Reprinted from April 18, 2004: 100 years after his death, Chief Bemidji's memory lives on
One hundred years ago this week, on April 22, 1904, Bemidji residents gathered to mourn the most respected man in the city's early history.
The man people called Chief Bemidji had died two days earlier. He had lived many winters and had experienced major changes in the North Country.
Shaynowishkung (the name in Ojibwe means "he rattles" or "he makes a jingling sound") was the first recorded permanent settler in Bemidji. He was here to greet the first people of European descent when they arrived in 1888.
John G. Morrison, former director of the Beltrami County Historical Society, met Shaynowishkung and reported discussing comparative religion and philosophy with him.
In 1957, Morrison wrote of the newcomers' encounter with Chief Bemidji: "On this shore, the intellectual, friendly, soft-spoken Ojibwa 'Chief' greeted the first white settlers and visitors upon their arrival."
Shaynowishkung was the most prominent elder among the approximately 50 Ojibwe living in the little settlement on Lake Bemidji. Consequently, the new settlers called him "chief" and added an abbreviated version of the name of the lake -- Bemidjigamaug, meaning a body of water with a river running across it.
According to lore gathered in 1958 by Erwin F. Mittelholtz, then president of the Historical Society, Shaynowishkung was born about 1834 near Inger. Some accounts set the date earlier, but his marriage in March 1860 to a woman of the Pillager Band makes Mittelholtz's date seem reasonable.
In 1882, Shaynowishkung's wife died at their home near Cass Lake. Grieving because of the loss, he and his children loaded their possessions into birch bark canoes about a year later and paddled up the Mississippi River to Lake Bemidji.
Shaynowishkung would have been familiar with the area. He told Morrison that he had made many trips to the big lake, and Little Bemidji Lake, now called Lake Irving, to harvest the rich resources of wild rice, berries, fish, ducks, moose and deer.
South shore home
He built his house of bark by the Mississippi River inlet into Lake Bemidji. Mittelholtz recorded that Shaynowishkung floored the house with the first lumber sold in Bemidji from the Joe Steidle Mill, paying for the boards with moose meat.
One of the first European settlers was M.E. Carson, who built a trading post near Shaynowishkung's home. In 1893, his youngest daughter, Mary, married Carson. Later that year, the families got together at the trading post to celebrate the first Christmas in Bemidji with presents and a Christmas tree.
In 1898, Gustav Hinsch carved a wooden statue of "Chief Bemidji," which was set up in what is now Library Park. The current statue in the park is a replacement.
On Nov. 19, 1900, President William Howard Taft signed a deed for Shaynowishkung's allotment of 80 acres in Ten Lake Township between Kitchi Lake and Big Rice Lake.
An article in the Pioneer dated March 26, 1904, written by a Cass Lake correspondent, announced that Shaynowishkung was nearing his last days: "Bemidji, chief of the Cass Lake Chippewas and friend of the whites, is dying at his cabin near Rice Lake."
He died on April 20, 1904. The Pioneer reported that Bemidji lowered all flags to half staff in mourning. Businesses closed for the afternoon of April 22 so everyone could attend the funeral, which turned out to be the largest in the city's history to that time.
The Pioneer's obituary described Shaynowishkung as a man whose life was notable for "deeds of kindness" and counsel "for peace and good will."
A pair of black horses in fancy harness pulled the hearse carrying his coffin to Greenwood Cemetery for burial.
In 1906, members of the Leech Lake Band expressed disappointment that the monument that had been promised for Shaynowishkung's grave had not yet been erected. In response, Bemidji Mayor A.A. Carter set up a committee to raise $225. The Pioneer reported that most of the money came from children who donated their pennies to pay tribute to the great man. The monument committee commissioned Twin Cities Granite Works of St. Paul to carve Shaynowishkung's likeness on the stone, which was placed over his grave. It stands there still, recently restored. Last fall, his great-great-great-grandchildren and a group of admirers gathered at Greenwood Cemetery for the rededication of the monument, which had been damaged when the cemetery was vandalized about 25 years ago.
Sexton Dale Moe at the cemetery said the spire had been broken into three pieces. Norval Rogers, a descendant of Shaynowishkung, asked if he could take the pieces home and repair them. However, he became ill before he finished the task.
Gordon Oberg of Bemidji mentioned to Harold Lee of Cass Lake that he was looking for the pieces, and Lee recalled seeing them about 20 years ago in Rogers' yard near Buck Lake, now the home of Steve and Norma Ducheneaux. Norma is also a descendant of Shaynowishkung. They retrieved the pieces and repaired the spire.
The rededication on Sept. 20 demonstrates that the reputation and respect for "Chief Bemidji" lives on through the centuries.