Small gestures help improve race relations in Bemidjiby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Bemidji, Minn. — On a hillside overlooking Lake Bemidji, there's a statue of an Indian, a wood and fiberglass figure known as Chief Bemidji. The statue depicts a real Ojibwe person named Shaynowishkung, who befriended early white settlers in the late 1800s.
The problem with the 1950s-era statue is that some say it's not a respectful representation. At best, critics say it's a mediocre piece of folk art that's unflattering and short on artistic detail.
Members of Shared Vision, a group working to improve relations between Native Americans and whites, hope to replace it with a life-sized bronze sculpture.
For some Native Americans, a new statue would help unite people in Bemidji, where a study last year found that three-quarters of Indians, and 90 percent of those living on nearby reservations, think the Bemidji community is not welcoming to people of all races.
"When this is all said and done and the statue is all completed, that both races come together and just think differently about one another," said Donnie Headbird, the great-great grandson of Chief Bemidji. "Hopefully that's the answer."
Family members of Chief Bemidji are proud of the recognition their ancestor has received in the community. But for years, they've also felt the sting of racism. Jody Bellanger, the chief's great-great granddaughter, said Ojibwe people are sometimes treated rudely in local businesses.
"I've felt it all my life growing up around here," Bellanger said. "I've just grown so used to it I just don't pay no attention to it no more. You sense that your children and your grandchildren are going through the same thing."
Making Ojibwe people feel more welcome is a big goal of Shared Vision, a local group working to end racial disparity. A year ago it convinced Bemidji business owners to display greetings and words of thanks written in the Ojibwe language. It was a simple, symbolic gesture, but the idea caught on. Ojibwe language signs are now up in more than 100 stores and public buildings.
Shared Vision has some larger goals that go beyond symbolism. Its strategy is to enlist existing community groups to seek long-term change, said Carolyn Jacobs, the organization's co-chairperson.
"I am happy with the progress we've made so far," Jacobs said. "I recognize everything takes a long time."
One arm of the strategy is to develop more leaders. Next month, dozens of Native Americans and others will participate in a Blandin Foundation program designed to create leaders in ethnically diverse communities. Jacobs said the program aims to create more balance on civic boards and committees -- and in public office.
"When you look at the composition of our community in terms of racial composition, it is not reflected in what we see in ... levels of leadership," Jacobs said.
There are other efforts designed to bring diverse groups of people together more often. For example, several Ojibwe professors from Bemidji State University offer a presentation called "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Indians But Were Afraid To Ask."
BSU professor Anton Treuer said the sessions attempt to dispell myths about Indian people -- everything from questions about the legal underpinnings of tribal sovereignty and gaming, to the historical and cultural dimensions of Ojibwe life.
Treuer said efforts taken in just the past year are helping to improve race relations in Bemidji.
"I do think collectively it is having an impact," Treuer said. "Depending on who we're talking to and what's going on sometimes, it seems we have a long way to go yet. But I do see a lot of change, and I see a lot more Native voices finding a home in the community. Things are moving in the right direction."
Others also see progress, but think sustained change in race relations will take years.
"When you're doing change of perception, it doesn't happen overnight," said Audrey Thayer, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union's Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project in Bemidji. "I think we've just touched the basis of really some underlying issues that go on in the community, and it's on both sides. It's Native and non-Native in this part of the country, of hesitation of trusting each other. We still have very serious concerns with that."
It will take years to measure Shared Vision's impact on race relations. The group has a list of long-term goals that include improving economic opportunities for Native Americans and narrowing the education gap between the two cultures.
- Morning Edition, 04/15/2010, 6:25 a.m.