By Crystal Dey and Molly Miron
BEMIDJI -- A grassroots effort has started taking shape in Bemidji to address the difficult subject of racial injustice, especially between the majority culture and the people of the land once known as Bemijigamaag.
Local civic, religious, business and political leaders in the area were invited to a Truth and Reconciliation meeting Wednesday. Dr. Anton Treuer, executive director of BSU’s American Indian Resource Center, helped organize the brainstorming session.
“The idea of truth in reconciliation is not brand new, although it is quite new to Bemidji,” Treuer said in an interview Friday.
The Truth and Reconciliation startup was sponsored by Bemidji Leads! and hosted by the BSU’s American Indian Resource Center. Brooke Wichmann, conference management consultant, along with Truer, moderated Wednesday’s event.
"Talking about truth and reconciliation is often uncomfortable ... and in our 'Minnesota nice,' we avoid uncomfortable like the plague," Treuer said in his introduction Wednesday. "Sometimes we have to look beyond our comfort zone."
Wednesday’s meeting was intended to include 40 people from the Bemidji area who are influential in making policy, including local government and businesses leaders. Faith-based organizations and tribal representation were also present. Treuer said there were approximately 70 people in attendance. He emphasized the meetings are open to the public and intended to be open and inclusive of all people.
“We do have a special responsibility to the demographic realities in our place, 22 percent of Bemidji is Native,” Treuer said Friday. “Almost half of the regional and shopping population is Native and that should be reflected in what we do in Bemidji and it’s not.”
Dividing into groups, the attendees Wednesday talked about the barriers the majority population erect, such as fear and the attitude of "why don't they just get over it," in reference to American Indians' descriptions of historical trauma. The gathering as a whole agreed that not just Native Americans and people of minority races would benefit from reconciliation. Everyone would benefit.
Some action steps suggested by the groups Wednesday included instituting a new holiday -- Indigenous People's Day -- and adding the area's indigenous history to Bemidji's Paul and Babe branding. The group also recognized some positives, such as the Ojibwemowin signage on businesses and the updated and dignified statue of Shaynowishkung ("Chief Bemidji") that will be installed in Library Park next spring.
Treuer said in future meetings it would be beneficial to have a law enforcement presence. Listening sessions also could be developed with school administrators and human services representatives. Newspapers, television, schools and museums could highlight the history, culture and sovereignty of area tribes.
Treuer said the education component in truth and reconciliation is important to not only educate the people in the area but to educate our educators. For instance, Treuer said, many people don’t know Bemidji was part of the Leech Lake Reservation until 1867.
At the next meeting, which has yet to be set, Bemidji Truth in Reconciliation will form an action plan. The grassroots effort will be working toward expanding education, creating political actions and incorporating those local media partners to aid in the healing process.
“One of the keys to really successful truth in reconciliation work, is the acknowledgement that reconciliation is not an event,” Treuer said. “Reconciliation is a process. The process gets you the reconciliation. The process gets you the healing and the process takes a long time.”
Truth and Reconciliation commissions exist throughout the world. Many follow the model of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by then-President Nelson Mandela. Closer to home, an Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created in Canada in 2013.
Treuer said some of the more famous truth in reconciliation instances are those in South Africa after apartheid and in Germany after the Holocaust.
“A lot of times, the aggrieved party, Jews in Germany, Blacks in South Africa and in our case, Native people in Bemidji, are upset,” Treuer said. “In those sorts of situations, everybody wants everyone to be reconciled and be healed, but you can’t get there without reconciling and healing.”
Molly Miron is the former Editor of the Pioneer.