BEMIDJI -- Shaynowishkung stood beneath raindrops gazing at Bemijigamaag from the shores of Lake Bemidji on Saturday afternoon. Surrounded by family, the new bronze-cast sculpture of “Chief Bemidji” was serenaded by wooden flutes, waves lapping the shore and a southeasterly wind.
The bleachers set out for the dedication ceremony of Shaynowishkung soon overflowed with people sitting on the grass and cement in front of the statue situated off Bemidji Avenue and Fifth Street in Library Park. Shaynowishkung’s great-great grandson Donnie Headbird, of Cass Lake, was one of the people witnessing the monument dedication. Headbird first learned of his connection to Chief Bemidji about 30 years ago. He has become instrumental in the Chief Bemidji Statue Committee and connected with lost relatives in Texas, who joined him Saturday in Bemidji.
“I’ll probably stop every time I come by,” Headbird said. “It is my hope and dream it makes us all come together. That’s what he was all about.”
Chief Bemidji Statue Committee member Kathy “Jody” Beaulieu said creation of a new statue took six years of collaboration of both Native and non-Native members coming together through “forthright conversations” for a common goal. The committee chose artist Gareth Curtiss of Olympia, Wash., to bring Shaynowishkung from the 1800s into 2015. The two previous wooden carvings of Chief Bemidji can now be seen at the Beltrami County History Center. The new sculpture takes the place of the most recent addition to the history center.
Beaulieu said the committee was impressed with Curtiss during the interview process when he displayed a 3-foot high clay model of what he intended to create.
“He brought tears to the eyes of the family of Shaynowishkung,” Beaulieu said.
Curtiss, a sculptor with more than 30 years experience in bronze casting, has created other sculptures throughout the United States. Another Native American influenced casting is of Chief Blackhawk in Illinois. Curtiss made the 17-hour trip to Bemidji to see his work dedicated.
“This project is close to my heart more than any other job,” Curtiss said. “I’ll always treasure it.”
Curtiss said what drew him to the project were the powerful photographs of Chief Bemidji.
“I felt a great connection when I saw the images,” Curtiss said.
Curtiss said he enjoyed working with the committee and formed friendships through the collaboration. Committee members presented Curtiss with a traditional blanket as is customary in Ojibwe culture.
Keynote speaker Elaine Fleming, professor of history at Leech Lake Tribal College, spoke of what times were like when Shaynowishkung walked the land of Bemijigamaag between 1834 and 1904, including the atrocities of the Sandy Lake Tragedy, when a total of 400 people died after annuities were not delivered in the winter; when dams were built flooding villages and graveyards; the assimilation era, when Ojibwe were sent to boarding schools and ‘Christianized’ and dishonored treaties.
“I cannot begin to tell you the things that happened to the Ojibwe people in that 70 years,” Fleming said. “It’s unimaginable.”
Fleming said “Shaynowishkung” means “he who rattles.” According to Ojibwe culture, a rattle is used to shake away negativity. As Fleming concluded her keynote address, she shook a rattle.
LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe District 3 Representative, attended the ceremony representing the council. Charles Dolson, executive administrator for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, showed support on behalf of the Red Lake Nation and Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht addressed the crowd beneath an umbrella toward the end of the ceremony.
Fairbanks said driving in from Cass Lake he thought of the kind of man Shaynowishkung was, a man of peace and community.
“Coming here was important to me personally, growing up the Headbirds were my neighbors,” Fairbanks said. “The word resiliency comes to mind. It’s a proud day for us...and a beautiful, beautiful statue.”
Fairbanks said there is progress in the Bemidji community in improving race relations, noting the Bemijigamaag Powwow at the Sanford Center in April, the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation meetings and now the new statue.
“We’re moving forward, taking steps in the right direction,” Fairbanks said. “In order to get there, we need to accept the real truth.”