Bemidji, with a population of 13,431, is located at the center of the triangle formed by the reservations of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and White Earth Band of Ojibwe. Subtle and not-so-subtle racism against Indians has always been a problem in the city, said Michael Meuers, who works for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa in government and public relations.
"There have been lots of grandiose ideas over the years about what to do," he said. "Put more Native Americans on the boards of corporations, hold a big powwow, create jobs -- but they never happened."
Meuers came up with a much more modest proposal in 2005.
"I thought of asking business owners in town to put the Ojibwe words for women (Ikwewag) and men (Ininiwag) on their restroom doors," he said.
The idea came in part from Hawaii, where Meuers had lived for a year in the 1960s. On the islands, he recalled, native language and culture are a part of everyday life for everyone, as the familiarity with words such as mahalo, luau, aloha, lei and hula prove. On restroom doors, the words men and women are displayed in English and in Hawaiian.
From that, Meuers learned that "a symbol is profound in its simplicity."
In 2005, a student at Red Lake High School, a school for Red Lake students run by the state of Minnesota, opened fire on the campus with a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol, killing seven.
"The next day, I was talking to the city manager and noticed a Red Lake flag on a shelf," Meuers said. "I was working for the tribe at that point and I suggested the city fly the flag. The Red Lake flag flew at half-staff outside City Hall for a week. I never heard so many positive comments about Bemidji. It was the people of the city saying, 'Bemidji is crying for the Red Lake babies too.' "
This prompted Meuers to take his simple idea about the bathroom signs to Shared Visions, a community organization dedicated to addressing the issues of racial disparity and bias. Rachelle Houle served with Meuers on the Cultural Understanding and Respect Committee, and together they set the goal of placing restroom signs in both Ojibwe and English in 20 businesses within a year. Meuers volunteered to pay for the signs.
Noemi Aylesworth, owner of the Cabin Coffeehouse, was the first to put the signs up. Then she painted an Ojibwe greeting, boozhoo, ("welcome") on her front door and printed small signs with several Ojibwe words and their English translations, to put on the cafe's tables.
The first 20 businesses were signed up in just a couple of weeks. The language project now has 119 businesses participating -- a food market has labeled all of its foods in Ojibwe; a fabric store has bilingual labels for all of its threads and fabrics; the hospital intends to use Ojibwe signs in the new emergency room being built; a funeral home wants to display a prayer for the bereaved in Ojibwe.
While waiting in line at Target one day, Houle was surprised to hear a young non-American Indian cashier greet an Ojibwe elder in her native language. The cashier told her that the greeting sometimes shocks younger shoppers, but that elders really appreciate it. He can also say, "I'll see you later" (Giga-waabamin miinawaa).
Bemidji State University has taken the idea even further. In addition to the restroom signs, the university has posted parking lot designations, greetings and posters with translations of common words in Ojibwe on campus. BSU, which has 250 Indian students, was the first college in the U.S. to offer an Ojibwe language program and now awards a certificate of Ojibwe language instruction.
But what difference do a few signs make? A lot, it turns out. One woman from Detroit Lakes in west central Minnesota told Houle that when she was young, she saw signs in Bemidji that read "No Indians allowed." To now have signs in town that say "boozhoo" is a huge change for her.
"Michael and I both feel a change happening here," Houle said. "For so long, the Ojibwe culture and people have not been respected here. This is a way of saying, 'You are valuable.' It's a way of showing respect and making people welcome in Bemidji."
Dr. Anton Treuer, the professor of Ojibwe at BSU, said Ojibwe, part of the Algonquin language family, is spoken fluently by fewer than 1,000 people in the U.S. While there are several thousand speakers in Canada, he said the language is in grave danger here. Most of the U.S. speakers are on the Red Lake Reservation in the traditional village of Ponemah.
"Language is important," he said. "It's a fundamental part of who we are. I'm not saying you cease to be Native if you don't know your language, but you are more distant from our ancestors. Language is a cornerstone of sovereignty."
The university's Ojibwe courses, as well as the programs at immersion schools, are part of the effort to keep the language alive in the U.S. The immersion programs include an early childhood immersion program in Duluth, which has 20 students.
Treuer said non-Native people have a role to play, and the university welcomes anyone eager to learn Ojibwe.
"Native people have not occupied positions of political or economic opportunity in town," Treuer said. "This project has the potential to create a deeper understanding. Native people say they feel more welcome in town, and shopkeepers are picking up some Ojibwe phrases. Promoting the language does a lot to bridge barriers."
"A lot of people are open to learning about the Ojibwe culture, but they don't know how to ask," Houle said. "They don't want to be disrespectful."
The signs are a way for non-Natives to start conversations with Native people, he said.