In its fourth year, "The Culture Connection" community cookout and picnic continues to expand.
"We are over double what we had last year," said Audrey Thayer, coordinator of the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
The event, held Thursday afternoon at UpNorth Marina in Bemidji, will next year be called the Cultural Connection Festival because it has expanded its offerings so much, Thayer said, noting an entertainment lineup that included Northern Ojibwe Drum and Dance, Rocky Mountain, Dennis Montgomery, Shylan Rose & Friends, Jill Naylor-Yarger and Mike Nayor & Friends.
"The whole purpose is to reach the community (and focus on the) importance of diversity in our community," she said, adding that Cultural Connection focuses on embracing that diversity.
Harlan Johnson, a member of both the Red Lake and White Earth reservations, is an intern from Bemidji State University working with the GMRJP. Johnson was a big part of the Cultural Connection, Thayer said. "He's done an awesome job putting this together."
Johnson and Mike Newago grilled hamburgers, bratwurst and hot dogs all afternoon as a steady stream of people passed through the food line.
"We ordered 250 (hamburger) patties, 150 brats and 150 hot dogs, and then we went out and got some more," Johnson said.
"This was Audrey's idea four years ago," said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ALCU of Minnesota. Thayer recognized that different groups were trying to do similar things and she felt they could come together, Samuelson said.
"It's just grown and grown and grown," he said.
Samuelson said people have a misconception of what the ACLU is all about.
"When people talk about the ACLU, they talk about suing people, going after the government, going after the cops," Samuelson said. "This is more what the ACLU is about. ... This is a fun celebration."
Lisa Roulette, who attended the event with her 3-year-old granddaughter, Iris Paul, said the Cultural Connection helps people to get a better understanding of what the ACLU does and helps people understand cultural differences.
Despite three reservations in close proximity to the Bemidji area and a significant American Indian population in Bemidji and Beltrami County, there is little mixing here between whites and American Indians, said Roulette, who has nine children ranging in age from 24 to 9, most of whom are mixed-race.
"My kids don't see it," she said. "I've tried really hard to make that invisible to them."
Her children have multicultural friends, she said, adding that her youngest child is white but embraces cultural diversity.
"My son Ivan is white," Roulette said. "He makes a point of crossing cultures and not making his whiteness an issue."
Kris Cunningham, a young black man who has lived in Bemidji for eight years, said he felt Thursday's Cultural Connection was inviting to people of all cultures and ethnicities.
"I believe culture is important," said Wayne Carson. "Racism is always there, but this is a way to show that our native culture is beautiful, our traditional ways ... It's come together as a community, to understand and respect each other."
Richard Kingbird said it's good for people to come together and talk about things that matter to them.
The Cultural Connection featured speakers and entertainment under a large tent throughout the afternoon. Another tent housed booths representing about 20 organizations, such as U.S. Census 2010, Evergreen House and the Nokomagiisis Program of the Northwoods Coalition of Family Safety.
"Everyone seems friendly and getting along really well," said Georgia Fay, an elder with Nokomagiisis. "People are saying hi to me that I never saw before."
"It is one of the few places where I know there isn't a whole lot of prejudice," said her daughter, Linda Fay.
Georgia Fay noted that the sponsors of the Cultural Connection cross cultural lines.
"I think the sponsorship is good because it's not just native American," she said. "It helps spread the word that this is not just for native Americans."
Roulette stressed the importance of being open to other cultures, people and ideas.
"I just think it's really important for people to become more comfortable stepping outside of their comfort zone and saying 'hi' to their neighbors," she said.