Bemidji businesses including Ojibwe in signsby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Bemidji, Minn. — A growing number of businesses in Bemidji are putting up signs in the language of the local Native American community. Words in Ojibwe are popping up as welcome signs, on restroom doors and in grocery stores.
A group promoting racial diversity is behind the effort. They're hoping the Ojibwe language signs will make Native Americans feel more comfortable in a town some say hasn't always been welcoming.
When you walk into The Cabin Coffeehouse and Cafe in downtown Bemidji, you'll not only see a welcome sign in English -- you'll also see the words "aaniin" and "boozhoo." Those are words of welcome in Ojibwe.
You can even order a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup in Ojibwe. Coffeehouse owner Noemi Aylesworth has also printed a list of Ojibwe words. They're now sitting on all of the tables.
"So we have 'miigwech,' is thank you, and then we have a formal greeting, which is 'aaniin,'" she said.
Aylesworth's coffeehouse was the first to accept the Ojibwe sign challenge from a local group called Shared Vision, which is working to improve the race dynamic in Bemidji. It's a community surrounded by three Indian reservations.
Aylesworth said her non-Indian customers are intrigued by the words, and her Native American customers seem to appreciate the gesture.
"They'll greet me at the till and say boozhoo, which is nice to hear," Aylesworth said. "And it's all been just a very positive experience. It's the little things; the symbols that mean a lot to people. So it's just a nice baby step in healing the racial things going on in the community."
An undertone of racial tension has been part of Bemidji life for decades. Last spring, the Shared Vision group released a study that shows three-fourths of Indians living in Bemidji -- and nearly 90 percent living on nearby reservations -- feel the community isn't welcoming to people of all races.
Shared Vision member Michael Meuers came up with the idea of asking businesses to post signs in Ojibwe. Meuers' goal was to get 20 businesses signed on to the idea in the first year. But in just six weeks, nearly 60 businesses are on board.
That includes big organizations like Bemidji State University, the City of Bemidji and the local hospital. It also includes smaller organizations like Harmony Foods, a downtown health food cooperative that will soon produce Ojibwe labels for the fruits and vegetables in its produce section.
Meuers works with local Ojibwe language experts to help businesses with proper usage and spelling of Ojibwe words. He said a local funeral home has asked for an Ojibwe translation for a blessing for grieving families. Other businesses have asked for translation help for words like "pharmacist" and "we fix computers."
The Shared Vision group is working on strategies for tackling a wide range of complex race issues. But Meuers said the Ojibwe signs are a simple gesture, and the first tangible sign of progress.
"It's profound in its simplicity, and it's inexpensive to do," Meuers said. "The thought occurred to me that Indian people would look at this as a welcoming and a sign of respect. The non-Indians in the community would learn a little bit about the indigenous peoples that have been here for thousands of years, and the tourists would love it, so there's an economic side of it, too."
Ironically, there are few people around that will understand all of the new Ojibwe words on display. The language is in crisis. In Minnesota, there are only a few hundred people who speak Ojibwe fluently.
Still, many local Indians say seeing the words makes them feel good, including Shilo White, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
"It will influence a lot of Native American people that'll come into the local businesses again," White said. "I just think it's a real good idea. It makes me feel a little more welcome."
The signs may mean even more to older Ojibwe who experienced blatant racism years ago. Jolene Ajooshian is a White Earth Band member who grew up in Detroit Lakes in the 1950s. Ajooshian said back then, some businesses didn't even let Indians in the door.
"I remember as a small child going into businesses and they'd chase us out," Ajooshian said. "It's taken over 50 years, so it's a good thing to see Ojibwe signs instead of 'no Indians allowed.'"
Promoters of the initiative say their hope is that Bemidji will become well known for its dual-language signs. They want "boozhoo" to be synonymous with Bemidji the same way "aloha" is with Hawaii.
- All Things Considered, 08/05/2009, 5:54 p.m.