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Beltrami County Historical Society: History unfolds in Bemidji

Robert Treuer speaks on "Three Minnesota Murder Mysteries" Saturday during a breakout session at the Beltrami County Historical Society history conference, "Northern Minnesota's Myths and Mysteries" at Calvary Lutheran Church. Pioneer Photo/ Laurie Swenson

History buffs stepped back in time for the day on Saturday.

The Beltrami County Historical Society hosted its first daylong history conference, "Northern Minnesota's Myths and Mysteries" Saturday at Calvary Lutheran Church, featuring a wide diversity of historical presentations.

"We just keep dreaming these ideas up for fundraisers," BCHS Director Wanda Hoyum said. "It takes history out from behind the walls of the History Center."

The event drew 33 people, eight of whom were walk-ins Saturday morning. Hoyum had hoped for about 50, but was satisfied with 33 for the inaugural conference.

The event featured two keynote speakers. Anton Treuer spoke on "Ojibwe Oral History: Fact and Fiction" in the morning, and Barry Babcock spoke at noon on "The Life and Times of George Bonga."

Breakout sessions were held in two parts in the morning, then repeated in the afternoon, making it possible for participants to see four sessions.

"I think we put together a wonderful diversified group of people to talk about everything from 'Murder and Mayhem in Cass County' to the bogs of Waskish."

Throughout the conference, a PowerPoint presentation of historical photos was featured on a large screen in the central gathering area.

Judy Dvorak and Carol Klose enjoyed seeing the photos, occasionally pointing out scenes they recognized.

Dvorak had just finished presenting her breakout session on "Mrs. Brinkman: A Woman Before Her Time" and was still in her historical costume.

"I'm a volunteer at the History Center so I get to do this frequently," Dvorak said. "It's part of the enjoyment."

Forgotten man

Babcock's afternoon keynote focused on George Bonga (1802-1880), a half-black, half-Ojibwe man who Babcock said has "fallen through the cracks of our history."

Bonga, who was born near Duluth to a black father and Ojibwe mother and educated in Montreal, was a fur trader and multilingual interpreter and negotiator in Minnesota who also tracked down a murderer in 1837. He had a residence in the Leech Lake area.

Interracial marriages were not unusual in Bonga's time, Babcock said.

"People in the wilderness weren't accustomed to judging people by race," Babcock said. "It was kind of a golden era in Minnesota."

Babcock, an environmentalist and avid wilderness canoeist, lives near Laporte.

"I developed a key interest in Minnesota history," said Babcock, who studies and speaks about a variety of historical topics. He has been a public speaker for about 10 years.

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