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Shared Vision

Bemidji race relations survey shows major differences among experiences

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Bemidji is not a welcoming place to all races - that is the opinion of American Indians who responded to a study commissioned by Shared Vision.

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While 71 percent of white people who responded to the survey agreed that the Bemidji area is a community welcoming to everyone, 73 percent of Indians living in the Bemidji area and 88 percent of Indians living on nearby Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth reservations disagreed.

"The survey really doesn't surprise me so much," said Michael Meuers, Red Lake Nation public relations specialist and Shared Vision member. "To me, that just verifies everything anyone who thinks about these things already knows. (Indians) are going to see this survey and say, 'What else is new?'"

Shared Vision, a development of "Bemidji Leads!" and the Bemidji Area Race Relations Council, is committed to improving understanding between the Indian and non-Indian communities.

The Shared Vision Bemidji Area Study on Race Relations conducted by Wilder Research of St. Paul made random contact with 2,000 households in the Bemidji ZIP Code area, put the survey online and offered it to focus groups. The 501 people who responded showed, in most respects, a sharp division of perception and experience between the two communities.

"Like any survey, I would guess a lot of the results are perspective," said Joe Johnson, American Indian advocate liaison at North Country Health Services and Shared Vision member. "But whether it's actual or perceived, the problem is there. There's some reason people have these perceptions."

The majority of Indian participants rated race relations in Bemidji as poor; whereas, 80 percent of white respondents rated race relation fair, good or very good. Fewer than 20 percent of Indians in the survey said diversity is a strength in the Bemidji community. But 59 percent of whites said diversity is a strength.

Of Indians living in Bemidji, 35 percent said they experience discrimination "on a very regular basis," and 42 percent Indians living on reservations said the same. Only 14 percent of Indians living in Bemidji and 2 percent of those living on reservations said they never experience discrimination. In contrast, 70 percent of white participants said they never experience discrimination.

Karen Bedeau, Shared Vision member and area Minnesota Department of Transportation public relations coordinator, recalled an incident in which a gas station attendant came out and took down the license numbers of vehicles with tribal plates. When she asked the attendant why, "The clerk said, 'Until you people stop stealing, we will do this.'"

Another area touched on by the survey resulted in the formation four years ago of the Bemidji American Civil Liberties Union-Racial Justice chapter. Only 6 percent of Indians living in Bemidji and 10 percent of Indians living on the reservations believe law enforcement officers stop people of all races equally.

Survey comments from Indians included, "I have been treated like I am a thief and stopped by local police because of my reservation plates."

The survey picked up similar divisions in perceptions and experiences of discrimination in housing, employment and treatment by educators.

However, on the more positive side, more than 90 percent of both white and Indian participants agreed they wanted to get to know people from other racial and cultural groups.

"That was an overwhelming response," said Shared Vision member Rita Albrecht, Bemidji community development director. "We're hoping we can create some safe places and times to discuss this. If someone opens a door, we have to be willing to walk through."

Johnson agreed and urged Indians and white people alike to move out of their comfort zone to become acquainted with each other. For example, he said he went to a church lutefisk feed for the first time last fall, enjoyed the Scandinavian food and had a good time visiting with people he hadn't met before.

Bedeau said dispelling stereotypes and myths, such as the misconceptions that Indians are all supported by government handouts, pay no taxes and receive free college educations, is another goal of Shared Vision.

"I hope that people take notice of this (survey) and ask themselves, 'What can I do to make my community a better place to live,'" she said. "It might take quite a few years now, but hopeful for our youth."

Meuers suggested some simple outreach strategies that would make Bemidji seem more welcoming to Indians. For example, he said businesses could add to their women's and men's restroom signs ikwe and inini.

"I'd even volunteer to buy the first 20," he said. "What it would say to the Indian people -'Wow, they've done something,' it would teach the non-Indians a couple of Ojibwe words and tourists would love it."

He also suggested the Tourist Information Center and City Hall fly the Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth flags, in addition to the American and Minnesota flags.

"What we need to do as a community is a symbolic gesture," Meuers said. "These are the kind of things that cost very little money."

Y mmiron@bemidjipioneer.com

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