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Committee looks at replacing Chief Bemidji statue

The current Chief Bemidji statue in Library Park was created in 1952, replacing a previous carved statue that had deteriorated. A committee is now examining the possibility of a third statue that would, perhaps, better reflect the legacy of Chief Bemidji, whose name was Shaynowishkung. Pioneer Photo/ Monte Draper

Twelve people have come together to form a committee that will consider the creation of a new statue to replace Chief Bemidji in Library Park.

The Chief Bemidji sub-committee plans to engage the public and begin a dialogue about the Chief Bemidji statue and whether it would be appropriate to replace the statue with a new version that "depicts the city's namesake with pride, dignity and respect."

Chief Bemidji, also known as Shaynowishkung, was the first recorded permanent settler in Bemidji. He greeted the first people of European descent when they arrived in 1888.

Shaynowishkung was the prominent elder among about 50 Ojibwe living along Lake Bemidji. The new settlers called him "chief" and abbreviated the name of the lake, Bemidjigamaug.

"On this shore, the intellectual, friendly, soft-spoken Ojibwa 'Chief' greeted the first white settlers and visitors upon their arrival," wrote John G. Morrison, the former director of the Beltrami County Historical Society, in 1957. Morrison met Shaynowishkung and had discussed religion and philosophy with the man.

Shaynowishkung's impact on the region led to the lowering of all flags to half staff in mourning following his death on April 20, 1904. He was buried two days later, when businesses all closed that afternoon so everyone could attend his funeral.

History of statues

According to the Chief Bemidji committee:

- Gustaf Hinche, a Danish lumberjack, harness-maker, painter and naturalist, carved the first statue of Chief Bemidji. It was made out of boards that were nailed together. The statue was moved between various locations.

- In 1904, after Shaynowishkung died, the town erected a large monument in his name. The monument still stands in Greenwood Cemetery.

- In 1927, the city's Park Commission placed Hinche's statue in Library Park to overlooking the Mississippi River flowing through Lake Bemidji.

- The current wood and fiberglass statue, carved by retired lumberjack Eric Boe in 1952 replaced Hinche's statue, which had deteriorated.

- A plaque donated by Joyce Bedeson Skelton was placed near the existing Lake Bemidji statute in 1983.

Committee blog

The Chief Bemidji committee has been chronicling its efforts to date online at its blog,

In the first blog post, committee member Mitch Blessing, an artist who serves on the Sculpture Walk Committee, shares the history Shaynowishkung and the committee's desire "to create a lifelike bronze statue of this beloved man."

"I think it is important to remember that he really was a man, flesh and blood, with strengths and weaknesses, with a history to his life and a meaning in it beyond the application of his name to a northern Minnesota town over 100 years ago," Blessing wrote. "That said, I would like to see an honorable and not a comical rendition of his living likeness on display in a place of honor. It will be seen and touched and talked about for years, and so it should be special."

If a new statue is erected, the current idea is to move the existing Chief Bemidji statue to the Beltrami County History Center.

Two members of the committee addressed the Bemidji City Council Monday evening as they discussed the origins of the committee and its goals.

Sandy Kaul, an artist and public art consultant who serves on the committee, said the blog is one way to encourage public dialogue on the issue.

"If the public is not engaged in this project, it may not happen," she said. "We'll know through public engagement whether the project is a good idea."