized…
From the historic boycot of Bemidji businesses…
JODY: All tribal and CAP purchases in the Bemidji area are being halted termporarily.
to the historic Bemijimaag celebration.
ALBRECHT AT PW WOW: We come together today to share in the positive spirit of the pow wow, the good life. And we come together to exchange gifts. I hope the friendships we make here today will grow beyond this event and our community will continue on a path of inclusiveness and respect for one another. (:19)
There are many people in this community who have been looking at something that - ordinarily - very few people want to deal with— their own negative prejudices - in this case of American Indians.
And now — there is a new group gathering.
ANTON: All of that still doesn’t fix endemic issues around poverty and policing and so forth
Anton Treuer - with the American Indian Resoruce Center at Bemidji State - is involved in the new Truth and Reconciliation efforts emerging in Bemidji.
ANTON: but what it does do is it gets everyone to the table so we can have a shared process. And that’s the key.
A shared process focused on changing the public systems- education, healthcare, law enforcement - that he says continue to miss the mark when serving Native people.
We’ll hear stories from that effort in the next 1/2 hour.
For this special expanded edition of Minnesota Native News, I’m Melissa Townsend
This has been a special expanded edition of Minnesota Native News, I’m Melissa Townsend.
Special Thanks to …. Erin Warhol, Diane Richard, Marie Rock..
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